Have you ever been doing an activity and you’re so utterly focused on it that everything else around you doesn’t seem to matter, you know exactly what you’re doing and going to do next, and time flies to the point that you realise you’ve been doing what you’re doing for a lot longer than you anticipated, or you may have even forgotten you had other plans?

Most of us have, and in doing so, have experienced the psychological phenomenon of ‘flow’. You may not know it as this, but rather have heard it described as ‘being in the zone’. For example, Sir Mo Farah, when describing his attitude to running said this:

            “When I run I just go out there, go in the zone and just block everything”.

Flow is a psychological state of total absorption in a task, and often defined as an optimal state of consciousness where feelings and performance are at their best – which is associated with positive well-being aspects. More on these later!

In a nutshell, flow is the state of mind where you are so focused on the task in hand that everything else goes quiet…

As an example, let’s take a runner (like Sir Mo), running in the Great North Run. When in a flow state, their attention is focused on the movement of their body and the power of their muscles in each step. They may focus on the power of each breath and the force of each heartbeat pushing blood around the body.

The runner is completely in the moment, pushing to get through the next mile, and time is slipping away while tiredness creeps in, but they don’t notice or barely recognise these feelings. This is flow in action.

 I don’t feel it like this though…

It’s important to note that everyone experiences flow in a different way, while there are many ways to experience flow. Maybe some of these below might be something that you recognise:

  • You have complete focus on the activity and nothing else is distracting you
  • Your critical thoughts disappear/cause less mental noise
  • Your awareness of your physical needs becomes reduced – don’t realise you’re hungry, thirsty etc.
  • You enjoy performing and it feels effortless
  • You have clear but challenging goals in mind that are attainable – balance between skill level and challenge presented
  • Self-consciousness disappears – a feeling of serenity and ease
  • Focused attention comes effortlessly
  • Sense of timelessness – time is distorted and you lose track of time passing

What are the benefits?

Good question! Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who first introduced Flow Theory in the 1970s, and others who have researched the phenomenon, have found flow to have various well-being benefits outside of making activities more enjoyable, including:

  • Increased emotional regulation – greater ability to control emotions
  • Greater fulfilment, satisfaction, and happiness
  • Increase in intrinsic motivation – doing things because of how they make you feel, not external reward
  • Enhanced engagement and increased performance

So, how do I achieve ‘flow’?

We have to remember that flow doesn’t mean being on ‘auto-pilot’. While auto-pilot shares many characteristics (effortless, lose track of time), flow differs from this in that flow requires focus, and a concerted effort towards a task.

With that being said, research on athletes across a range of sports found that flow occurs in 5 stages, from which we can draw up a plan to increase our chances of reaching a flow state.

Going with the Flow: Flow State in Performance Leading Edge Performance

So, from this, we can come up with 6 strategies to help you achieve a flow state:

Set clear goals

Set goals in your performance, or participate in something with a clear goal, so your attention can be focused entirely on what you are doing to achieve the goals.

Eliminate distractions stopping focus

Aim to eliminate any distraction in your environment that may distract your attention. While we are all prone to a wandering mind, the ability to quickly refocus on the task at hand is common across the highest performers in all environments. How about practising mindfulness to help with sustaining attention, or even putting your phone across the other side of the room.

Develop accurate appraisals of your performance

We all tend to either over or underestimate how competent we are to tackle challenges with our skills. By being able to accurately match our skills to the challenge at hand we can understand what is challenging, why, and adjust accordingly to ensure that…

We set the right level of challenge

Having the accurate ability to appraise our performance allows us to ensure we challenge ourselves realistically. Too much challenge we become anxious and nervous, too little and we become bored.

Flow occurs when we have the skills to complete the task but feel adequately challenged by what we are doing. Csíkszentmihalyi explains ,”If challenges are too low, one gets back to flow by increasing them. If challenges are too great, one can return to the flow state by learning new skills.”

Be comfortable in challenging yourself

Stretching boundaries is essential in self-development, and your growth mindset (your belief in your personal capacity to improve). Your ability to trust yourself is earned by actually doing difficult things over a longer period of time

Choose something that you enjoy

Some may say that this is most important, especially for well-being. Doing something that you really don’t want to do or don’t like doing doesn’t help you achieve flow. Work on developing your ability to find flow by doing something that you enjoy doing, whether related to your performance or not.


Flow is an important tool in not just helping you complete tasks to a high standard, but an important tool in a performer’s strive to reaching optimal performance. Many high-level athletes have talked about how they reached their flow or were ‘in-the-zone’ in critical moments in a successful performance.

But this takes time and patience to develop the skill of reaching flow. It takes approximately 10 to 15 minutes of focused attention to reach a flow state, which may only last 30 minutes. With time, patience, and effort from you, you can decrease the time to enter flow and the ability to maintain flow – into not just minutes but hours!

Achieving a state of flow can be a great way to make the activities you pursue more engaging, but remember that as your ability and skills increase, you will need to have the awareness to adjust the level of challenge that is needed to help enter a state of flow!

In the meantime, have a watch this TED Talk about Flow towards happiness, and get in touch to talk about how Leading Edge Performance can help you find your flow in your performances.