Finding The Flow: Tips for Getting in the Zone

How do you get to that sweet spot of creativity and productivity?

You may be familiar with this feeling: you sit down to write, paint, design, or code and you find yourself completely caught up in the moment. When you finally stop to take a break, you’re surprised by the fact that three hours have gone by. Psychologists call this experiencing “flow,” otherwise referred to as being “in the zone.” 

“[When you’re in the zone] there’s no worry of failure and time is diminished; you’re so completely involved in something that time has flown by and you haven’t even realized it,” says Wendy Lake, who teaches the Psychology of Human Interaction course at Full Sail University. “There’s no self-conscious thought. You’re just doing it, and you’re not worried about the consequences or what other people are thinking.”

This flow – a state of being completely involved in an activity – is not just some made up nickname for productivity. Psychologists have published numerous studies about the processes that take place in the brain when experiencing flow. In a recent lecture, New York University Professor of Psychology Scott Barry Kaufman explained that the precuneus, the part of the brain associated with consciousness and self-reflection, is very active during moments of heavy creative output.

Scott Barry Kaufman: Creative brains from PopTech on Vimeo.


In Slomo, a documentary about retired neurologist John Kitchin, Kitchin discusses the state of flow as it relates to physical activity. Kitchin theorizes that flow is associated with the vestibular reflexes of the inner ear, which connect us to the center of the earth during moments of acceleration.  

Even with all of the scientific and psychological research out there (and there’s much more than what’s mentioned above), it’s still not easy to answer the question, “How do you get yourself in the zone?”

“For me, it just happens,” says Hunter Via, a supervising film editor who spends hours in front of his Avid editing episodes of hit shows like The Walking Dead and From Dusk Till Dawn. “That’s when I’m like, ‘Don’t knock on my door.’ And if someone tries to tell me that coffee’s ready, I tell them I don’t care.” 

That’s a common answer – it’s kind of impossible to pinpoint the exact moment of when and how your body is enters a state of flow. And while you can’t really turn on a switch in your brain that kickstart this flow, there are some things you can do to help facilitate the process. Positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihayli (he wrote Finding Flow, an entire book on the subject) theorizes that there are 10 factors that accompany the experience of flow, including: clear goals that, while challenging, are still attainable; strong concentration and focused attention; an intrinsically rewarding activity; and a feeling of personal control over the situation. 

You need to find your peak performance time, says Elena Nolan, a Psychology of Play Course Director at Full Sail. Ask yourself, are you a morning person or a night person? When you’re at your most energized and most productive, you’ll be at your most creative too. Mindfulness is another important factor.

“If you’re feeling very distracted or anxious, that’s probably not going to be the time that you want to sit down and start a piece of artwork or something else that will require a lot of brainstorming,” says Elena. “You need to do something to get that distracted energy elsewhere. Take a walk, practice yoga, or do some breathing exercises. Find that space that’s your sanctuary and go there.”

Other ways to encourage a work session that will get you in the zone: listening to calming music, meditating, and being completely confident in the tools you’re using before you sit down to focus.

“A good tip for getting in the zone is to get so proficient with the software you use that it becomes invisible,” says Nathaniel Howe, Creative Director of NathanielJames, a Beverly Hills entertainment branding agency. “That way you can put all of your emphasis on looking to see if what you’re creating is working. A lot of the times in the beginning you’re too distracted because you’re wondering what each key does. When I’m in the zone, I’m never interrupted by software.”

 Just make sure you’re not misdirecting your flow, or there may be consequences. Playing video games is a good example. While Full Sail’s psychology course directors do encourage taking play breaks, an all-night play break might not be the best use of your time. “If you have an exam the next day and you don’t study because the video game is more important, before you know it, you’re playing for the entire night,” says Wendy. 

 In his book, Several Short Sentences About Writing, author and teacher Verlyn Klinkenbourg argues that the flow can also be detrimental to writers. “Flow is something the reader experiences, not the writer,” he writes. “Writing doesn’t flow, unless you’re plagiarizing or collecting cliches or enlisting volunteer sentences.” 

It’s true, flow is all about a complete loss of self-awareness, which may not always be best for writing, but many argue that this is where revision and editing come into play, post state-of-flow experience. 

“Flow is something that’s an active process,” says Elena. “You have to be doing a challenging a task proportionate to your skill level to experience flow. It can’t just be, ‘Oh I watched a TV show marathon.’”

Ultimately, if you can focus on staying positive, focused, and motivated, you’ll find that flow. 

“People that practice positivity on a more regular basis have an easier time entering flow,” says Elena. “Positive psychology is all about increasing the things that you enjoy. Find something that you feel like you can master, and you’ll be less likely to find yourself in a bored state and more likely to find your flow.” 

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