The Flow State of Mind: Where Creativity Lives

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Ikigai" by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How do you achieve the flow state of mind? What activities make you so engrossed in the experience that you forget about everything that’s going on both inside and outside of you?

The flow state of mind, also known as the state of optimal experience, occurs when you’re so immersed in an experience that you’re totally focused. To experience flow, you have to ask yourself which activities you enjoy so much that they make you forget about everything else, including your worries and the passing of time.

In this article, you will learn about the flow state of mind, the methods for achieving it, and how to integrate flow more fully into your life.

What Happens in the Flow State of Mind?

The flow state of mind is one of heightened creativity and delight. When you are in flow, you lose your sense of time and simply inhabit the moment. It’s a state in which your consciousness, actions, and energies come together to produce high performance. Flow is involved in the amazing work of everyone from Olympic athletes and champion chess players to genius engineers and computer programmers. The happiest people are those who spend the most time in flow, doing something for its own sake instead of trying to rack up measurable achievements.

Since flow means focus, it’s incompatible with distraction. The table below can help to better define what flow is and is not:

You enjoy a focused mind.Your mind wanders.
You live in the present.You’re stuck in memory and anticipation.
You’re calm, confident, and clear-minded.You’re worried about life, people, and things.
Time flies.Time crawls.
You feel in control.You lose control and fail to complete the task.
You prepare thoroughly ahead of time.You fail to prepare, so your work suffers.
You always know what you should be doing.You’re confused and get stuck frequently.
You enjoy your work.You find your work exhausting and boring.
Your ego fades as the task leads you onward.Your ego intensifies as you feel self-critical and frustrated.

Achieving the Flow State of Mind

Achieving flow requires you to value flow. It requires you to devote more time to the high-value activities that generate it for you instead of the low-value activities, like overeating and drug abuse, that offer immediate but ultimately harmful gratification.

Here are some specific tips to increase your chances of achieving the flow state of mind in any activity. As you practice them, pay attention to the activities where it seems most natural for you to enter flow:

1) Choose a task that’s difficult but still doable, something just beyond your current ability. Something too easy will leave you bored, but something too hard will cause anxiety. The “sweet spot” is something challenging yet achievable. For example, if you’re a computer programmer, learn and use a new programming language. If you’re a dancer, incorporate a challenging new move into your next routine.

2) Give yourself a clear objective. Vague objectives lead to confusion, wasted time, and squandered energy, while clear objectives contribute to flow. For example, if you’re a writer, set a goal of a daily word count. If you’re a team leader, set a clear mission for the team. But be careful not to obsess over your objective, because that can produce just as much of a mental block as having an unclear objective. Simply set your objective, then dive into your work and focus on it completely. Be like an Olympic athlete competing for the gold medal: Commit yourself wholly to your performance, and let the objective take care of itself.

3) Remove or mitigate distractions. For example, limit your non-essential technology usage. Work in distraction-free environments, preferably ones without internet access. Train yourself to return your attention to the present whenever you get distracted, using mindfulness techniques or any other helpful tool. (Shortform note: To learn more about mindfulness, read our summary of Mindfulness in Plain English.)

4) Focus on just one task. Make a point of devoting your attention to only one thing at a time. Remember, you can’t actually multitask, because what you’re really doing is switching rapidly back and forth between tasks and making the quality of each one suffer. Studies have found that multitasking interferes with learning, lowers productivity, and temporarily decreases IQ. Some of the significant differences between single-tasking and multitasking are as follows:

Contributes to achieving flowPrevents achieving flow
Makes you more productiveDecreases productivity up to 60%
Increases your memory powerDecreases your memory power
Helps you avoid mistakesMakes you prone to more mistakes
Helps you feel calm and capableMakes you feel anxious and incapable
Makes you more present and considerate for other peopleMakes you more distracted and hurtful toward other people
Increases your creativityDecreases your creativity

Note that you can enjoy flow in any mundane task. It isn’t reserved exclusively for the moments when you’re directly practicing your larger life purpose. You can enter “microflow” while doing such things as mowing the lawn or handling paperwork. You can also use daily rituals to help encourage the flow state. For example, come up with specific, repeatable ways of making your breakfast or starting your workday.

Living in Flow

Having learned to experience the flow state of mind, the next thing to do is to integrate flow ever more fully into your life, until your whole life is an expression of your flow-generating ikigai. For a helpful illustration of this way of living, consider the example of the Japanese artisans called takumis

Japanese Takumis

In Japan, takumis are individuals who learn to flow with their ikigai as they become masters of a highly particular craft. The work of takumis displays a special kind of simplicity that combines sophistication and attention to detail in pursuit of their ikigai. Various industries employ them, from automobile makers to entertainment companies. 

For example, in a Japanese town with several factories that produce makeup brushes for big-name companies, García and Miralles observed a takumi who had become an expert at choosing and sorting brush bristles. She was visibly happy and dedicated to her task, which she performed with amazing skill and grace, fully absorbed in the flow state. The company president told them that this takumi was one of the most important people in the company, because every brush bristle went through her.Takumis protect their space and make sure to create distraction-free environments that are conducive to entering the flow state. They are often reclusive by common standards, choosing to limit many aspects of their lives in order to focus wholly on their ikigai. For instance, the novelist Haruki Murakami is so devoted to his work that he maintains just a tiny circle of friends and only appears in public every few years.

The Flow State of Mind: Where Creativity Lives

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Here's what you'll find in our full Ikigai summary :

  • How to apply the concept of ikigai, or life purpose, to your own life
  • Why the people of Okinawa live longer than people anywhere else
  • The 10 commandments of ikigai

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

One thought on “The Flow State of Mind: Where Creativity Lives

  • April 14, 2022 at 6:14 am

    Hi Darya,

    Very nicely composed and detailed article. It beautifully captures the concepts of Ikigai. Keep up the good work.


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