Lucy Hone: How you can benefit by being in flow

When your brain is focused on a task and there's no room left for life's worries and distractions, you are, says Dr Lucy ...

When your brain is focused on a task and there's no room left for life's worries and distractions, you are, says Dr Lucy Hone, enjoying a state called flow.

I usually try to run a couple of times a week. I have something of a love-hate relationship with running, although recently (the last couple of years) there's definitely been more hate than love.

I tend to drag myself out the door. Runs are short and only marginally fulfilling – it has become a tick box exercise knowing that, now I'm over 40, not exercising regularly is a bad lifestyle choice, upping the odds of some undesirable health outcomes.


So, knowing I had to do something to pull me out of this rut, I invested in some Bluetooth headphones, loaded up an MP3 with beloved tunes and drove out to my favourite coastal track. Off I went. And, oh my word, the difference the music, sunshine and sea views made to my mental state. This run I loved; almost every bloody minute of it.

Reacquainted with fantastic dance tunes from earlier carefree days, I became caught up in memories. The rhythm took care of the pace and distracted by the beat, I was lost in the moment. Who knew running could be such fun?

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Only later, back in the car, did it occur to me that I'd stumbled into flow – that state of intense psychological absorption that comes from being completely swept up in an activity, so caught in the moment we lose track of time.

I've talked before about the central role participating in engaging activities plays in wellbeing. And we've also covered some fundamental rules of engagement – maximising your peak performance hours of the day, identifying your attention troughs, quitting out of email and silencing your phone when engaging in "important work". But I have yet to introduce the concept of flow (aka being in the "zone"), as until yesterday I'd forgotten just how invigorating it is.

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The concept of flow is not new. It comes from the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi whose studies of high-performing athletes and artists identified common characteristics. He discovered they all entered an intense state where concentration became so focused there was no attention left over to think about anything outside of what they were doing. Or – and this is the bit we can all benefit from – worry about life's usual problems.

In flow, self-consciousness disappears, our sense of time becomes distorted and the experience is so gratifying people want to replicate it for its own sake – regardless of other outcomes. This was me on last Sunday's run: the introduction of music transformed a routine slog into an invigorating and (dare I actually write this?) joyous experience. Wow.


Flow can occur by chance – those moments when we're all sitting around the dinner table and someone mentions a book or a film, and suddenly everyone's interest is ignited in passionate discussion, as though their lives depended on it.

But we can also pursue it intentionally. Find an activity you love doing (something like gardening, swimming, writing, playing a musical instrument, skiing, bridge, reading, mountain biking, kayaking, singing, dancing or cooking) and flow will occur when just the right amount of challenge is met by sufficient levels of skill to produce the perfect moment of harmonious hyper focus.

Too much challenge and insufficient skill leads to fear, while too little challenge and an over-abundance of skill can quickly create boredom. It is likely this need for challenge means watching television is not associated with flow.

Given the importance of matching skill with challenge, recognising your personal strengths and abilities and applying them will up the chances of encountering flow.

So, next week I'll walk you through the various scientific ways of identifying personal strengths. Until then, go find some flow.

 - Sunday Magazine


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