Is mindfulness the key to unlocking flow?

Dec 04, 2022 — Dominic O'Neill
Is mindfulness the key to unlocking flow?

If you have ever stepped onto a sports pitch or picked up a paintbrush - or even a crayon in your toddler days - there's every chance you have experienced the famously fertile "flow" state of mind. Whilst in this flow state, you immersed yourself entirely in your bubble of activity and forgot about the world outside of it; then, after some indeterminate period, you will have emerged, likely with a sense of satisfaction and almost certainly wondering where the time had gone. From Michaelangelo to Mo Farah, we have all had our adventures in these trance-like episodes - but what is flow? And how does it relate to mindfulness?

In the words of Mihály Csíkszentmihály, the psychologist who coined the term, flow is “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”. The work just…flows out of you. You become totally lost in the task at hand and achieve remarkable productivity. It’s effortless - or, at least, making yourself put in the effort is effortless. You’re in the zone, and nothing can nudge you out of it. Your hunger is starved of attention, your thirst dries up, and your fatigue fades into the background.

Flow is known to accelerate learning, improve creativity and performance, and teach you to rise to challenges - all with the added benefits of being intrinsically motivating and enjoyable. This means the satisfaction you get from the activity derives from the actual doing of the activity, rather than the outcome or some extrinsic reward.

Mindfulness, on the other hand, can be described as being fully conscious of your current experience, moment by moment - what you feel, what you sense, what you think - and, rather than suppressing or getting carried away in this experience, observing it non-judgmentally. At a glance, mindfulness seems quite the opposite of flow, and in contrast to the “effortlessness'' of the latter, practising mindfulness can be a challenge, especially in the beginning.

You find a quiet place and sit with your thoughts, watching them float like clouds across the skies of your mind, before letting them drift away. Mindful seconds may pass, maybe even minutes, but eventually your mind latches onto a cloud and follows along to see where it goes, and then before you know it, rather than being mindful, you’re silently berating yourself for that embarrassing joke you made at work the day before, or cringing about that time you waved back at that friendly man who wasn’t waving at you in the first place. You catch yourself and (non-judgmentally of course) slide back into breathing mindful breaths, thinking mindful thoughts. The point is, it’s definitely not effortless. It requires deliberate deliberation. If flow is “effortless effort”, mindfulness is “focused focus”. You’re focusing your attention and not only are you aware of what you’re doing, you’re also aware that you’re aware. Where mindfulness cultivates self-awareness, flow makes it evaporate.

Despite the apparent contrast between flow and mindfulness (explored here), they do intersect in some very helpful ways.

How does mindfulness help you to get into flow?

Imagine yourself tackling that all-important task you’ve been putting off. Perhaps you’re writing an essay, organising your photo albums, or something really invigorating, like doing your taxes. Once you get in the swing of it, you’ll power through in no time, and probably get a lot of satisfaction out of the process, but no matter how important or urgent it is, there’s always some distraction in the peripherals that diverts your attention and hinders your productivity. Your phone buzzes - a job offer? An emergency text? A panda falling out of a tree on Instagram? The news declares the onset of world war III in the background just as you remember that you forgot to send Dad a birthday card last week. Not only is the world ending, but you’re failing as a human being in the meantime. Modern life is plagued by these distractions.

Luckily, it’s not the end of the world.

Studies show that practising mindfulness meditation can improve one’s attention, self-regulation and executive control. Simply by consistently practising mindfulness, you give yourself a greater chance of overcoming the distractions that prevent you from getting started on a task, and, once you are started, you have a greater chance of getting into the flow state that will carry you through to completion.

But it doesn't stop there - as well as helping you enter flow, practising mindfulness can also help to improve your flow state.

How does mindfulness affect your flow state?

In one study in Taiwan, the flow state of baseball players was categorised by nine characteristics: challenge-skill balance, action-awareness, clear goals, unambiguous feedback, concentration on the task at hand, sense of control, a loss of self-consciousness, the transformation of time, and autotelic experience. The study found that athletes who underwent mindfulness training demonstrated higher scores for many of these flow characteristics, including clear goals, concentration, and sense of control.

Now that we have established how mindfulness can both catalyze and enhance your flow, and that flow itself provides great benefits, such as accelerated learning and improved performance, some important caveats are due. You cannot expect to pick up a violin for the first time, saunter into a London Philharmonic Orchestra rehearsal and rely on mindfulness and flow to get you up to speed. Flow is only reached where challenge and skill are appropriately matched, meaning you’ll stumble into frustration if the challenge is too great, and be stifled by boredom if it isn’t a challenge at all. Stretch yourself, but keep it realistic.

Additionally, whilst flow clearly proffers benefits when harnessed effectively, it is not intrinsically a good thing. Any dedicated video game player has sacrificed a decent night’s sleep in flowful pursuit of those two elusive words: LEVEL COMPLETE, emerging to the chirps of morning birds and dreading the day of exhaustion ahead. Gamblers carried away in the river of flow can lose inordinate amounts of time and money to the roulette wheel.

Sometimes, therefore, flow needs what I call “strategic damming” i.e. pause points that allow us to take stock or tend to other needs. Habitually missing meals, skipping sleep, or neglecting your toothbrush is not a sustainable way to live. Artists sometimes need to take a step back from the easel.

This is another place where mindfulness and flow can intersect in a beneficial way. Practicing mindfulness can improve emotional regulation and help us to disengage when caught in unhelpful patterns (such as impulsively pressing “reload”). It makes sense really - if you’re better at noticing your feelings and observing your own behavior, it follows that you could better recognise when you are acting impulsively and decide to take a different course, whether that means turning off the Playstation or cashing in your chips. By mastering a healthy balance between flow and mindfulness, we can harness both for maximum benefits. In other words, mindfulness can help us to both ease ourselves into the flow of the river, and to climb out of it, before it carries us too far downstream.

Interviewing an artist

To further explore ideas of mindfulness and flow in practice, I spoke with professional artist Caron Clarke. Influenced by a diverse range of artists, including Euan Uglow, John Singer Sargeant and Chris Ofili. Caron has enjoyed a flourishing career as a painter and teacher over the past 25 years. Her beautiful art is a testament to her capacity to harness flow in the pursuit of productivity, so I was keen to understand her experiences in flow and insights into creativity.

Q: As an artist, is it safe to assume that painting is the thing that brings you the most satisfaction? Is there anything in particular that stops you getting into the flow of it?
A: Without a doubt. I get more enjoyment out of art than anything else, and always have done. But lots of things can stop me. There are many things we do that we don’t realize affect us negatively or stop us getting things done. One obvious thing for me both at work and for my art is the importance of things being tidy. If everything is tidy and clear, my mind is as well. Another thing is stress - everyday stress, especially work stress. Sometimes I would love to go to the studio after work but even if I’m not tired, I’m just emotionally worn out.

Q: Do you have routines to help you get into a flow state to paint?
A: To get myself in the right mind-frame, I need to do a number of things. First and foremost, ensuring that everything I might need to paint with is there. Usually I get into the flow much faster at my studio, where I can see all of my paintings and draw inspiration from them. Whether in the studio or en plein air, I need to have music playing that suits my mindset. Otherwise, I might work in silence. Nowadays, I prefer working alone in my studio. I can concentrate better. Engaging with the subject matter is also really motivating. For example, if I’m painting a portrait, I enjoy taking my time to get to know the person a little better.

Q: Flow is said to be achieved when challenge matches skill. Have you had to tackle greater challenges as you’ve become more skilled as an artist?
A: Honestly, I just do what I like now. Previously, I’d tell myself I couldn’t do things, whereas now I just go for anything that I want to do. Going back to live painting every week has helped. I was trying to paint from photos for a while - that wasn’t good, I really struggled to get into it and I think the frustration held me back. I’m going back to painting from life and that’s so much better.

Q: Flow has also been described as “optimal experience” - would you agree with that?
A: Definitely - it takes you somewhere where you wouldn’t normally go. I think a lot of people need that and it feels quite meditative in itself. It’s almost like an out-of-body experience, where you forget about everything, you don’t have to worry about your bills or anything, you’re just doing what you love.

Q: How do you feel after?
A: Brilliant, always. I feel like I’ve accomplished something. And sometimes, I might look at what I’ve done and think, “how did I do that?” Not always, but sometimes.

Q: When I’m painting, I sometimes just get carried away in flow and feel like I can lose control of what I’m doing. Do you think that’s a problem?
A: You have to have a balance. When you’re in that flow, you have to maintain a level of control otherwise you’re pulled out of it. I suppose if you really know what you’re doing, if you’ve practised, then you can “lose it” a bit, and go into autopilot. It’s not that you’re doing it mindlessly - you are thinking about what you’re doing - but you’re flowing with it as well.

Interviewing Caron about her experiences sparked some really interesting reflections about mindfulness and flow. Caron has clearly identified the environment and conditions in which she thrives as an artist - her studio, the use of quiet periods and music - as well as acknowledging a need for balance and recognising where stress or other factors could hinder her productivity. By applying self-awareness, Caron has found the keys to efficiently entering into periods of fruitful performance. This is a perfect demonstration of where a benefit of mindfulness (improved self-awareness in this case) can help to unlock or catalyse the flow state.

So, whether you play baseball in Taiwan, paint en plein air, or simply want to tackle that stack of emails more efficiently, mindfulness might just be the key you need to get into the flow of it.

Check out Caron’s artwork on her website, or her Instagram page @Caron.clarkee_artista

Brief Mindfulness Meditation Improves Attention in Novices: Evidence From ERPs and Moderation by Neuroticism.
Norris CJ, Creem D, Hendler R, Kober H.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
Mihaly Cziksentmihalyi - Harper, 1990.

Meditation, mindfulness and executive control: the importance of emotional acceptance and brain-based performance monitoring.
Teper R, Inzlicht M.

Mindfulness training enhances flow state and mental health among baseball players in Taiwan.
Chen JH, Tsai PH, Lin YC, Chen CK, Chen CY.

Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation
Yi-Yuan Tang et al.

The Experiential Incompatibility of Mindfulness and Flow Absorption
Kennon M. Sheldon, Mike Prentice, and Marc Halusic.

Dominic O'Neill

Dominic O'Neill

Dom is a writer, environmental policy advisor and award-winning science educator. He has a masters in astrophysics and spent five years teaching sciences in Mexico, including as Physics Professor at the university ITAM. He is a member of Medito Foundation's Scientific Advisory Board. As an avid painter and photographer himself, he has a strong interest in how mindfulness impacts performance and ethical behaviour.