What is flow?
Many artists and athletes have experienced a state where they’ve felt completely immersed in the activity that they're practicing. It’s a feeling where time and space seem to fade away and the task at hand becomes increasingly effortless. It’s an intense, yet relaxed, experience that lets a person become one with what they’re doing.
This particular state of mind is commonly known as “being in the zone”. In psychology, it’s referred to as “flow state” or simply just “flow”, named by the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.1 Csíkszentmihályi became fascinated by how artists got lost in their work and interviewed thousands of people to better understand the phenomenon experienced. A leading composer described his experience while composing music:
“You are in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist. I have experienced this time and time again. My hand seems devoid of myself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there watching it in a state of awe and wonderment. And [the music] just flows out of itself.”
It was this continual reference to the image of a river, or water flowing, that gave Csíkszentmihályi the name for the phenomenon.
Even though flow is often associated with creative activities or sports, it’s not limited to that. Anyone can experience flow while performing an activity, although it is more likely to occur when the task is engaged for intrinsic purposes. For example, passive activities like taking a bath or watching TV shows, albeit enjoyable, usually do not elicit a flow experience because there needs to be an active engagement.
How to find flow
The benefits with flow are many and Csíkszentmihály argues that achieving the state regularly makes our lives more happy and successful. In the workplace, by learning how to enter the state of flow you can increase productivity, innovation and improvement of skills. People in the flow also enjoy what they are doing more and because the task becomes more enjoyable, they are also more likely to find it fulfilling.
As mentioned before, flow is not limited to certain fields. Finding flow as a lawyer for example is as achievable as in any other profession. The key is to learn how to enter that zone more often. According to Csíkszentmihály, three main criteria must be met for you to achieve flow. Let’s dive in.
Clear goals (and a sense of progress)
Hopes are that you chose the legal profession because it’s something you love to do. With that being said, work can still feel tedious at times. Even though a company or a law firm can have larger, organizational goals — for an individual worker it can still be hard to see where their task fits in.
This is why it’s important to have clear, well-defined and intrinsically motivating goals that you have set for yourself. It can be as simple as breaking down your workload and picking one specific task to focus all your attention on. Goals are incredibly powerful, no matter how small they are, because it means that you’ll see immediate results and therefore gain a sense of progress.
Clear and immediate feedback
As with goals, the task needs clear and immediate feedback. You need to know what you’re doing and where you’re going. Use the feedback as information to help you make necessary adjustments to maintain and stay in the flow.
Csíkszentmihály mentions how limited feedback in the workplace can reduce motivation and ultimately leaves an employee unaware of whether they did a good job or not, meaning they’ll soon find the tasks less enjoyable. Communication of feedback is for this reason crucial to cultivate flow.
The challenge must match the perceived skills
A big part of achieving flow is to find a balance between challenge and skill. This can be a little tricky to accomplish. For example, if a task is too easy it can become boring, but if it’s too difficult it can foster anxiety. It’s all about balance — match your skill level with the challenge level of the activity.
Heidi K. Brown, professor of law and director of legal writing at Brooklyn Law School, talks about her experience of finding that balance:
“I most often achieve flow when tackling a writing project. I remember many episodes in my law firm life in which I would finally look up from my computer after hours of crafting a complicated brief. I’d feel dizzy and disoriented yet gratified and almost euphoric. Grumpy law firm partners and snippy opposing counsel temporarily ceased to exist. The challenge-skill balance enabled flow.”2
In addition to these three conditions, here some other helpful tricks to help you find flow:
Eliminate distractions. Try minimizing distracting things in your environment so you can fully focus on your task. While technology can be a distraction in itself, it can be equally smart to start using it to your advantage. There are many useful apps and tools such as Calm or Headspace that can help you improve the state of your mental health.
Many legal tech tools are also there to help you at work. When reviewing contracts for example, one of Donna's main functions is to help you find and access information easily, without having to constantly interrupt the workflow.
Immerse yourself in the present. There is really no shortcut to achieving this. Try to pay attention to what’s happening in the moment and let yourself become one with what you’re doing. Breathe in, breathe out.
Listen to good music. This one is simple; find music that helps you focus. For instance, video game music is a whole genre designed to stimulate your senses and blend into the background of your brain.3
Be nice to yourself and keep in mind that learning how to enter flow is a skill like any other, and it takes practice to become better at achieving it. Go with the flow, so to speak. ✌️
Nerdwriter1, Flow: Happiness in Super Focus