The 5 Elements Of Flow—And How To Bring Them Into Your Work

To help us find flow in more of our lives, we need to bring all five pieces of the flow puzzle together: Self control. Environment. Skills. Task. Reward.

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Self Control: Focus on Willpower to Trigger a State of Flow

“In the flow-like state, we exercise control over the contents of our consciousness rather than allowing ourselves to be passively determined by external forces.”
- Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi

We all love shortcuts—and the idea of getting into a flow state sounds especially appealing as it means you’re almost working without working. But it still takes willpower, discipline, and self-control to get there.

Environment: Find a Novel and Exciting Space

Routine is the cornerstone of productivity. But you’ll rarely enter a state of flow just by doing the same thing you did yesterday.

Instead, find an environment that challenges you on a daily basis and pushes you outside of your comfort zone (a bit). Think of the surfer who’s forced to adapt to every individual wave they catch. According to Kotler in Rise of the Superman, it’s this novelty, unpredictability, and complexity that will set off your state of flow.

Skills: Practice Deliberately to Bring on More Flow

Because flow is dependent on finding that sweet spot between your skills and the challenge at hand, it’s no surprise that we need to have a certain level of mastery before we reach flow state. This doesn’t mean you won’t hit flow until you’re an absolute master at your skill—but it does mean you need to know how much skill you have and how to use it to the utmost.

Task: Connect To a Clear Purpose

“If a subject excites us, if it stirs our deepest curiosity, or if we have to learn because the stakes are high, we pay much more attention.”
- Robert Greene

While so far we’ve looked at ways that can help push you into a state of flow, one absolute requirement is a clear sense of purpose behind what you’re doing.

You need to feel an authentic and real connection to your work to devote yourself to fulfilling it in the moment. Which makes sense: No one’s going to put in hours and hours of deliberate practice, straining themselves physically and mentally, if they don’t actually care about what they’re doing.

Reward: Don’t Look for Extrinsic Motivation

“Experience the activity as intrinsically rewarding.”
- Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi

Just like flow comes more often when we follow our passions, we also need to be doing work we are intrinsically motivated to complete. This means work and tasks that we feel real meaning behind and enjoy doing for the sake of doing.

Money. Awards. Praise. These can be byproducts of the flow work you do, but they cannot be the core motivation behind what you’re doing.

In fact, one of the 6 core factors a Csíkszentmihályi-style flow experience is to “experience… the activity as intrinsically rewarding.” He even goes further, saying the feeling should be “such that often the end goal is just an excuse for the process.”