How to Get Into Flow

How to enter the focused, fulfilling state of flow?  Here are Savvy Psychologist's 10 tips to help you get started.   

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #23

Flow is total absorption in what you’re doing.  According to the originator of flow, psychologist Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, we spend our days—and therefore our lives—bouncing between the anxiety of whittling down our never-ending to-do list and the boredom of passive leisure, like watching TV or mindlessly clicking around online.

By contrast, when you’re in flow, you feel in full control, focused, and un-self-conscious.  You have a sense that what you are doing is important and you look up and wonder where the time has gone—an hour can pass in what seems like a moment.  

Thanks to listener Kevin Currier - who listens to the Savvy Psychologist podcast from the island of Hainan in China - for the idea for this podcast.  For him, and for all who want to experience flow, here are 10 tips to help you get, well, flowing:

Tip #1: Choose an activity that is intrinsically rewarding.  Your drive should come from an internal wellspring; in other words, do the activity for its own sake, not because you anticipate a big paycheck, are trying to impress someone, or fear negative consequences otherwise.  Likewise, flow won’t happen for something you’re just not interested in.  You can’t force flow for a project you “have to” do, or for tedious tasks like paying bills or waiting in line (though you can increase your engagement—check out Tip #10 for more on that).

Tip #2: Choose an activity with a clear goal and rules.  To grow flowers, it’s better to plant seeds in their own pot, rather than scatter them to the wind.  Likewise, flow blossoms within constraints.  Two of the most common ways to define your activity are 1) to engage in an activity with goals and rules, whether its rock climbing or chess, or 2) to create something, whether it’s a ballet performance, a watercolor, or a cassoulet. 

Tip #3: Choose an activity that requires skill.  Psychologists who specialize in happiness will tell you to value experiences over objects. For instance, investing in travel rather than buying a new car will usually net you greater happiness.  But you can derive even more value from experiences that require skill.  Knowing how to do things (again, things with clear goals and rules) like waterski, frost the perfect cake, play the accordion, or even write psychology podcasts, will give you a shot at flow.

Furthermore, to maximize chances of flow, Csikszentmihalyi writes, “Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.”  In other words, your skill should be challenged, but not beyond your limits.

Tip #4: Choose an activity that confers ongoing feedback.  In other words, you should be able to tell how you’re doing.  You can evaluate with your own eyes and ears how your saxophone improvisation, tennis game, or day trading is going, which in turn allows you to maintain motivation and—hopefully—feel satisfied with your advancement.

Tip #5: Do the task intentionally.  Let’s make an example of playing pool.  If flow is what you’re after, your approach to pool is to focus intently, have a goal to play well, and play for the sake of playing.  On the other hand, if flow isn’t on the agenda, it’s more than OK to simply relax and mess around for a few games with your buddies.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.