People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy. – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

When we are in state of “flow” there is often a sense of losing track of time and feeling completely immersed in one’s present task.  This state of flow allows us to become fully connected to the constantly unfolding present moment.  Thoughts and feelings about the past and the future begin to fall away and one’s full consciousness is directed towards what is happening right now.

Many people report feeling at their optimal levels of productivity when in a state of flow.  Others describe their own experience with states of flow as being the birthplace of their deepest creativity and genius.  Whatever “flow” means for you, begin to attune your mindful awareness to times in your own life when you feel that you have entered into a state of flow.  By becoming more aware of the typical circumstances under which you reach a flow state, you may choose to alter your environment in the future to promote “flow.”

Signs of Being in a State of “Flow”

This week’s HEALTHbeat newsletter from Harvard Medical School provided 5 signs that may indicate you are in a state of flow:

(1) You lose awareness of time

When you enter into a state of flow, you will find that you lose your normal awareness of time.  You are no longer watching the clock or noticing time passing.  Instead, hours may feel like minutes as you find yourself completely in contact with the present moment. Imagine you are working at your computer and you enter into a state of flow. Your fingers click on the keyboard in perfect rhythm and you effortlessly glide from task to task on your screen. You lose all awareness of time passing and you are fully present.  This process may be quite similar for an artist, writer, or anyone in the process of creation.

Even if you are not “creating” a product in the typical sense of the word, you may just as easily become immersed in a state of flow while meditating, doing yoga, or even folding the laundry.  The point is not how challenging or “interesting” the task is, it is how you approach it and how present you are that makes all the difference.  As filmmaker George Lucas said, “Talent is a combination of something you love a great deal and something you can lose yourself in — something that you can start at 9 o’clock, look up from your work and it’s 10 o’clock at night.”

(2) You aren’t thinking about yourself

When in a state of flow, your attention moves away from the ongoing self-focused drama of “me” and turns toward being fully present and immersed in the task at hand.  The constant focus on my thoughts and my feelings fades away.  In a state of flow, you are finally free of being so attached to and fused to your sense of self.  Self-consciousness and insecurity falls away as your attention is completely turned toward something outside of yourself.  You are unaware of minor physical discomforts and perceived flaws.  All you “see” in a state of flow is your present moment awareness of what engages you.

Any awareness of yourself that remains is completely focused on the task at hand.  You may be completely tuned in to how your fingers feel as they click away on the keyboard or how your hands feel as you sweep the paintbrush across the fresh canvas.  This awareness of “you” is only in relation to the task that immerses you in flow.  There is no more mental or emotional “room” for any other form of self-focused awareness.

(3) You aren’t interrupted by extraneous thoughts

In a state of flow, your mind is fully conscious to the present moment.  You are in full psychological contact with “now.”  There is no mental space being devoted to or sidetracked by thoughts about what you have to do later or worries about the future.  You are fully present.

You may notice that your attention feels narrowed in to the present task at hand… that your attention feels “razor sharp” in a way. When in this type of mental state, external interruptions from other people or outside stimuli can be particularly irritating or frustrating.  You may find the “transition” as you are interrupted from a state of flow to be somewhat jarring.  This is because in this state, your mental resources are being channeled in a very conscious, focused, and directed manner.

(4) You are active

In flow, you are consciously aware of and choosing your behaviors.  There is nothing “passive” about being in a state of flow.  Your mental and emotional resources are being completely devoted to the task in which you are engaging.  You will find that your behaviors are focused, deliberate, and intentional in nature.  This may be part of the reason why many people feel that their most quality work is accomplished when in a state of flow.  If one’s psychological resources are active and deliberately focused, then it makes sense for one to produce a great product or accomplish a great feat.

(5) You work effortlessly

This does not mean that flow activities are “easy.”  In fact, much of the work that is accomplished during flow states is highly complex or requires a great deal of mental effort.  The distinction to be made when in a state of flow is that while the tasks you may be engaging in are actually complex, your work feels effortless.  This may be experienced as a sense of things just “clicking.”

States of flow can be thought of as a form of optimal conscious functioning.  In these states, it is possible to feel completely immersed in and connected to one’s work and activity.  You needn’t be penning a great novel to seek out and benefit from states of psychological flow.  As with mindfulness, states of flow can be cultivated in one’s daily activities as a means of feeling a greater connection to the present moment.  Notice times in your life when you experience the aforementioned five signs that you may be in a state of flow.  How can you choose to actively seek out and foster those experiences with greater intention?

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Featured image: Autumn leaves at the top of the weir by Steve-h / CC BY-SA 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. Mary Ross on September 26, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    Being fully conscious. GREAT article.
    Thank you very much.


  2. James on October 4, 2011 at 9:00 am

    Do you have any advice on how to manage interruptions when you are in a state of flow?

    I live to be in a state of flow. However, as you note, I find it to be quite jarring and irritating when I am interrupted in this state. How does one create an environment where interruptions are minimized, respond well to the inevitable interruption, and quickly return to a state of flow?

    • Laura on October 5, 2011 at 8:35 am

      From what I have read, it can take approximately 15 minutes to get back into a state of flow after an interruption. It is understandable for such interruptions to be frustrating and experienced as a “time suck” for people who, as you said, “live to be in a state of flow.” I think you have the sense that the ideal strategy is to reduce the occurrence of interruptions in advance as much as possible. While interruptions do occur, it can be helpful to communicate as clearly as possible to others what your schedule is and what times you wish to be undisturbed.

      If interruptions occur nonetheless, it seems most helpful to be brief, direct, and kind about not wishing to be disturbed and then take a pause to “reset” yourself mentally and emotionally. To reduce feelings of irritation, it may be helpful to practice some basic mindfulness or cognitive defusion exercise in the moment to be able to pause, recognize your experience of irritation, notice it for what it is, accept it, and then let it go. It can take even more time to return to a state of flow if those feelings of irritation linger. Thank you for your comment!

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