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It’s hard to focus when your attention is being pulled in a thousand different directions — and the pandemic has made it even harder to focus. You want to work on an interesting project in peace, but you keep getting interrupted by Slack messages from your boss, and you can’t help checking your phone every few minutes for news updates.
From time to time, you switch your notifications off and find a quiet spot to immerse yourself in your work. All the distractions and background chatter fall away, leaving just you and the document in front of you. It’s a good feeling. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a renowned professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California, calls that state of intense absorption “flow.”
Csikszentmihalyi first popularised the concept of mental “flow” in the early 1990s to refer to stretches of time when a person is completely focused on what they are doing. “Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost,” he said in an interview with Wired magazine in 1996.
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When you’re in a state of flow, you lose track of time, ignore all worries and concentrate entirely on your activity — whether it’s work, running or painting.
And now, research suggests finding a “mental flow” can help boost our wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic. The new study on flow, published in the scientific journal PLOS One, included more than 5,000 individuals who were quarantined in China in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic.
The research subjects answered online survey questions about how many times in the prior week they’d felt completely absorbed by whatever they were doing. They also commented on whether they had felt stimulated and mentally challenged, which are important elements of flow.
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After analysing the responses, researchers found that flow was linked to higher levels of positive emotion and decreased loneliness among those at home during COVID-19. The research only established an association rather than a cause-and-effect relationship, but experts suggest finding flow when working from home may help bolster our mental health during these difficult times.
“Mental flow is described as a state of total immersion in an activity in which one finds enjoyable and holds an appropriate level of skill in,” says Charlotte Armitage, a psychotherapist, media psychologist and business psychologist. In other words, she explains, you are “in the zone.”
“It could be interpreted that this state of ‘flow’ is the process where the subconscious starts to take over action and behaviour, rather than being controlled by conscious awareness,” she explains.
“Hence why the feeling of flow and automatic process are so prominent in the description of mental flow, because it essentially feels out of our conscious control.”
There are multiple benefits to finding a state of flow, especially when it comes to your work. For one, being able to focus on the work without getting distracted leads to a higher output of higher quality work. The thoughts and feelings that generally cloud our minds — such as stress, worry and self-doubt — take a back seat when we achieve a flow state. It’s also a positive experience, as being in the moment can bring a sense of wellbeing and fulfilment.
“Speaking as a psychotherapist, the state of mental flow is similar to a state of mindfulness but perhaps operates on a more subconscious level than mindfulness,” Armitage explains. “It is a position where your conscious mind switches off and allows your subconscious mind to lead and make the decisions, this in essence, gives our conscious brain a rest, which is very important for our psychological wellbeing.”
So how can you reach a state of mental flow? According to Csikszentmihalyi, it is generally less common during periods of relaxation and tends to make itself present during challenging and engaging activities. For some people, running can bring a trance-like state of flow — others may find themselves in a flow state while doing their work.
Crucially, you need to care about the task at hand and enjoy it. And being in a physical space with no interruptions should help too.
“Mental flow can be achieved in the workplace as long as certain conditions are met such as: the task being at an appropriate level for the individual so that they possess the skills to be able to undertake the task, and the task being perceived as enjoyable for the individual,” Armitage says.
“Furthermore, some successful CEOs say that you must have passion about what you’re doing to be able to have flow and success in what you are doing.”
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