Flow State: Achieving Balance in Work and Life

Have you ever been so engrossed in a task that hours pass and it feels like minutes? The distinction between yourself and your task blurs, and a kind of euphoria takes grip as momentum builds and neural pathways align to provide optimal focus and concentration. It's often referred to as being in ‘The Zone’ in sports, but it is applicable to every field of activity. Whether you are a musician, a designer, a business executive, or a software engineer, when you hit this flow state time stands still, work comes quickly, and you are oblivious to the rest of the world. You are laser-focused, immersed in the work and enjoying a deeply rewarding experience. But what's going on in our neuroanatomy and how does it impact our overall well-being?

As humans, we have an innate drive to reach for the stars, but we can also burn out from pushing too hard without taking time to recharge. Can we stay in this flow state and enjoy increased creativity and productivity while remaining sane and healthy? That very question has driven the emergence of biohacking and the Flow Genome Project

Not only have I spent most of the last twenty years engrossed in various aspects of software design and development, but I’ve also spent a lot of time in flow state. Sometimes I would think, “Man, if I could just stay here for days- what amazing work I could do!” As a result, I have seen and experienced when the drive to achieve flow state is taken too far. Developers sometimes brag about how long they spend deep in code; “I spent 18 hours heads-down coding!” Trust me, I’ve been there, and I've seen colleagues do the same and it is possible to take flow state to an unhealthy extreme. We are not machines; our physiology requires time to recharge and our psychology requires that we reconnect with our own humanity in order to stay healthy, happy and productive. 

“The flow experience, like everything else, is not 'good' in an absolute sense. It is good only in that it has the potential to make life more rich, intense, and meaningful; it is good because it increases the strength and complexity of the self.”

― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Author, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Consciousness

Flow: To Move in a Steady and Continuous Stream

The concept of being in an intensely focused, even pleasurable state is not new — it’s been part of Eastern religions for eons — but it gained more recent recognition when Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Consciousness by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was published in 1990.

He specified six feelings that must be present in the actual flow state:

  1. Intense and focused concentration

  2. Being entirely ‘in the now’, a sense of serenity

  3. Loss of consciousness of the self

  4. A sense of personal control of the activity

  5. Time distortion, hours seem to pass by the minute

  6. The activity, in itself, is very gratifying

Schaefer proposed it must also meet these conditions. One must be:

  1. Aware of what to do

  2. Competent to do it

  3. Can self-assess how well you are doing

  4. Being confident of where to go (if it requires navigation)

  5. High perceived challenges

  6. High perceived skills

  7. Freedom from distraction

For these reasons, it must be an activity where skills and obstacles are evenly matched, so a precise point is different for each person. You must be without apathy, anxiety or boredom, which again is highly individual.

Actual neurochemical and neuroanatomical events occur in our brain at the same time: 

"Across individuals, flow states appear to activate the same regions of the brain, including the left prefrontal cortex and the basal ganglia. During flow, two key regions of the brain deactivate: the portion of the prefrontal cortex responsible for self-criticism, and the amygdala, the brains’ fear center. ... During the flow state, attention is focused on a limited perceptual field, and that field receives your full concentration and complete investment. Action and awareness merge."  (Csikszentmihalyi, 1992, p. 203)

Before you try to hack into your flow, realize that Csíkszentmihályi warned us of its addictiveness:

“… enjoyable activities that produce flow have a potentially negative effect: while they are capable of improving the quality of existence by creating order in the mind, they can become addictive, at which point the self becomes a captive of a certain kind of order, and is then unwilling to cope with the ambiguities of life.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1992, p. 185)

Researchers have now identified neurotransmitters that are released in the brain when we are in a state of flow. Not surprisingly, supplies of norepinephrine, dopamine, and anandamide all increase. These chemicals improve focus, pattern recognition, and accelerate lateral thinking, similarly to cocaine, LSD, and marijuana.

Gaming can be addictive, so it will be no surprise that game designers create conditions ideal for initiating flow as part of the gamification process. Many online experiences, especially in social media, have been designed from the ground up to hijack your brain and place you in a flow state where a chain of chemical reactions drive a need for continued engagement. There is a fine line between productive, happy and healthy flow state and a dysfunctional zombie state that does nothing to improve your overall well-being, and can even have extremely negative effects on your mental health

To emphasize, I love flow state and I believe that like any tool it can be beneficial and enhance life; it just has to be used appropriately and with discretion. 

Csíkszentmihályi noted, some people are more likely to enter flow states and referred to them as autotelic. Reading his definition, it sounded a lot like living in a state of mindfulness:

“An autotelic person needs few material possessions and little entertainment, comfort, power, or fame because so much of what he or she does is already rewarding. Because such persons experience flow in work, in family life, when interacting with people, when eating, even when alone with nothing to do, they depend less on external rewards that keep others motivated to go on with a life of routines. They are more autonomous and independent because they cannot be as easily manipulated with threats or rewards from the outside. At the same time, they are more involved with everything around them because they are fully immersed in the current of life.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1992, p. 117)

So like most things in life, flow state is not inherently good or bad. It's a matter of how it's applied, in what context and with what motivation. If applied purely to achieve superhuman workloads and meet unrealistic deadlines, it will quickly take a toll on your health. However, if applied as a state of mindfulness that is brought into every aspect of your life, it can support a profound and positive way of living.

The Reason Happiness Makes You More Creative

It surprised me to find there is another state of mind, which may be even more important because it enhances innovation and creativity. These two traits are incredibly necessary right now, some even call them the premier skills of the 21st century, and we don’t find them in the flow state.

“What word can be joined to all of these to create three new compound words?  Crab, sauce, pine.”

“Most people try to focus on the words intently and come up with a solution. Most of them fail. But if they start to think of something else and let their mind wander, the solution comes in a flash of insight. How does this happen?” (Levitin, 2013, p.202)

In fact, results on a test similar to the one above and known as the Remote Associates Test (RAT) are strongly influenced depending on the state of mind of the test-taker.

With no time pressure, participants got 94% accuracy; when told they had a limited amount of time to complete the quiz they only achieved a correct score of 78%. What happened? This test requires insightful, not analytic skills, and feelings of pressure bathe our brain with different neurotransmitters and push us into a different brain state, sometimes referred to as ‘negative affect.’ If you are curious, you can take a more extended version of the RATS.

When we think of novel ideas, are curious or creative, we are in a state of high positive affect (PA) or more simply put, we’re relaxed and happy. Neurotransmitters broaden the brain processing, the muscles relax, and the brain is far less focused and more likely to be receptive to interruptions. We can actually learn better in this state of mind.

“Sleep is the Best Meditation" ~ The Dalai Lama

Sleep is not merely physically restoring, it is a time when our brain processes and consolidates fact-based information. Other sleep stages process emotionally charged memories and solidify recently learned motor skills. Rest is acknowledged as a critical factor in innovation.

For instance, have you ever had the experience of struggling to come up with a solution to a problem? It seems like the more information we stuff into our brains and the more technological solutions we consider, the less creative we are.

It’s called cognitive overload; you have too much information in your working memory. Consequently,  like a computer, you can crash and require a mental reboot. For me, if I switch frequencies for a while-  playing a musical instrument, taking a nap, or a walk- the answer often appears.

Now I know why this happens, though I long ago learned to trust the process. First comes the intense concentration followed by the relaxed, less focused brain state. Research shows that the creative burst may come up to two days after reaching a state of positive affect.

“Neurons in the right hemisphere are more broadly tuned, with longer branches and more dendritic spines... they are better connected. When the brain is searching for an insight, these are the cells most likely to produce it. The second preceding insight is accompanied by a burst of gamma waves, which bind together disparate neural networks, effectively binding thoughts that were seemingly unrelated into a coherent new whole. For this to work, the relaxation phase is crucial.” (Levitin, 2013, p. 202)

Certainly in the areas of software engineering where creativity is essential we have to give ourselves time to relax and achieve the more mellow state to come up with new ideas. The process of creating world-class software requires much more creative thinking than many people realize, so simply staying deep in code is not enough to be successful. 

Take a Nap, Change Your Life

Ultimately, we can see that both states of mind, one of intensity and one of relaxation, are necessary. If we can learn to live in a state of equilibrium or alignment with both aspects of our brain functioning when needed, we’ll be healthier. There’s real proof that relaxing is good for us.

I’ve worked for companies that like to keep everyone in a constant crunch mode; it can be productive for a short period, but not for long. Research has shown that pushing people to work 60 hours instead of 40 reduced productivity by one-third. A person cannot remain productive, let alone stay in a flow state all that time. In our world, errors proliferate, quality decreases, and ultimate costs increase. That's why at Heath we limit coding time to 35 hours per week. Beyond that and we are more likely to introduce bugs than features. 

In our increasingly media-centric world, our days are filled with thousands of words, images, and decisions each day. According to Csikszentmihalyi, the brain can only attend to a limited amount of information at one time. He specifies 126 bits of data per second. To put that into context, visiting with one person requires 40 bits per second. During flow state, it is likely that we are putting all 126 bits processing ability into what we are doing.

Did you know the human brain only weighs about three pounds; however, it burns as much as 25% of the oxygen we inhale and uses up to 20% of the calories we eat, mainly glucose?

It runs on around 12 watts of power, has 400 miles of capillaries, 86 billion microscopic neurons in constant synaptic communication; 200 times per second, 17.2 trillion times per day.

When I’ve been spending long hours coding my brain actually feels tired. That's when I love to either exercise hard or play improvisational music. I’ve been playing music for a long time and don’t need to think while I play, which is immensely relaxing and quickly shifts my mind state.

I asked other hard-working programmers what they do to shift modes, and answers include, “Playing with my dog,” “Meditating,” “Doing yoga,” “Strenuous gardening,” and “Taking a nap.”

My brother is a movement specialist, and he tells me when I work out and can barely move the next day, it’s a sign I’ve damaged muscles, and I should let it rest to rejuvenate. I’ve realized our minds are similar. When it’s impossible to concentrate, I’m irritable, or exhausted- it’s time to listen and react by taking care of myself. Now I understand it’s not only healthy, it's also the more productive thing to do.

In conclusion, our lives will be more rewarding, and ultimately more productive, when we learn to relax and balance all the facets of our lives. This is another benefit of human-centered software development; humanity is not a machine, and we need to understand and respect the complexity of our bodies and brains.

“The two opposites of Yin and Yang attract and complement each other and, as their symbol illustrates, each side has at its core an element of the other (represented by the small dots). Neither pole is superior to the other and, as an increase in one brings a corresponding decrease in the other, a correct balance between the two poles must be reached in order to achieve harmony.”


Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Consciousness
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, HarperCollins, 1990.

Online Social Networking and Mental Health
Igor Pantic, MD, PhD, 2014.

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in an Age of Information Overload
Levitin, Daniel J.,  Dutton, 2014.

Attractive Things Work Better   Donald A. Norman

Crafting Fun User Experiences: A Method to Facilitate Flow 
Human Factors International, Schaffer, Owen (2013)

For additional reading on balance:

The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working
Schwartz, Tony. Free Press, 2010.