In the Zone: What You Should Know About "Flow"
Updated: Apr 17
Sometimes it happens when you’re studying. Other times, it happens when you’re working on a craft or art. Some people experience it when they’re cleaning. Psychologists call it “flow,” but you may know it as being “in the zone.”
It’s that feeling you have when time feels like it stopped. That you’re churning through your work and more efficient than ever. Before you know it, hours have passed. Why is it so easy to get things accomplished when you’re in the zone, and other times it seems that you just can’t focus and get anything done at all?
The Origin of Flow
The concept of flow comes from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. His definition of flow is a “state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” Achieving this state can be especially helpful when it comes to studying—when you’re in the zone, you’re not tempted to pick up your phone every few minutes or open a new browser window and check Reddit instead of working on writing your term paper.
Flow isn’t about productivity and multitasking. It’s about single-tasking in a very focused way. Csikszentmihalyi describes it as “optimal experience” and in his research, he and his team found that flow is only achieved when in an active state, rather than in passive activities like watching television. The mind must be engaged in order to achieve flow.
How to Get in a Flow State
Flow can feel a little bit magical—and also unpredictable. Some days you feel like you hit the ground running and other days you accomplish very little when you sit down to study. How can you control that?
Unfortunately, you can’t, but there are some things you can do to make it more likely that you’ll achieve flow when you’re studying. These include:
Eat before studying, and make sure it’s a balanced meal. Think: lean proteins, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and plenty of fresh produce. Coffee and sugary snacks might give you a temporary boost, but you’ll crash quickly.
Don’t let yourself get distracted. If you’re at home in your study space, put your phone in another room and close the door. If you’re at the library or school, tuck your phone into your backpack and don’t check it. Don’t listen to music or have the television on in the background.
Stop multitasking. We live in a society where multitasking is considered a good thing; it’s not. When you divide your attention, nothing gets done well. Don’t switch back and forth between studying for different subjects or think you can study for your algebra exam during your English class.
Get better sleep. That means eight hours a day, every day. Go to bed and wake up at the same time, even on weekends. Being tired makes it hard to pay attention.
Use flashcards. Getting in the zone is hard when you’re studying with disorganized notes or reading from your textbooks; flashcards have been shown to be more conducive to study flow. Creating a study plan that involves flashcards or some kind of game, like timing yourself while you work on math problems, can make it easier to focus.