What is a flow state and what are its benefits?

By Your Headspace Mindfulness & Meditation Experts

You may have experienced a flow state at some point — that sense of fluidity between your body and mind, where you are totally absorbed by and deeply focused on something, beyond the point of distraction. Time feels like it has slowed down. Your senses are heightened. You are at one with the task at hand, as action and awareness sync to create an effortless momentum. Some people describe this feeling as being “in the zone.” This is the flow state and it’s accessible to everyone, whether you’re engaged in a physical activity, a creative pursuit, or even a simple day-to-day task.

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What it means to be in a flow state

Popularized by positive psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeanne Nakamura, flow state describes a feeling where, under the right conditions, you become fully immersed in whatever you are doing.

“There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback,” Csikszentmihalyi said in a 2004 TED Talk. Csikszentmihalyi and Nakamura reached this conclusion by interviewing a variety of self-actualized, high-performing people: including mountain climbers, chess players, surgeons, and ballet dancers.

When you’re giving your fullest attention to an activity or task that you are incredibly passionate about, singularly focused on, and totally immersed in, you may find yourself creating the conditions necessary to experience a flow state of mind. The mind’s usual chatter begins to fade away, placing us in a non-distracted zone. The feelings that would consume you under normal circumstances (inhibition, hunger, fatigue, or aches and pains) melt away, and all that matters is your dedication to your craft.

The flow mental state is generally less common during periods of relaxation and makes itself present during challenging and engaging activities. According to Csikszentmihalyi, “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… the best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” To that end, engagement and concentration are key in achieving flow state.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, the human mind can process up to 120 bits of information per second. When we’re challenging ourselves with a task, our mind reaches full capacity. If the activity at hand happens to be something we enjoy and we’re good at, we achieve a flow mental state — and it can leave us feeling ecstatic, motivated and fulfilled.

How meditation and mindfulness relate to flow state

Being able to achieve a state of flow, and on a smaller scale, being able to achieve even a bit of focus, is essential to achieving goals. But being able to maintain that focus and maintain that stability of mind can be challenging. That’s where meditation and mindfulness come in, because a mind that is trained to be more present and at ease with itself — calmer, clearer, and content — is more likely to experience the flow state because we are training in non-distraction and focus. “If we can learn how to apply focus moment-to-moment, then we’ll see that play out in our longer-term goals,” says Headspace co-founder Andy Puddicombe.

By definition, mindfulness is the quality of being present and fully engaged with whatever you’re doing in the moment — free from distractions or judgment, and aware of thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them. By engaging in meditation, we are encouraging our minds to become more present, actively creating conditions that help us observe when we get distracted, what gets us distracted, and then return to the object of focus. A flow state of mind combines the two concepts. In essence, flow state is a very active, moving meditation.

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The benefits of achieving flow state

The people who were interviewed in Csikszentmihalyi’s research on flow each excel in a variety of different areas — from dancing to chess, mountain climbing, and surgery. The common thread? They’re all high-performing individuals who took on career paths that were challenging and rewarding to them.

Here are the benefits that motivate these individuals (and could also motivate you) to go forth and reach the flow state as often as possible:

  • Heavy sense of concentration.

Being able to focus on the work without getting distracted leads to a higher output of higher quality work.

  • Sense of clarity.

In a state of flow, your body and mind will know what needs to be done without having to think about it.

  • Lack of obstacles.

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.

  • Good feelings.

Being in a deep flow state is often described as an intrinsically positive experience. There is no superficiality driving this force, it’s just the pleasure that comes with being in the moment and doing something that you are passionate about.

  • Happiness.

The type of happiness one can gain from being in a flow state goes beyond a temporary high — it is a general sense of well-being and a lasting sense of happiness and fulfillment.

Flow state orange smile image

How to get into a flow state

In order to achieve flow state, there are some common conditions that need to be met:

1. You need to care about the task at hand

2. The activity, job or task cannot be too easy or too difficult

3. Optimally, the activity should be something that you are good at.

4. Your mindset surrounding the task should be focused on the journey, not the destination. You could be an athlete focusing on the game instead of the medal, or a mountain climber focusing on the climb instead of the top view.

Whatever your passion, think about the intrinsic factors motivating you as you tackle your task. Couple this with no interruptions, and a flow state should follow as a natural consequence of these conditions aligning.

Here are some additional things you can do to encourage your body and mind to get in the zone:

  • Do something you love.

It goes without saying, but this is the easiest way to get into a flow state. Doing something you love can satisfy your mind’s craving for something that’s challenging but doable and something that you’re good at.

  • Create a ritual.

As you gear up for activities that will require you to enter a state of concentration, create a series of actions that you do every single time you’re about to begin your task. This could be a meditation, a short walk, or a pot of tea. No matter your activity, it will let your brain know what’s about to begin and that you are coaxing it to be ready.

  • Choose your most important task.

Achieving a flow state is best accomplished while focusing on one major task that requires a significant portion of brain power. Multitasking would create a web of distractions that make it impossible to achieve flow state.

  • Identify your peak creative and productive times.

Identify the times where your mind most naturally functions at full speed. For many people, the morning after a good night’s sleep is the most productive. Focusing on the day’s main task during these times will make flow state a more achievable goal.

  • Eliminate distractions.

Focus on creating a peaceful environment with minimal distractions around you. Store your phone away and put it on “do not disturb.” If you are working on a laptop, maybe try a website blocker. You know best the types of things that disturb you most often. Try minimizing as many of them as possible.

How Headspace can help you create the optimal conditions for experiencing a flow state

A huge part of achieving flow state is being able to concentrate and filter out distractions — and meditation sharpens your mind to do just that. Headspace offers a 10-day basics course (available to subscribers only), focused on the fundamentals of meditation and mindfulness. The Headspace app also features a Performance Mindset series in partnership with the NBA and WNBA (also only available to subscribers), which looks at the different facets of building a performance mindset (training, balance, productivity, self-esteem, and many others) and prepares you for reaching any goal in life. These are just a few of the meditation options available in the Headspace library. Whether you’re meditating for self-esteem or focus, Headspace has something to offer for everyone.

Mental health coaching can also play a role in achieving a flow state. Your coach can work with you to identify tools to acknowledge and manage distractions — heightened awareness of the present moment can support performance and creativity. Additionally, a coach can help you achieve a more balanced mental state, as everyday stress and anxiety can hinder performance and flow. Through one-on-one sessions with expert coaches, you’ll get tailored support that addresses your unique goals, reinforcing the benefits of meditation and mindfulness in your daily life. Learn more about how to get started with coaching and what to expect from your first session.

READ NEXT: How to start a morning meditation routine

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