When wathcing the European Championship athletics, I hear many people talking about being in a "flow". Flow is defined as follows:

Flow is an optimal psychological state that occurs when there is a balance between perceived challenges and skills in an activity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). It is a state of concentration so focused that it amounts to absolute absorption in an activity. 1

This sound nice, but to me it is still a quite abstract definition and it is not really clear to me how being in a flow works. Is there a more low level (cognitive) explanation of being in a flow?

I thought that this paper could shine some light on the subject, but I am unable to access it.

  • $\begingroup$ "Balance between perceived challenges and skills" -- to me this calls to mind stress chemicals (like cortisol, norepinephrine, epinephrine/adrenaline, etc) and pleasure/reward chemicals (dopamine, serotonin, etc), suggesting that flow occurs when the individual is expert enough at a task that every challenge the task presents is conquered by the individual, and the scope of the task is sufficient to keep the individual from becoming "bored". $\endgroup$
    – DJG
    Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 21:07

1 Answer 1


There is a six-step breakdown of 'the flow' or 'zone' from it's creator Mihály Csíkszentmihályi

  1. Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  2. Merging of action and awareness
  3. A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  4. A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  5. A distortion of temporal experience
  6. Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience

Which can be found from his website

There's also a photo available that denotes when flow would be considered achieved. (Upper Right)

The State of Flow

For even easier understanding, an example of the six steps in order from my personal life,

  1. When implementing or working on a new project in Excel/VBA (Work I'm very comfortable with) I usually start with music to block out distractions and assist in focusing.
  2. As my process moves on I'm no longer able to hear the music, though it's still on. My brain is queuing next lines of code to test and my fingers are an output.
  3. I'm less focused on mistakes, mishaps, meetings, or just general things on my plate. My only issue is my task-at-hand
  4. I am the author and implementation. The code is mine. It's finished when I am.
  5. In deep focus, a day that started at 9am and feels like may be 10am is actually closer to 1pm... and I should eat.
  6. Every proper step IS rewarding, I'm challenging myself with a problem and completing work.
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thank you so much. This indeed make the concept a little clearer, though I do believe that some of the six steps are still somewhat abstract. Luckily, the fifth component does have a more detailed explanation on this website already: cogsci.stackexchange.com/questions/13919/… . $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 13, 2016 at 11:06

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