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How to get in the zone and stay there

by Katie Warriner

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Picture the scene: you’re climbing a beautiful, rugged mountain. You’re moving with precision and fluidity, totally absorbed in the placement of each hand and foot as you expertly ascend the cliff face. Nothing exists but you and the mountain. Time slows down, your senses are heightened, and your mind is effortlessly processing where you are now and what to do next. You feel alive, connected, powerful and in tune with your environment. You’re in flow.

Flow is often considered the domain of elite athletes, musicians, and actors, but the truth is, we all have the potential to experience it and when we do, it can enrich our lives. While individual experiences of flow can vary, they tend to be characterized by:

  • An intense, undivided focus on the activity
  • The merging of action and awareness. Actions become effortless, senses are heightened and feedback about how you are doing is available immediately.
  • Our ego settles down and we feel uninhibited, somehow going beyond ourselves
  • A sense of personal control and a feeling that we have the potential to succeed
  • Time becomes distorted—slowing down in the moment and yet flying by in retrospect
  • Pure enjoyment of the activity itself

Olympic champion canoeist and Headspace user, Etienne Stott MBE, describes flow as “a great sense of power, freedom, and expression. Like everything within me is coming out to make my boat go faster. I am completely focused on what I’m doing. It feels like I can do anything, or maybe more accurately, I can deal with anything and make something good come from it.”

According to the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, we are often at our happiest when in flow, in part because when we are so absorbed in a single task, we don’t have enough attention left over to get lost in the inane chatter of our monkey mind, worry about things beyond our control, or stress about our endless to-do-list.

So if finding flow is so rewarding, and it’s accessible to us all, how do we go about experiencing more of it? The key is to understand how to create the conditions for flow to emerge. Here are five steps to get you started:

1. Choose an activity you love and find a goal related to it that you’re motivated by. In choosing your activity and goal, look for the sweet spot between the challenge level of the task and your skill level. Flow emerges at the boundary between boredom and anxiety when the perceived challenges are just balanced with your confidence and skill level.For the record, by creating the right conditions, flow can also be experienced in simple, day-to-day tasks like washing up and sweeping the floor. There are no boring moments, only states of boredom.

For the record, by creating the right conditions, flow can also be experienced in simple, day-to-day tasks like washing up and sweeping the floor. There are no boring moments, only states of boredom.

2. Think about what can act as immediate feedback. (For example, a musician immediately knows when they have hit a wrong note). Use this feedback as information to help you negotiate changing demands or make necessary adjustments to maintain in flow.

3. Before you begin, take three deep, centering breaths and focus your attention in the present moment. The past and the future do not exist—just this moment.

4. Go about your activity with a determined focus on the process. Trust your skills and your ability to adapt.

5. Understand that it’s natural for the mind to wander. When this happens, notice it and bring it back to the activity without judgment.

In addition to these five steps, you can also enhance your ability to create the conditions for flow to emerge by committing to a daily meditation practice in order to develop your mindfulness skills. This is likely to enhance your ability to focus on the present moment, to manage distractions, and to see the challenge and your skill level more clearly.

“If you have practiced seeing your thoughts and not getting caught up in them,” Stott continued, “you will know it is possible to stay connected to the activity and move through distractions—internal or external.”

It will help to build confidence in your skills by focusing on your strengths and what you can do rather than what you can’t do. We’re not searching for perfection, but rather a gentle, quiet confidence that focuses on the privilege and opportunity of self-expression rather than trying to prove anything or beat someone.

We don’t need a mountain, an Olympic final or a theater full of people to experience flow. By understanding how to create the conditions for flow to emerge, becoming more familiar and at ease with the nature of our minds and training the ability to stay present, we can find this life-enriching experience wherever we choose—be it listening to music, gardening, deep in conversation or doing whatever resonates and is important to you. These moments are precious, rewarding and available to us all.


Illustration by JING WEI

The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was paid for their writing.

Katie Warriner

Katie is a mental skills coach with a deep belief in human potential and the opportunity we have to enrich each other’s lives by truly understanding ourselves and caring for each other. She supported athletes within the incredibly successful Team GB at the London and Rio Olympic Games, has worked with multiple Olympic and World Champions, over 150,000 school children in the UK and on several global organisational change programmes. She also co-designed the Headspace Sport packs with Andy Puddicombe. Katie lives in the UK with her partner Remi, where she enjoys being in nature, yoga, cooking and getting lost in a good book in one of the local cafes.