Flow state can feel so elusive that when you tap into it, it’s like magic. When you capture it, it helps to look at what led to it. The more elements you can identify that lead to flow, the more you can try to recreate the conditions that will produce that state.
Yesterday I shared a case study of a flow-inducing CrossFit workout in which I distilled 11 elements to create focus and flow.
I was able to sustain the flow from that workout through writing the essay and beyond. Even after I hit published, the insights kept coming.
So here is part 2 of the case study, with more elements that led to sustained focus and flow.
7 More Elements to Create Focus and Flow
The right environment is crucial for getting in flow on any task or project. It’s so obvious that we often overlook it.
It should go without saying — but is important to call it out: when I did the workout that helped me access the flow state, I was in the gym — an environment ideally suited to the task.
Environment acts as a trigger for the activity that you’re going to do there.
Remember back when gyms shut down during COVID, “experts” predicted the demise of the gym as people adapted to exercising at home. But as soon as they could, most people returned to a gym or yoga studio.
It’s a lot harder to get flow in a workout when you’re exercising in your garage, basement, or living room.
The best way to get flow is to set yourself up in an environment conducive for the task.
(2) Access to the Necessary Equipment/Tools
I had access to the equipment I needed for this particular workout: the rowing machine and the medicine ball.
Sometimes, when classes are big, we have to stagger starting points to share machines, or three people are using the same part of the rig for pull-ups.
Having my own equipment for the workout meant that I didn’t have to focus on or worry about what anyone else was doing, or whether they’d be done on a machine by the time I needed it. I could go at my own pace, to my own rhythm, and stay focused on my flow.
In Part 1, I wrote about the clarity around the “tasks” in the workout. I had clarity about what I had to do, how to do it, and for how long. There was no ambiguity in the task.
That clarity is crucial for accessing a flow state. But clarity on the task doesn’t help much if I don’t have the capacity — the ability or the skills — to do the task. I can row well enough. I may not do the deepest squats on wall balls, but I can do them well enough.
If, however, the workout had involved movements that I don’t do well, or haven’t yet learned how to do — such as bar muscle-ups — flow would be elusive.
The ability to do a task is one thing; confidence in that ability is a separate matter, and equally as important in creating flow states.
In the workout from this case study, I was confident I could do the movements in this workout without causing injury to myself. It’s pretty hard to mess up on the rowing machine or with wall balls.
On the other hand, there are movements where, even if I know I can do them, I am not confident in my ability to sustain them over several rounds, or to do them without injuring myself.
For example, my jump rope ability ebbs and flows. In workouts where we jump rope, I’ve noticed that when I’m not confident in my rope jumping I don’t get into a flow state.
(5) Easy Way to Track Process
One of the elements of flow I shared in Part 1 was that the workout had clear metrics and parameters: 4 rounds of
- 500 meter row
- 20 wall balls
A related, implicit element to sustaining flow during the workout was an easy way to track my progress that didn’t take me out of flow.
In this case, the rower kept track of the distance. 20 wall balls is a low enough number of reps to count without losing track of where I am. (You might be surprised at how easy it is to lose count when you’re in the middle of a workout.)
To keep track of the rounds, I made four dashes on a white board, which I put on the squat rack between the wall and my rower. After each round, I rubbed one off with my finger. This freed up my brain to focus on what I was doing instead of reminding myself what round I was in.
(6) No Decisions
This is an element that is present by its absence: I didn’t have to make any decisions about what to do or what weights to use.
Nothing derails flow like having to make decisions. Decisions drain energy and cognitive resources.
In fact, one of the reasons I go to CrossFit is so that I don’t have to decide on what to do for my workout. All the decisions were made for me in advance, other than what weight to use for the wall balls.
I know what weight I can sustain for 4 rounds of 20 reps, so there wasn’t much to decide.
In other situations, the more you can eliminate decisions or make them in advance, the better chance you’ll have of creating the conditions for flow.
(7) No Interruptions
Because I was in the gym and in the middle of a class, there was no chance of being interrupted in my workout. I was fully immersed in the class, and I wasn’t attached to my phone.
Even if I had a moment to check my phone, I take class at an hour that doesn’t lend itself to email, text, or social conversations. At 6 am, I don’t feel compelled to connect with people, because most people are still asleep.
In addition, nobody was coming into my energy space with a distracting energy. Everyone else in the gym was there to exercise. This preserved the integrity of the flow.
What Helps You Create Flow States?
Have you noticed what elements are present when you’re in flow? I’d love to hear what works for you. Please share in the comments!