We use the word “flow” to describe the state of being completely present and fully immersed in a task, and it’s a relatively new concept. The term was first coined by a Hungarian American researcher named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1990, when he documented and analyzed reports of this heightened state from athletes, painters, and musicians alike. They all described how, when they were “in the flow,” distractions fell away, time seemed to warp, and ideas floated up seemingly out of nowhere.
Initially, Csikszentmihalyi theorized that flow occurred when the challenge of a given task perfectly matched the ability of the person doing the work. But over the subsequent decades of research, scientists discovered that the levels of challenge and ability are actually only part of a complex picture. Flow, we now know, is directly related to focus.
The human brain, much like a computer, has limited processing power, and intense focus on a specific task limits the brian’s ability to organize input from other sources. As a result, when we are in a state of heightened focus, we literally cannot spare a thought to compare ourselves to others or notice the minute hand on the clock.
Still, for all the science around flow, this zen-like zone of productivity and creativity remains elusive. Cultivating the kind of focus required to tap into a state of flow takes practice and training, but it is well worth the effort. Here, we’ve collected 16 quotes on flow that demonstrate how different people across different disciplines experience this hyper-focused state of mind.
When I step onto the court, I don't have to think about anything. If I have a problem off the court, I find that after I play, my mind is clearer and I can come up with a better solution. It's like therapy. It relaxes me and allows me to solve problems.Michael Jordan
Flow can only truly be achieved when we are willing to let go of the outcome and just play.Sandra Taylor-Hedges, visual artist
Somewhere behind the athlete you’ve become and the hours of practice and the coaches who have pushed you is a little girl who fell in love with the game and never looked back… play for her.Mia Hamm
The greatest athletes are the ones who “make it look easy”...The athletes and others in peak performance states are not 'wanting' to perform well but are engaged in the flow of doing.Michael Hutchison, professor of economics
You know when you're out of the zone because you are thinking and making decisions.David Leffel, painter
Being “in the flow” is definitely worth striving for. I know when I'm there. I'm tapped into something that is far beyond my ability.Aleta Pippin, abstract artist
A big part of my creative process, as well as life itself, has been learning to let go. Trusting in the creative flow, I have gradually learned to paint from the inside out.Leslie Tejada, painter
Flow with whatever may happen and let your mind be free. Stay centered by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate.Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi), philosopher
There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.Jack London
I’ve gone seventy-nine hours without sleep, creating. When that flow is going, it’s almost like a high. You don’t want it to stop. You don’t want to go to sleep for fear of missing something.Dr. Dre
Most musicians know about the unique state that is reached in the music sessions: You are not focused on yourself, you are focused on the collective action, on the others, on the music. Your self-consciousness is reduced and the perception of the synergy generated as a group is enhanced.Francisco Zamorano, creative director
Whatever you do in your business comes out of a state of inner alignment with life and the source of life itself, so peace flows into whatever you do.Eckhart Tolle, self-help author
Guys was asking me what was wrong. It wasn’t anything wrong. There was just some reason I had that feeling. I was just locked in. There’s only a small group of people that knows what that zone feels like. Tonight, I was one of them.Carmelo Anthony after scoring 62 points in a game
When fighters cross swords and try to overtake the center, this energy is stillness. Even when a fight is moving fast, his mind is calm… like an ocean with no waves.Shozo Kato, sensei
When I write, I fall into the zone many writers, painters, musicians, athletes, and craftsmen of all sorts seem to share: In doing something I enjoy and am expert at, deliberate thought falls aside and it is all just THERE. I think of the next word no more than the composer thinks of the next note.Roger Ebert
When you get in that zone, it's just a supreme confidence. Things just slow down. You really do not try to focus on what's going on, because you can lose it in a second. You have to really try to stay in the present, and not let anything break that rhythm.Kobe Bryant
Photo credit: Jonathan Kirn/ Alamy Stock Photo