Hi Folks!

It’s a beautiful time of year right now. The cherry trees are blooming, the sun is shining on the students lounging on the quad, and our rain-jacket/Blundstones uniform is slowly being traded out for lighter wear. As amazing as it is to finally have some spring weather, it also signals a fast-approaching reality: Finals season!

Chances are, we’ll all be spending some time hunched over a desk over the next few weeks. So why not make studying not only more efficient, but enjoyable too? I’m here to introduce the concept of flow to use as a tool this finals season.

What is flow?

Flow is a mental state that occurs when doing an activity that is characterized by intense focus, enjoyment, increased motivation, and complete absorption with the task.  Often people describe losing track of time when experiencing flow because they are so involved with what they are doing.

It’s also described as feeling in “the Zone”. In other words, all other distractions are irrelevant, and you become completely immersed in what you’re doing!

Flow tends to occur when an activity or task has the perfect balance between skill and difficulty. Some examples of activities people describe experiencing flow in are: Reading a good book, physical activities like running, hiking, and yoga, creating art… and hopefully, while studying.

There are three conditions that have been identified to find flow:

  • Clear, defined goals
  • Immediate feedback
  • An optimal balance between opportunity and capacity (skill and difficulty)

In other words, to achieve flow, there must be a balance between challenge, and skills: The task shouldn’t be so easy that it feels boring, but shouldn’t be so challenging that it feels stressful, either! As we continue to learn while studying, your skill level increases. Therefore, to remain in a “flow state”, the task’s difficulty must also be increased at a matched level. If the task becomes too difficult and moves past our skill level, anxiety is experienced. If the task’s difficulty fails to keep up with improving skills, it becomes boring.

Why find flow?

Integrating the concept of flow into work life increases not just productivity, but overall well-being.

It makes studying more enjoyable

Flow can be experienced even during the tasks that aren’t so pleasurable. Setting incremental goals while completing a paper or studying for a final will help give sometimes boring assignments a sense of purpose. Indeed, applying flow strategies to work environments has been shown to increase employee job satisfaction, enthusiasm, and job contentment (Bryce & Haworth, 2002). So, why can’t we apply the same thing to school?

It improves performance

Some argue that flow is the brain’s most productive state. When we enter a state of flow, we become deeply focused on the task at hand. Fully engaging with an activity is much more efficient. It will also make it more enjoyable! This intense concentration means that we can’t think about that phone call we have to make later, or what we’ll have for dinner. When we find flow, we find concentration, too.

It promotes motivation and learning

To maintain flow, tasks need to become increasingly difficult. Learning occurs when challenging tasks are sought out, met, and overcome. So, flow goes hand in hand with growth! Further, because experiencing a flow state is enjoyable and intrinsically rewarding, it motivates us to pursue future challenges.

We can use finding flow as a motivational tool to help us learn increasingly concepts for exams and papers.  

It boosts creativity

Research has shown that people experiencing flow are not just creative in the moment, but show heightened creativity the next day, too (Kotler, 2014). Therefore, flow trains our brains to be more creative!

Why is this? Flow causes “transient hypofrontality”, or the temporary decrease in activation of the prefrontal cortex (Dietrich, 2004). The prefrontal cortex is responsible for higher executive functions, such as impulse control and self-monitoring. We are far more creative when freed of self-criticism and self-restraint. Transient hypofrontality through flow can teach us how to be creative in the long-run.

It can bring students together

Walker (2010) found that people in teams with high levels of social interdependence were not only able to achieve flow while working together but experienced more enjoyment through group flow than through individual flow.

Further, we can encourage our peers to achieve individual flow by establishing shared goals, getting feedback, and collaborating on increasing task demands.

It makes us happier

Enjoyable flow is related to increases in well-being. Csikszentmihalyi (the ‘inventor’ of flow) said, “it is the full involvement of flow, rather than happiness, that makes for excellence in life”. According to Csikszentmihalyi , flow is an “optimal experience” because it creates meaning out of life. By setting and achieving goals, we gradually evolve as people.

Overcoming challenges can be truly rewarding. Therefore, it makes sense that high flow is related to happier people and increased life satisfaction.

We know why flow is a useful tool for studying, work, and more. So, how do we find flow at school? Here are some tips for finding flow while studying.

Tips for finding flow while studying:

Create space to concentrate

Give yourself ample time and space to be in a good, focused headspace. Removing distractions is important. Clear your desk of other distractions that might pull you away. Don’t study and watch TV at the same time.

Instead, create a space with all the tools you might need so that all you have to do is focus on the task at hand!

Make time

Similarly, recognize that you’ll probably need a good chunk of time to find flow and remain there. Give yourself the time needed to allow yourself to focus on your studies without feeling stressed about moving on to something else.

Also, find a time that works with you. You know yourself better than anyone else, and you know when you work best. Don’t pick a time of day where you tend to feel drained or exhausted. Instead, focus on a quiet time during the day when you tend to work better.

Set clear goals

Flow is achieved through clear goal-setting and incremental processes Setting smaller, gradual goals increases flow. Instead of trying to reach a vague end-point, like “learn everything from chapter 1”, try breaking up your study goals into smaller pieces.

For example, “make cue cards for all the bolded terms in chapter 1”, could be your first goal. Set a series of attainable end points that you can recognize as complete when you’ve reached them. This will help keep you motivated! Create meaning by approaching every activity with a goal.

Recognize your accomplishments

Evaluate yourself as you go. Recognize the goals and accomplishments that you’ve achieved. Studying is difficult, so don’t forget to give yourself kudos along the way. As you flow through your study goals this finals season, appreciate how far you’ve come!

Here’s to flowing through finals this Spring! Do you have any other useful study tips? Comment below!


The views expressed in this blog are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the policies or views of the University of Victoria. I monitor posts and comments to ensure all content complies with the University of Victoria Guidelines on Blogging.