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You are totally absorbed in your work. Time flies like in flight. You started studying at 10 a.m. and your stomach is slowly growling again. You look at the clock – it’s 4 p.m. Wait, 4 p.m.?! You didn’t have lunch, you’re thirsty and your bladder is tight. But you’ve done as much in the last six hours as you usually do in several days. And you finally understood this one topic completely.
You are completely satisfied.
But how is it that we can become totally immersed in an activity? Staying focused for hours, delving into something, being “in the zone”? All of these are paraphrases of the state that psychology calls flow.
How Does Flow Work?
The flow was first observed by Hans Scheuerl in connection with gaming. He called it “being rapt from current events”. However, in the psychological context in which we use the term “flow” today, it was coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. He found out that activity must require full concentration and yet not overtax it. The situation is best created between over- and under-challenging. The graphic below shows this in a simplified way.
Flow occurs when we are intrinsically motivated, i.e. from within ourselves. Certainly, a deadline can help the motivation to do something to reach unimagined heights – but this motivation arises under strong pressure, which is an obstacle to achieving the flow state.
Physiologically, the well-being during the flow can be explained by the fact that cortisol is released – a stress hormone that, in moderate amounts, causes increased attention and information processing and increases memory. The disadvantage is that too much cortisol impedes flow because then we have trouble falling asleep or sleeping through the night, we get the urge for quick sugar and problems with digestion. Stress is a major obstacle on the way to flow. And there are more.
Obstacles to Flow and How to Remove Them
Obstacle #1: No Plan
You don’t know exactly where you want your life to go. Sometimes you want to be a social scientist, then a mathematical genius. Teacher alternates with laboratory chemist and orthomolecular medicine with music. You don’t know exactly whether the current degree program is the yellow of the egg. It’s so torn that it’s difficult to reach a state where you are with yourself and live in the moment – and that is an essential prerequisite for flow.
The solution: Think about where exactly you want to go and what your life plan should be. Find a vision for your studies, a clear goal of what you want to achieve. Define the steps that should lead to this goal and consider how you approach them to step by step. When you do this, you move into the present with a clear view of the future – the best conditions to see a greater meaning behind your upcoming study session and to put it into a larger context.
Obstacle #2: Negative Beliefs
“I cannot do this. I’m just too stupid for integral calculus. Actually, an apprenticeship would have been better anyway, and I will never work in this area anyway!” Such beliefs slow you down and suck out all the energy you still had. If your inner critic is so strong and keeps pulling you down, you will hardly be able to achieve a state of flow.
The solution: create positive beliefs. Keep telling yourself that you are good just the way you are. That you can be proud of your achievements and will defy all criticism. Realize and keep reminding yourself that you will overcome mistakes and weaknesses. Look for trifles and pull yourself up on seeming banalities. Give yourself courage.
Obstacle #3: Unclear Daily Structure
Living into the day is generally a nice thing – but not if you want or have to get something done that day. Getting up around 11 a.m., eating whatever is available from the fridge, listening to the radio, and then spending an hour watching cat videos on your cell phone in your pajamas might be a perfect way to start the weekend. You should never start a learning day like this. You can only achieve flow if you follow a clear and efficient daily structure. If, on the other hand, you let yourself drift blindly, you will at best reach the state of highest concentration by chance.
The solution: Create a very clear daily structure. Get up at the time you planned to do the day before and start your plan with a short break to write down what you want to get done that day. Eat a healthy breakfast, drink enough, get some exercise. Gather everything you need and have a large mug of your favorite beverage. This gives you a jump start to the day, and you can start full of energy. A good tip for a mature daily structure is the 18-minute rule.
Obstacle #4: Stress
All of us have stress at times. From time to time, it is also very helpful, for example, the stress that signals to you that you should really start studying. Stress can give you a kick start and lift you over the motivation hurdle. But too much stress can paralyze you and even make you ill in the long run. So what can you do about this stress?
The solution: Start good time management. There are many very good tips for this, including those already mentioned such as “set goals” or “find a vision”. You should also set priorities and build healthy habits. Find fixed working hours that you stick to uncompromisingly, practice monotasking, de-perfect your expectations. And once you’ve addressed and cleared those first four obstacles, you can tackle the next ones.
Anyone can achieve flow and learn in flow – it just doesn’t work with an on and off switch. The path to flow and more generally focused learning is not for thin board drills and people who want the easiest path with the least amount of resistance.
But if you tackle these obstacles and tackle them bit by bit and eliminate them, including eliminating frustrating or non-relevant to you assignments through personal statement writing help, then I can tell you from my own experience: your studies (and even your whole life!) will become more relaxed and successful in the long run. It’s worth starting.