It’s rare but it happens. You forget your phone — whether you’re engrossed in conversation with friends, fail to check notifications after a peaceful yoga class, or simply leave the device across the room for a few hours. Shockingly, for a brief period of time, it’s as if your phone didn’t exist.
Today, people constantly look at, think about, and remain physically close to their screens. To be so intensely focused on a task that text messages go unread for hours is unusual. To be so engrossed in a task or activity that all distraction evaporates seems inconceivable.
In fact, such freedom is attainable. A phenomenon called flow state constitutes total absorption in an experience, such as surfing, writing, dancing, playing jazz, or painting. Once a person has achieved immersive focus in one task, they describe flow as a sustained period of cognitive clarity, self-confidence, joy, ecstasy, and unobstructed consciousness. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the phrase in 1990.
Since then, everyone from professional athletes to special ops military has studied flow. Being in “the zone” can lead to peak performance, for instance, 12 three-pointers in one basketball game. It has informed innovations in game learning, where immersive design and achievable goals teach players new skills. Flow can be therapeutic, productive, educational, and downright spiritual.
So why can’t we flow all the time? Like animals, the human brain is wired to perceive distractions.
“Our ancestors had to watch out for snakes, saber-toothed tigers, and enemy tribes all the time — and if they did not, they stopped surviving,” said Csikszentmihalyi.
Unfortunately, the brain that evolved to sense distractions (and keep early humans alive) can’t be turned off so easily. Enter the mobile alert, the Slack message, the Instagram like. Each tiny communication signals a dopamine hit to the brain, hence why our phones are so addictive. But over time, the constant competition for our attention from all these apps and pings become less gratifying and more overwhelming. For Csikszentmihalyi, consumer technology presents a sinister picture: the business of commodifying the human mind.
“If we are always open to interruptions from the outside through the use of mobile devices, we risk giving up control of our lives to external agents who don’t really care about our lives, but only for how to gain our support—financial, political, or whatever,” he said.
“Honestly, have we abdicated our purpose just because of these insistent micro asks?” Jamie Wheal, director of the Flow Genome Project, told The New York Times. “Have we just completely ceded our center, completely ceded clarity, and it was all just based on 20-something bro-grammers trying to crack our attention spans?”
The numbers aren’t great. The average human attention span now hovers around eight seconds, shorter than a goldfish and down from 12 seconds in the year 2000. Americans devote more than 10 hours per day to screens, according to a 2016 Nielsen report.
But that doesn’t mean people don’t or can’t achieve the bliss that comes with flow. Perhaps you’ve even experienced it a time or two, since flow feels different for everybody. Teammates of Kobe Bryant say he goes silent when he’s flowing, but after he scored 81 points in one game, Bryant remained perplexed. “It’s tough to explain … To sit here and say I grasp what happened, that would be lying.”
How to Break Free
Today, one clue you may have reached flow is forgetting your phone. It makes sense since, according to Csikszentmihalyi, it’s easier to flow away from devices. He suggests setting aside one hour of free time per day to allow screens to “shape our minds,” then turning them off.
Find a task or hobby that won’t challenge your skill level too highly but which demands close focus. Most importantly, you should love it. That way you’ll be inclined to sustain the activity, repeat it, and increase your skill level over time. (Many people don’t reach a “runner’s high” until several miles in, or don’t trance until the sixth or seventh EDM song.) Look for activities where you either can’t reach for your phone or aren’t inclined to, such as mountain biking or knitting. Finally, make conscious choices to keep technological distractions at bay even when your phone is handy; for example, don’t buy Wi-Fi on your next flight.
“The information we carry in our brains will determine the content and quality of our lives,” said Csikszentmihalyi.
If the information that’s arriving to us is not information we choose, but rather in the form of interruptions, we have little control over it. Make deliberate choices in how you spend your time and develop your skills. You’ll focus. You’ll drop in. You’ll flow. And you will, blissfully, forget your phone ever existed.