There are considerable similarities of flow state in a vast number of accounts but that does not mean the experience is uniform. Flow state generally reveals a slowing of time (sometimes a loss of time is described, which is sometimes associated with the subject of memory), ease of challenge or effortless action (although the challenge itself may be the greatest the performer has ever faced), lack of thought (in place of planning is anticipation that seems completely accurate; in place of self-talk is silence), everything feeling “right” (as if pieces of a puzzle were adjusting themselves), and a slew of feelings (numbness or lack of feeling, euphoria, engagement, being 100% in the moment, a rightness). Reviewing accounts of performance in flow state can sometimes lead to confusion; particularly when it comes to flow state and memory. While some descriptions will explain that it is difficult for the performer to even recall what occurred during their flow state, others will be able to account every detail of the experience.
Interestingly, fighter pilots who are task saturated and whose environment demands an extremely high level of cognitive load, often described their flow experiences loaded with details in their memory. Their performance is incredibly dynamic. On the other hand, performers who are engaged in closed action series (the series of actions are always the same and the environment does not change, such as in gymnastics) generally relate more to the lack of recall after experiencing a bout of flow state. Regardless of differences, the flow experience is still described with many of the same phenomenon and the performers explain that they were at their best during these moments.
Armed with this knowledge regarding flow state and memory: don’t be alarmed if your experience of flow state does not match how you hear others describe their experiences of it. Regardless of how it is experiences, training to enter flow, or to make flow more consistent with performance, should be a top priority for any performer. Getting stuck on what the “right” flow state is can lead to confusion or perhaps too much effort engaged in something that should be effortless. Indeed, the very act of attempting to find flow may be the very thing that prevents it. Similar to meditation, falling asleep, or mindfulness, the more effort that is put forth in attaining the state, the less likely the state will develop. Instructions such as “Let it happen” can be frustrating to hear and difficult to follow but are ultimately more in line with the process than attempting to force something.
To review how to be consistent in developing the routine that makes flow likely (see previous article):
Practice all of the mental skills of performance
Create structured routines
Challenge yourself on a regular basis
Allow awareness to evolve from details of a novice to feeling of a master
Review and document experiences (both good and bad)