Have you ever been so completely focused on a task as you were doing it that you completely lost track of where you were? So absorbed in completing something that you looked up only to find that hours had passed?
I certainly have. During the most gratifying, fulfilling writing sessions and also during certain times when I was composing music.
Not every time, mind you. But every now and then, working on something, my consciousness will dissolve around me, and mentally I’ll face away and instead my thoughts just basically become the thing I’m working on.
Positive psychologists generally consider this to be a really optimal state of mind. They call it flow or flow state. Flow is marked by hyperfocus, complete absorption in an activity, and enjoyment of the task.
A lot of research is currently being done in this area, including by prominent researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who operationally named it “flow” for the purposes of psychological study in 1975.
(Please note that the concept has existed for thousands of years in various Eastern religions under a variety of other names.)
The Downside of Hyperfocus
It’s also worth noting that while flow is generally considered to a positive event, flow’s key component, hyperfocus, is not always considered to be a positive occurrence. It’s easy to be so hyperfocused on certain tasks that you are unable to perform basic time management or to finish things that need to be done.
That’s definitely something I feel and experience as a writer, that push/pull. While flow can be an elevated, nearly euphoric experience, and the resultant productivity can be a real boon when I’m working against deadlines, I also find that losing track of time as a writer and getting drawn into a project can wreak havoc on my workflow. Especially when it’s not the thing I should be working on.
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.