You’ve probably met people for whom studying comes easily. Somehow they’re able to shut out the world around them, pick up a textbook or practice test and power through it, almost to a point of absurdity. And it’s not that they have superhuman focus so that they’re able to tune out obnoxiously loud garbage trucks or the pull of social media or the nearby smell of delicious food.
But how to enter the flow state for studying? Tap into a state of mind that is called the study flow. This is the simple mental practice of focusing on a specific task. And, with a little practice, everyone can do it with the following easy steps:
- Cut out external distractions
- Have a clear, attainable goal
- Use material that is challenging and accessible
- Adjust as necessary
So, what exactly is this flow? How can you get into this flow state, and how can you know if it’s really working?
Once you’ve learned how to set yourself up for success with these steps, you’ll be able to enter the workflow whenever you want. So, let’s explore the concept further!
What is the flow?
You’ve likely reached a flow state at least once in your life, even if wasn’t directly related to studying. Maybe you found a flow when you were cooking, doing something creative, or exercising.
In fact, physical activities are perfect examples of how to enter into a flow mental state. Anyone who has done laps in a pool will know what it feels like. At first, all you can focus on is the water temperature and how difficult it is to breathe and how sluggish your muscles feel. But as you progress in your workout, a sense of calm comes over you, almost zen-like. Suddenly, the task becomes less laborious and maybe even pleasant.
The same happens during a period of study flow. You go from fighting off your thoughts about what you’re going to eat for lunch, or your other responsibilities, or how boring it is to be spending your time with a nose in a textbook, to simply being in the moment, taking in the material. Before you know it, the study hour (or hours) is over, and you’ve retained so much more than you ever thought possible. Maybe you even enjoyed yourself a little bit.
To put it in other words, the flow state is a way of tapping into your mind’s ability to focus on one task fully. This transition is calming as well as satisfying. By the time you come out of the state, you’ll feel proud of yourself and confident in your mastery of the material.
Can the flow really help me study? Will I remember things more?
The short answer is yes.
The long answer gets into some deep neuroscience, but we can break it down. Let’s start with the prefrontal cortex. In every day life, this region of the brain takes on a huge role. It’s responsible for our conscious thoughts, it helps us make decisions, and it has a hand in the retention of short-term and long-term memory that isn’t related to tasks.
According to the Positive Psychology Program, in flow, this prefrontal cortex takes a break. That’s why we lose our sense of time and self-awareness. And while that may seem a bit disorienting, it’s actually a good thing. It gives the other parts of the brain, the ones that are responsible for knowledge retention, a chance to shine.
When you reach the flow state, you’ll notice that the time you spend studying is more productive, and that you remember more from the session when you revisit the material later.
Of course, you don’t have to be a neuroscientists to know that this is true. When you’re focused, you learn better. It’s as simple as that.
So, how can I get there?
Without a plan in place, getting to the flow can feel like suddenly reaching enlightenment during meditation. How did I do that? How can I do it again? Well, luckily, the study flow, unlike enlightenment, isn’t an elusive mental state. You can learn how to achieve study flow every time you sit down at your desk. You just have to know what to do.
Here are the four steps that you can follow to get into the flow state every time you study.
1. Find the right space.
This is both external and internal.
Let’s start with the external. When you start out experimenting with a flow state, it’s important to think strategically about your study space. Are you working at a desk that is covered with papers, books, pictures, or other distractions? Even if you don’t feel actively distracted by these items, the clutter may be keeping you from feeling calm and focused.
Also, what is the noise clutter like in your study space? Is there noise from traffic? Is there a television on in the background? Try as much as possible to buffer yourself from that noise, even if it just means wearing noise-cancelling headphones without music.
A huge external distraction, one that we all struggle to get rid of, is our cellphone. The pull of text messages, social media, selfies, whatever, is hard to get away from, but we have to figure out a way to disconnect if we ever want to enter the flow state.
Now, how about the internal space you create for yourself? You’ll want to take care of whatever you need to do before sitting down to study. Have a meal so that you’re not hungry. Get yourself a glass of water or pot of tea. Take a shower or go to the gym before you sit down to study. That way, you won’t be tempted to get up to go to the kitchen or cut your study time short to do other activities.
Finally, one of the most important things that you can do for yourself is to get enough sleep. When you’re tired, it can be very difficult to get into the flow state because your body is simply struggling to recover. So rest up!
2. Set a tangible goal.
The next step of entering the work flow also has to do with setting a strong foundation before you actually start studying. Setting the goal means asking yourself what you want to get out of this session. Something too broad can leave you feeling overwhelmed and anxious. So, breaking down your study goals into smaller, digestible portions with a specific end-goal will make it easier for you to achieve a study flow.
An example of this may be if you’re studying for a big standardized test, you would take it section by section. And then, break it down even further. If there’s a math section, for instance, one study session might focus solely on a single area of math, like the algebra or trigonometry questions.
Now, focusing on a specific area still isn’t exactly a goal. Instead, think about what you want to have accomplished by the end of the study session. Do you want to finish a certain number of practice problems? Do you want to make sure that you are answering a certain percentage of those problems correctly? Do you want to be able to say that you studied for a certain amount of time? These are all example of tangible goals that will help you stay in your study flow.
To sum it up, these goals have to do with things like: how much time you want to study, how much you hope to improve during that time, or how much material you want to cover during your session.
3. Figure out what material you’ll cover.
After you’ve set your tangible goal, it’s time to figure out what material you want to cover during your session. The important thing, here, is to find the right balance of challenging and achievable. Something too easy and the distractions will look more appealing to your brain than the material. Something too hard will make you feel frustrated and more likely to give up.
So, try to find something that both challenges you and is possible for you to master with some effort. Or, try to mix in the challenging material with the material that you’ve already mastered. That balance will help you maintain your study flow by keeping your brain engaged.
Studying can sometimes feel like the same thing over and over – you go to your desk, you open the book, review what you’ve already studied. But actually, if you allow yourself to think about your studying methods more dynamically, you might find that you’re more easily able to get into your study flow.
That’s because, when you rely on the same routine every time you study, your mind will start to become restless and bored. Those distractions that you have worked so hard to phase out will start to look more attractive again. So, how can you make sure that you stay engaged with your study flow?
There are a couple of simple solutions, here. When you’re starting to feel stuck in a rut, try studying in a different place. Make yourself a cup of green tea before you get started. Snack on some peanuts while you work. These small changes will help to clear out the cobwebs and make your study sessions feel new and unique.
And, as always, make sure that you’re adjusting your studying material to find that balance of challenging and achievable.
How can I know that I am in the flow?
Being in the flow is unmistakable. You focus on the material. You don’t notice time passing. You’re not hungry or bored.
The tricky thing, though, is that you might not recognize that you achieved the study flow until after the study session is over. Why? Because your conscious, thinking mind took a break while you reviewed the study material.
If you’re not sure how well you did in achieving flow by the time you close your book for the day, ask yourself whether you had, even for a minute, entered the flow. When did it happen? What interrupted it? What were you studying when you reached the flow? These questions will help you to adjust your studying methods so that you can more easily enter the flow next time.
How can I deal with distractions?
In a traditional meditation practice, an instructor will tell you that when your mind inevitably starts to wander, you gently bring yourself back. This isn’t so that you judge yourself, but rather to ensure that you are actively working towards a state of meditation. After all, you can sit for an hour allowing your thoughts to drift from one subject to another, but that’s not really meditation, even though it would look like it from the outside.
In your study flow, you might find your thoughts drifting away from the task for any number of reasons. Maybe you suddenly remembered you forgot to turn off the air conditioning at home. Maybe the library where you’re at is closing in an hour and the time crunch is stressing you out. It’s normal for outside distractions to creep into your study flow.
The important thing is that you teach yourself to recognize these distractions when they pop up. Don’t get discouraged. Just bring yourself gently back to the work at hand. Try your best not to allow the momentary distraction to segue into going onto social media or checking your text messages or going into the kitchen for a snack.
Eventually, these outside distractions will become less and less pressing. That’s because, over time, your mind will learn not to give them too much attention. That doesn’t mean that you’ll never get distracted, but rather that your brain will learn how to filter the distractions out as non-essential.
What else can I do to achieve study flow?
If you’ve tried everything we’ve discussed so far without much luck, don’t worry. For some people, it takes a bit more time to figure out how to enter the study flow.
If you’re looking to do more, you might choose to incorporate a mindfulness practice to make your brain accustomed to being in the present moment. This will naturally enhance your mind’s ability to focus and phase out external distractions.
There are a couple of ways that you can go about incorporating a mindfulness practice into your study routine.
- First, you might consider cultivating a mindfulness practice separate from your study sessions. There are plenty of guided mindfulness videos and podcasts that you can listen to at any point in your day. And it doesn’t have to be time-consuming. Practicing mindfulness for just a few minutes per day can teach you the tools to exist in the present moment.
- Another option is to incorporate mindfulness into your study sessions. Taking three or four deep breaths at the beginning of your session is powerful and allows you to make a clear separation between everything that happened before your study session and the current moment.
- You might also incorporate a moment of mindfulness during your study session. This is particularly helpful if you’re feeling restless and distracted. An easy exercise that you can do in these moments of disconnect is the body scan. It’s simple.
Take two or three minutes to check in with all of the different regions of the body. What do your feet feel like in your shoes? Is there any discomfort in the hips because of your chair or how long you’ve been sitting? How is your back doing? You can do this with as much detail as you’d like, just make sure that you don’t rush.
The point of a body scan is to slow down your thinking brain so that it can focus on what is happening right now. Then, you can take that same focus and apply it to your study session.
The flow state may have seemed like some mystical phenomenon to you before, but it’s entirely possible for every person to be able to reach this mental state. Here’s a brief summary of the ways that you can get into the flow for your next study session:
- Create a space that is free of distractions
- Avoid internal distractions by getting enough sleep and food
- Set a tangible goal, such as how much time you want to study, how many pages you want to read, or how many practice problems you want to finish
- Choose studying material that is appropriate for your level – just the right balance of challenging and doable
- Mix it up by trying different study spaces, having a cup of your favorite beverage on hand, or even just sitting in a different chair
- Deal with distractions gently. If you get distracted, kindly bring yourself back to the material. Don’t let it derail you
- Give yourself time. Not everyone will be able to enter the study flow immediately
- Consider practicing mindfulness to enhance your inner focus
With these simple solutions, you’ll be able to enter the flow state during your study sessions. And with a little bit of intentionality, you’ll be able to bring this focus into any other area of your life that you choose.
What are the best songs to enter the flow state? The answer is simple: The ones you like most. The reason for this is that the mental state of flow is achieved by doing something that you really enjoy so the best supporting music would be a compilation of you favorite songs. Keep in mind that for studying the best background noise is still silence as explained in my article here.
What is it like to be in the state of flow? The most noticeable aspect of being in the flow is not to be aware of time and possibly the flow itself. You only realize you were in the flow once you snap out of it and hours have passed. Usually, the flow is accompanied by a very happy feeling of success and accomplishments. Many people also reported that other common needs like hunger and the urge to visit the toilet disappear during that state.
What is the difference between mindfulness and flow? Mindfulness is a mental state of awareness of one’s feelings, thoughts, and experiences on a moment-to-moment basis. The flow is exactly the opposite, being unaware of your current feelings and environment because of the enjoyable task at hand is absorbing all attention and focus.
What are the best books on flow state? The legendary psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is known as the expert on the flow state. His book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” is the bible of anything from getting into the flow and using it to boost your productivity and creativity.
Will a 5-minute break every 25 minutes prevent the “flow” state while studying? The short answer is: No. In general, if you are i.e. using the Pomodoro technique the 5-minute break is helping your mind to relax. Make sure you take a walk and avoid distractions that can pull you out of the flow like social media. During the break, your mind will revise and rethink the material you just went through. I can confirm that sometimes those little walks brought the solution I needed to continue.