We’ve all experienced time slowing down in moments of intensity. Like pro athletes describe in high pressure games, or those who face harrowing events, we know that the mind is capable of adjusting the perception of time in profound ways.

Another instance of this kind of time dilation happens when we enter the “flow state” – periods of intense focus where we don’t realize how much time has passed, and don’t even think about it because of the intensity of our active, present focus. More on achieving a flow state below, but first let’s understand what’s going on mentally.

In these instances, we see that intense focus can change the way we interact with the passage of time, but how does it work?

It all begins with attention. Whether by choice or by requirement, the intense moments of “time slowing down” happen when we are truly focused on the present moment. So, what does this kind of focus entail?

As we’ve discussed in the past, giving your attention to the present is largely a matter of letting go of preconceptions of all kinds. It’s showing up to the world as it is and being present enough to interact with it, not imposing ideas of how things “should be,” which are inherently rooted in past experiences or future expectations.

We so often want things to be THIS way, instead of appreciating and admiring when they’re happening THAT way. Letting these expectations cloud the acceptance of the present moment distracts our attention and actively presents us from achieving the kind of focus that leads to dilated time.

In most instances of time slowing down, it’s a singular, high pressure moment that floods the body with adrenaline… A moment, like a buzzer-beating three pointer, the closing moments of a huge presentation, the birth of a child, or narrowly avoiding an accident that grabs all of our faculties and pulls us deep into the present. We can prepare ourselves for these kinds of experiences with attention to the present, but they more typically happen as a product of exterior forces and events…

Achieving a flow state, however, is something else entirely. It still works on the same mental principles, where the mind is so occupied that time seems to behave differently, but instead of a single moment of intensity that seems to stretch, flow is all about such a high level of focus that we don’t notice (or even consider) the passing moments – they are ALL the immediate present.

So again we’re faced with the question: how can we achieve such a state?

This time, there are a couple of different components involved. The first, of course, is still attention. The same ideas of acceptance and presence apply here. If you’re caught up in expectations for a particular work session, creative outcome, interaction with another person, or any other scenario, you’ll be too distracted by those preconceptions to truly embrace the present…

Real presence comes with openhearted observation, a willingness to engage with whatever arises, and the will to filter out distractions (including preconceived expectations). This kind of mindset is what primes your brain to achieve the often-elusive flow state.

The more present you can be, the more you can “show up” fully to the matter at hand – whether that’s a conversation or a painting project, a business plan or a walk through the forest – the closer you will be to finding time moving by without your knowledge, a state of mindfulness and flow that allows you to fully concentrate and get the most out of each passing moment without even seeing them go by.

The other, and just as essential, component of achieving a flow state has to do with the actual task at hand, not just your attitude and ideas about it.

There’s a balance of ability and intention that helps us reach the unhindered concentration of flow state… It’s the right amount of challenge and the right amount of confidence, coupled together to make a task, an interaction, or any other series of moments truly immersive.

This concept makes perfect sense if you take a step back. If something’s way too easy, you’re likely to get bored, to feel disengaged, to let other thoughts creep in, and not give the present moment your full attention. Similarly, if something is way too difficult, frustration and confusion will likewise pull you away from the presence required to achieve a flow state.

When the balance is just right, though, when the moment is engaging and challenging enough to require attention and effort (without being overwhelming), that’s when we can become truly immersed and find ourselves “in flow.”

We always have this potential, but we need to learn how to ACCESS it more frequently. If flow is this ideal state of balance among presence, attention, challenge, and engagement, then those are the pieces we can refine to make the end result more likely.

By prepping our minds to put these “flow components” at the forefront of how we approach any given scenario, we not only prime ourselves to achieve a flow state, we also prioritize things like growth (accepting the right level of challenge), presence (letting go of preconceptions), and attention (actively choosing the mind’s focus) in a broader way – all of which helps reinforce great work and a great life.

Achieving a flow state, then, is a way of changing the way you experience time, but it’s also the result of practices that generate genuine relationships, creative brilliance, and a life well lived.

It’s also a skill that can be developed through practice, and through practicing each of the underlying components.

As you move through the moments of your life, ask yourself if you’re being truly present. Assess the level of challenge in any given situation, and consider how that affects your attention and focus.

Take moments in stride, whether they’re slowing down or passing without you noticing, and remember that embracing the world as it is, with an open heart and open mind, is essential to harnessing your greatest potential.

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