Three high school students in science class

Motivation Monday: Flow State

Can you remember the last time you completed a task and were really “in the zone”? Positive psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeanne Nakamura (Claremont Graduate University) describe this mental state as flow state. (link opens in new tab/window) Achieving flow state is about the careful balancing of skill level (low, medium, or high) with challenge level (low, medium, or high). 

A graph displaying skill level on the x-axis and challenge level on the y-axis. Flow state is achieved when skill and challenge levels are both high.
Courtesy of Amber Case on Flickr:

Those who have experienced flow state describe feeling the following characteristics:

  1. Intense moments of concentration
  2. Deep involvement in task; merging of action and awareness
  3. Feelings of control over one’s actions
  4. Thorough enjoyment of the task at hand
  5. Time feels like it flies by

Why it matters for education

Helping students reach flow state means helping them balance their skill levels with the appropriate level of challenge. This process can start with activities that promote self-awareness and self-understanding. When students reach this state, they will feel successful, confident, and empowered.

The research around flow state can also have a positive impact on the way educators approach deep learning and the structure of the school day(link opens in new tab/window) . While the noise and energy of a bustling classroom may be beneficial for some students, constantly shifting attention from one subject to another after brief periods of time can prevent students from reaching flow state. When time and other factors allow, offering students extended periods of time (with short movement, brain, or sensory breaks) can allow them to engage more deeply with tasks and topics. 


  • Caitlin Vanderberg, M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum:

Research Institute for Learning and Development:

The Institute for Learning and Development:

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