revising for exams: how to find your flow state

Being ‘in the zone’ or feeling your Flow can help you revise more easily – and actually enjoy it more. Discover what a Flow state of mind is, the benefits, and how you can find yours.

Have you ever been so engrossed in something that you don’t think about anything else and time seems to absolutely fly by? When ‘you’re in the zone?’ That’s your Flow.

When you’re in this state of mind, your attention is 100% focused on the moment. And if that moment is when you’re revising for your exams, then you’re more likely to retain what you’re learning about. 

In this article, we explore what Flow state is and how to find yours so you can optimise your revision performance. 

what do we mean by Flow state? 

According to the psychologist, Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, who has carried out extensive research into Flow, it’s: ‘The holistic sensation people feel when they act with total involvement.’

Added to that is the fact people enjoy what they are doing at the time when they are in a state of Flow, which has been captured in this quote from one of Csíkszentmihályi’s research candidates: ‘My mind isn’t wandering. I am not thinking of something else. I am totally involved in what I am doing. My body feels good. I don’t seem to hear anything. The world seems to be cut off from me. I am less aware of myself and my problems.’ 

what are the benefits of Flow?  

The advantages of feeling your Flow are reportedly widespread and span beyond making you enjoy certain activities. Benefits include:

  • greater fulfilment - when you’re in a Flow state, you tend to enjoy what you’re doing more, which is a rewarding and fulfilling experience.  
  • increased happiness - studies have linked Flow to greater levels of happiness and satisfaction. 
  • enhanced intrinsic motivation - people are more inclined to embark on an activity for the fun or challenge of it rather than because they feel pressure or are going to be rewarded. 
  • improved engagement - people who are in a Flow state feel fully involved in the tasks they are carrying out. 
  • greater performance - researchers have found that Flow can enhance performance in a range of areas, including teaching, learning, creative arts and sports-related activities. 

how to know if you’re feeling your Flow  

According to Csíkszentmihályi, there are 10 common characteristics associated with Flow. You do not have to experience them all in order to be in a state of Flow. 

Whether you’re revising or doing something else, you’ve found your Flow if you: 3 

  1. find what you are doing intrinsically rewarding 
  2. have clear goals that may be challenging, but are still achievable 
  3. are fully focused on what you are doing 
  4. feel in control over the situation and outcome 
  5. feel serene and aren’t fully conscious of what you are doing 
  6. are experiencing immediate feedback 
  7. find the task is achievable and there’s a balance between skill level and challenge 
  8. aren’t aware of your physical needs 
  9. are really concentrating and paying attention 
  10. lose track of time 

how to find your Flow  

Now that you’ve read about what Flow is, what the benefits are of feeling it, and how you can identify it, are you keen to know how to feel your Flow, so you can boost your revision performance?  

Follow these 8 practical steps: 

  1. switch off your email notifications and mobile phone - and any other interruptions that will distract you from focusing on revising. 
  2. schedule time to do your revision - and let other people know you are doing it so they don’t disrupt your focus. 
  3. choose revision tasks that will stretch you - in a state of Flow, you should feel confident you have the skills to complete your task, but it should still provide an enjoyable level of challenge. 
  4. revise somewhere quiet - you may find it more difficult to become immersed in your revision if you’re surrounded by constant distractions and the temptation to get up and do other things. 
  5. be patient - it can take anywhere between 5 and 20 minutes for your Flow to kick in. 
  6. shift your mindset away from unhelpful thoughts - thinking ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I’ll never remember this’ is counterproductive. Focus on how you learn best and try not to put too much pressure on yourself. 
  7. record your progress and stay on track - by ticking off your revision as you complete it. It’ll also help you feel more positive about it too. 
  8. take short breaks to stretch - rest your eyes and stay hydrated, but avoid engaging with other tasks that may disrupt your sense of Flow. 

four practical exercises for tapping into your Flow  

These exercises can help you find your Flow too, whether you’re revising or at work: 

exercise one:  

When were you last working in a Flow state? Identify the specific details - what was the type of work, where were you working, who were you working with, did you have a deadline? 

exercise two:  

When you were last in a Flow state, as identified above, what skills were you using? Do you have time to do more challenging tasks that better match your skillset? 

exercise three:  

What practical steps can you take to set up the conditions for more Flow working? 

exercise four:  
What should you stop doing that prevents you from finding time to work in Flow? 

While it may not be something you’ve really thought about until now, finding your Flow is incredibly useful, not just when it comes to revising for exams, but boosting your productivity at work too. 

For more practical guidance on effective revision read, ‘How to boost your productivity when revising.’ 

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