Gone with the flow

Gone with the flow

How time perception decreases during the flow state

That one game

Every sportsman remembers it. That one day. That one place. That one game. As a professional badminton player, I certainly remember mine. It was December 13, 2016 in Haarlem. Together with my partner we had to play the deciding game for a place in the semi-finals of the Dutch League. And what a game it was. All my decisions were right, all my strokes were perfectly placed, I thought of nothing but the game, I felt optimal concentration and absolute joy. In the end we totally destroyed our opponents. This is known as the flow: a state of absolute awareness to the task at hand without any effort. You feel your best and you perform your best. People experience flow not only in sports, but also in arts, jobs and even in their spare time.


To begin with labelling someone as ‘in the flow’ four criteria must be met: one must have attention (concentration), enjoyment, a changed time perception and there is balance between challenge and skill. Further, to measure flow a model has been proposed based on the criteria balance between challenge and skill. The model consists of the components flow (high challenge = high skill), boredom (challenge < skill), anxiety (challenge > skill) and apathy (low challenge = low skill). Thus, in order to be in the flow you need to have a certain amount of challenge in your task and the same amount of skill in order to fulfil that task.

In your face

So, after that memorable game in 2016, I could very clearly remember my optimal concentration and absolute joy, as I mentioned before, which are basically a state of mind. But I never really recalled any differences in my time perception, probably because for me time is a less noticeable state, as people cannot really observe time that well. The other two criteria are literally and figuratively more ‘in your face’. So what about that time perception? Is there really a difference in time?

Cognitive study

The study by Im and Varma investigated how time perception changed when people were in the flow by use of the criteria attention. They stated that when attentional demands are low, challenge will be less than skill. When attentional demands are moderate, there would be balance between challenge and skill (flow). And when attentional demands are high, challenge will be higher than skill.

In the lab they asked participants to all perform three cognitive tasks: one with a low, one with a moderate and one with a high attentional demand. The experimenter recorded every completion time. After completing, first the participants had to estimate their completion time. Secondly, the participants had to indicate their needs in both challenge and skill separately on a scale from 1 = very low to 5 = very high. And lastly, they had to indicate their balance between challenge and skill on a scale from 1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree. Participants were ranked as being in the flow when they answered agree or strongly agree.

Time flying by

They found that when attentional demands were moderate, the estimated completion time of the participants was lower than the actual recorded completion time. Thus, indicating that participants underestimate their completion time or in other words: they feel like time is flying by when in the flow. In addition, when attentional demands were low or high, participants estimated higher completion times compared to on the one hand moderate attentional demands and on the other hand the actual recorded completion times of low or high. So, on the contrary, here participants overestimated their completion time.

High in the sky

To give another example of an overestimation of perceived time, let’s go back to sports. A study by Campbell and Bryant showed that skydivers who jumped for the very first time (compared to skydivers who performed skydiving as a sport) showed an overestimation of their completion time. For these novel skydiver’s, challenge is higher than skill and therefore experience anxiety instead of flow. Their completion time also correlated with their mental state. The longer the participants thought the jump lasted, the more fear they experienced and the shorter the participants thought the jump lasted, the more excited they were.

Keep doing that

The first study clearly supports people do experience a difference of time when in the flow state, specifically a drop of time. The second study suggests a relationship between this drop of time and the degree of excitement people undergo. Altogether, these two studies show how our capabilities can affect our perception and our mood. Of course, new experiences are always worth a try. Otherwise life would be really boring, right. But the main reason why we keep doing the things we love, keep playing that same piece, keep practicing that same shot over and over again, is the feeling we get out of it. And if you are lucky, the result is that amazing feeling of leaving the world for a moment: just to be ‘gone’ with the flow!