Have you ever wondered how some people are able to consistently re-define our perceptions of what’s possible? How extreme snowboarders can drop into a ridiculously steep line no one has ever ridden before, reaching the bottom without injury. The way best-selling authors can string together ideas and stories, perfectly, to form a book people want to read, and then share with their friends.
Flow can simply be defined, for now, as a state of consciousness that facilitates peak performance. It has been described by the world’s greatest thinkers as the most creative, and productive, state of mind in which to work. It’s likely that anyone who is pushing the boundaries in their field is finding flow consistently.
Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D., believes that those who find flow more consistently live happier and more fulfilled lives. By learning how to enter a flow state you can increase your productivity, be more creative, and be happier, all at the same time.
- What Is Flow?
- The Sweet Spot For Finding Flow
- The 8 Characteristics of Flow
- What Happens To The Brain During Flow?
- How To Find More Flow In Your Life
- Hungry For More?
What Is Flow?
I first came across the idea of flow in the book The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler. He shares examples and experiences from extreme sports athletes, primarily, whose lives literally depend on their ability to get into a flow state. They require absolute concentration and the ability to make correct decisions, executing them flawlessly in a split second. One wrong decision, one moment of hesitation could be fatal.
Kotler goes on to describe the sensation that occurs when a person faces great danger. Time slows down and your perceptions expand. This creates a window wherein you can rapidly process an unusually large amount of information about your dangerous situation, and use that information to make, and execute, the right decision that could save your life. You may not have been aware of it at the time, everything took place in a split second. But when you think back, you realize that in those moments of danger your performance, your ability to think-decide-act, skyrocketed far beyond your normal limits.
Let’s properly define a flow state. Here’s what I pulled up from Wikipedia:
“A flow state, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.”
What an awesome state to cultivate in your everyday life! Chances are, you’ve probably already experienced flow on some level before. Have you ever found yourself super-focused on a project or work assignment, to the point where time almost seemed to stand still? What about that deep conversation with a friend, where you feel like you’re the only two people in the world at that moment?
The Sweet Spot For Finding Flow
Although it’s usually easier to find flow through extreme sports, due to the increased risk involved, it’s not the only way. In fact, there’s an interesting graph that Dr. Csikszentmihalyi shared in a TED talk that gives us an indication of the conditions required to enter flow. In the image below you can see various states mapped on a graph with the two axes labelled Challenges and Abilities. Flow can be found when you’re operating in the upper limits of your abilities on something pretty challenging.
It’s also worth noting that if you’re in the “arousal” state, you can move into “flow” by developing your abilities through further training. Similarly, if you’re in the “control” state, you can enter “flow” by making the task more challenging, or maybe adding a little more risk!
The 8 Characteristics of Flow
To help you recognise when you have found flow, Csikszentmihalyi has detailed 8 key characteristics:
- Complete concentration on the task
- Clarity of goals, reward identified, and immediate feedback available
- Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down of time)
- Intrinsically rewarding experience
- Effortlessness and ease
- Balance between challenges and abilities
- Actions and awareness merge, no self-conscious rumination
- Feeling of control over the task
What Happens To The Brain During Flow?
One of the most profound changes in the brain during flow is called transient hypofrontality. This is the temporary deactivation of the prefrontal cortex, the area that’s responsible for our conscious and explicit mind state. This includes higher cognitive functions such as self-reflective consciousness, memory, temporal integration, and working memory.
Deactivation of the prefrontal cortex allows the subconscious mind to take over, instantly processing information from sensory input and taking action without the need to consciously think or decide what to do with the information. In effect, you have switched into auto-pilot mode.
Along with transient hypofrontality, a cocktail of hormones gets released into the body. Psychology Today reports:
“The brain releases an enormous cascade of neurochemistry. Large quantities of norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin flood our system. All are pleasure-inducing, performance-enhancing chemicals with considerable impacts on creativity. Both norepinephrine and dopamine amp up focus, boosting imaginative possibilities by helping us gather more information. They also lower signal-to-noise ratios, increasing pattern recognition or our ability to link ideas together in new ways. Anandamide, meanwhile, increases lateral thinking—meaning it expands the size of the database searched by the pattern recognition system.”
Hopefully, you can see why getting into flow can be extremely rewarding and even addictive. This is why many of the world’s top extreme athletes are constantly trying to raise the bar in their sport, constantly searching for their next flow state, eager to sip that cocktail of naturally-occurring, consciousness-altering drugs that come along with it.
How To Find More Flow In Your Life
Most of us have spontaneously experienced flow at some point in our lives. Hopefully, by now, you can see how dropping into flow can help us reach our full potential by allowing us to operate at our best. The big question is: How can we consciously trigger a flow state?
To find flow, first we need a goal that presents us with some sort of challenge or crisis. The goal, and its associated tasks, needs to be hard enough to make us stretch but not so hard that it makes us snap.
For me, paragliding is one of the best means of getting into flow. By default, I’m putting myself in a risky situation by flying hundreds of meters above the ground, with no visible means of support, and fully subject to the laws of gravity. This forces me to focus my concentration on flying my glider, feeling the wind, mapping the terrain while constantly searching for areas of thermal lift, and analyzing the weather. I find flow most often when the flying is reasonably challenging but within my ability to pull it off safely.
1. Environmental Triggers
Put yourself at risk of failing. Create risky situations where the consequences of failure are high. This is not restricted to just physical risks either. Emotional, intellectual, creative, and social risks work just as well.
Create an enriched environment where you’re surrounded by novelty, unpredictability and complexity.
This is all about putting yourself into a multi-sensory immersion. For example, don’t just read about a new idea, but also start putting it into action at the same time. Absorb the experience with all of your senses to help engage your subconscious mind.
2. Psychological Triggers
Clarity is the key here. When you understand exactly what your immediate goal is, your mind does not need to worry about what to do next and your focus naturally sharpens.
Create a feedback loop that can help improve your performance in real-time. You need to know immediately whether what you are doing is moving you toward your goal. This way, your mind is focused in the now and not wondering how to make something better.
If the challenge far outweighs your skills or abilities, fear seeps in. Conversely, if it’s too easy, you’ll get bored. Find that sweet-spot between anxiety and boredom, and flow will kick in.
3. Social Triggers
If you’re working in a team, make sure that everyone is on the same page, with a clear understanding of the common goal, so you can establish a common knowledge base and communication style.
Kotler describes this quite succinctly as, “a collective version of humility” where no one is hogging the spotlight and everyone is involved.
Sense of Control
This is all about combining autonomy and mastery. Choose your own challenges and have, or develop, the necessary skills to surmount them.
Be fully present in the now when engaging in conversation. It’s all about allowing organic, real-time responses to unfold. Don’t let your mind wander off to other topics or to other things going on in your life. Stay present. Stay engaged.
Always Say “Yes, and…”
Make your interaction additive as opposed to argumentative. Build momentum by continually amplifying each other’s ideas and actions. Avoid criticism. Illustrate, don’t dictate.
4. Creative Triggers
Allow your brain to link new ideas together by tackling problems from completely different (and sometimes outrageous) angles. Look at as much of the bigger picture as you can map out, so that you can see patterns emerge. Recognize connections between ideas, concepts and potential actions.
Have the courage to bring new ideas to the world, no matter how improbable you think the odds might be that they will actually succeed.
Hungry For More?
If you’re like me, discovering the science of flow is like diving into the ocean. You want to go deeper and find out as much as you can about what lurks beneath the surface of this fascinating subject, while you practice the new skills that will allow you to find more flow in your life. To help you on your own journey into flow, here are some books I’ve read, that I’d like to personally recommend:
If you’re interested in going deeper with one of the books I’ve mentioned in this post, click below to get your free 30-day trial on Audible and you’ll get one credit to listen to your chosen title for free!