One of the most common misconceptions around flow is that it’s either on or off. You’re either in the zone or you’re not.
The reality is that flow lies on a spectrum. There are varying degrees of how tapped in you can be.
The good news is that we can train ourselves to turn up the volume knobs of flow. With consistent and deliberate training, over time we can expand our flow elasticity and make our previous highs our new status quo.
In order to do this though we must understand the different stages of flow, and how these collectively comprise The Flow Cycle.
Based on the research of Harvard Cardiologist Herbert Benson, collectively there are four stages in the flow cycle – Struggle, Release, Flow, and Recovery.
Let’s dive into them one by one.
You know that feeling when you try something for the first time and you just can’t seem to get the hang of it? How it feels like you’re spinning your tires through the mud? It’s difficult, confusing, requires a ton of energy and concentration, and for some reason nothing feels like it works?
Turns out, this is a GOOD thing. A prerequisite for flow in fact.
Struggle is the first phase of the Flow Cycle. You’re downloading the information your brain needs to be able to piece together what it means to try and tackle this task. You’re studying all of the individual parts you need so that you can gain a complete picture of what your body and mind need to do.
For a business person this could mean research or focused problem solving. For an athlete it could be intense training. For an artist or musician it could be dedicated practice and focused study.
Or maybe you’re learning something for the first time and you suck at it and can’t do it. That’s a GOOD thing. Keep pushing through the struggle and flow might be right around the corner.
During this phase, in order to amp up focus and alertness, stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine are pumped into the system. Tension rises. Frustration as well.
The struggle is real…ly important to flow 😉
The second stage of the flow cycle is “Release” – to literally let go of the thing you are struggling to achieve.
If you feel like you’re hitting a wall…that’s a good thing. Stop what you’re doing. Take a deep breath (or 10). Walk away from whatever you’ve been doing for some time.
If you’ve been trying to write with no success, take a break and go for a walk. Working round the clock on a problem? Take a break and go see a movie.
Or maybe you have been trying something athletically and are hitting a wall. Go back to something easy that you know you can do. Do something fun that doesn’t challenge you and you can play around with.
In order to get ourselves into flow, we need a pattern disrupt. We want to sever the ties to the struggle mindset, and shift gears to something completely different (ideally relaxation).
The method is unimportant. By pivoting and switching gears we trigger an important chemical shift in the brain – nitric oxide floods the system. This relieves us from the stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine that previously flooded the system during struggle phase.
Now we have the space required for dopamine and endorphins to make their way into the scene…important precursors to……
You go back to the task you were previously working on and BAM! You’re tapped in. Struggle gives way to release which creates the space for flow.
You’re in the zone. In a state where you feel and perform at your best. Your brain is flooded with a cocktail of neurotransmitters and you’re in the elusive state we all seek to find.
An important STAGE in the cycle of flow, but important to note that it can’t exist independent of the two previous stages. The previous stages and the subsequent stages work INTERDEPENDENTLY with each other.
More importantly, if the next stage isn’t treated with caution, flow is a stage you are unlikely to ever visit again.
Flow takes a big toll on our central nervous system and body. It requires a ton of resources and taps into reserves we’ve been building up for a long time in preparation for flow.
Needless to say, it takes a while for the body to recover and replenish. Give your body the time that it deserves, and don’t rush back into the next struggle phase so quickly.
Flow without proper recovery could likely mean injury or burnout – remember – after recovery comes struggle again. If your body hasn’t properly recovered from your last “Flow Hangover” and you jump back into struggle prematurely it’s a recipe for disaster.
Recovery is arguably the most important stage of the process, just like sleep is the most important factor of your health. Easy to overlook but the real foundational piece. The better you get at recovery, the better you can handle the toll of stress and relax into flow.
Let’s review – First we struggle. We repeatedly try and fail until we give up from exhaustion or despair. Then we take a break or we relax into the activity. Then when we dive back in we also dive into flow and slice through our challenges like a hot knife through butter. Then last, we collapse in exhaustion and refuel the battery until it’s time for the next session.
The best part? If we follow this sequence properly we can experience the elasticity effect – when we return to our “status-quo” it’s a level higher than it used to be. By stretching the possibilities of our human capacity in micro sessions, when we return back to normal we fall in place as a slightly improved version of our previous selves.
Replication and Sustainability
The most important thing to remember about these stages is that they all exist inter-dependently. They work together in synergy. It’s a specific sequence that must be followed. Flow can’t exist independently of the other three.
If we want to reliably and sustainably have flow in our lives, we must surrender to this flow cycle. Intentionally and deliberately structure our routines and training regimens around these principles so that we can replicate flow with more consistency.
Flow can be hacked, but that doesn’t mean it’s exactly easy. You will probably bounce back and forth between struggle and release/recovery for some time before you accidentally stumble into your next flow state.
So be patient. Be deliberate. Train intentionally. We can use this framework as a means of studying the implementation into our own lives, and use it to become better versions of ourselves and achieve things we never thought possible.
Want to learn more about how to implement the flow cycle into your days and sequence for success? Schedule a call with me here.
May the flow be with you!
Also published on Medium.