My journey into flow states started around 2016 when I first discovered the world of Tim Ferriss while running my startup company (but it really started a lot earlier than that).
He was the guy who pointed me in the direction of people like Josh Waitzkin, who talks about Flow in the Art of Learning, and Cal Newport and Deep Work, and Derek Sivers with “fuck yes or no”, and so many other people/concepts like blocking out your time, saying no to people, 80/20 rule, and all these other ways to perform at your best.
All of these studies led me to writing one of my all time best blog posts, How I overcame ADHD and became a Productivity Powerhouse. That article really encapsulates a lot of my learning throughout that time of my life. I still use many of the tactics I mention in there today.
But since then I’ve continued to dive down the rabbit hole of productivity. Specifically, I’ve been obsessed with flow states – that feeling where you lose track of time and everything is effortless and you perform at your best – that “in the zone” effect.
I’ve been studying the world of people like Mihaly Czhikzenmihaly and Steven Kotler, digesting what they have to say and then implementing it into my own life and measuring my results along the way.
I’ve made a lot of progress too. I feel that my daily routine has never been better. I’ve never been at a point where I experience so little friction and my day moves seamlessly from one activity to the next.
I also see the effects when I break my routine, when I don’t follow sequence…and the chaos that ensues as a result of it.
So today I want to document my learnings about Flow States, and what I do in my own life to try and implement these techniques to produce flow on a reliable, consistent, and sustainable basis.
Now before I get started I will say that I have no way to tell for certain if I am actually experiencing a flow state….no one really can. The technology isn’t there yet OR I’d need to be hooked up to an EEG machine all day in order to get proper readings.
However I do believe that by studying flow states, and understanding what happens in the brain, and then implementing techniques that mimic those effects in the brain…we can create intense states of focus and productivity which feel really good and cause us to lose track of time.
Whether or not that’s flow who knows…but it feels good as hell to perform at my best mentally or athletically and I want that feeling as close to as on demand that I can get.
So now having said that, allow me to dive into my learnings of flow and how I personally implement them into my own life.
First off, what is Flow?
Flow is an optimal state of consciousness where we feel and perform at our best.
But more importantly, how do we know when someone is in flow?
That’s the tricky part. As I mentioned above, In our daily lives we can’t know for sure if we’re in or out of flow unless we’re hooked up to brain and body monitors.
But luckily a lot of research HAS been done into the science of peak performance, and we’ve been able to study the brain and body of people who are in flow. (If you’re curious to dive more deeply into this research, I recommend you check out Steven Kotler and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi).
The findings are pretty fascinating as well. When we study peak performance, we consistently see a set of patterns that emerge…patterns that we can replicate on our own.
What are those patterns? Transient hypofrontality, alpha/theta brainwaves, and a neurochemical cocktail of the brains favorite feel good chemicals.
Let’s dive into these one at a time…
For one, we see that when people are in flow, their brain goes into a state called “transient hypofrontality.”
Transient hypofrontality is the temporary down regulation of the pre-frontal cortex – aka temporarily calming down the part of your brain that controls mental chatter.
So if we want to get ourselves into a flow state, ideally we want to figure out how to induce transient hypofrontality on our own.
How do we do that?
Turns out, the easiest way to induce transient hypofrontality on your own is good ol’ fashion exercise.
Step one is super simple. If I want to get into flow, I need to move.
I start my day with exercise. Throughout the day I use a standing desk. I walk around while I’m on calls. Use balance boards in between calls. I get up and do pushups and squats after calls.
I focus on trying to stay in my body whenever I notice that I’m getting too heavy in the head and thinking too much.
Next up on the recipe for flow?
Low alpha and high theta waves.
In addition to transient hypofrontality, studies have shown that when people are in flow, their brain is in a sustained state of low alpha and high theta waves.
You don’t need too deep of an understanding of neuroscience for this one. Your brain produces five types of brain waves, starting from the shortest and fastest to gradually slower and more relaxed – Beta>Alpha>Theta>Delta>Gamma
Shorthand version? Beta waves = overthinking and chatty mind. Beta waves = blocker to flow.
Alpha/Theta waves – Relaxed, dreamy state of mind. Calm but still alert = FLOW
If your mind is overactive and you can’t calm it down, you won’t be able to get into flow.
Instead you need to get into the calmer, more relaxed, alpha and theta waves.
Again – this is good news because this too, is hackable.
How do we get there?
The simple act of closing your eyes produces more alpha waves. Deep breathing does too.
The best one of all? Meditation. Meditation is one of the best ways to reliably take yourself from manic beta waves to calm and relaxed beta waves. Over time with practice you can get good at doing this quickly as well.
Applying to my day
So far we have established that two key components of flow are transient hpofrontality and alpha theta waves, which more or less is just a scientific way of saying that flow exists in a calm and focused mind.
We know that exercise induces transient hypofrontality, and we know that meditation/breathing exercises help to produce alpha waves.
So what do I do to start my day?
Breathing techniques, exercise and meditation!
The first thing I do when I wake up every morning is HRV training. HRV stands for heart rate variability, which tells us a lot about stress levels in the body. (Read more on HRV here).
Key to flow is to be calm, so first thing I want to do to start my day is get my heart into a place of coherence and flush any morning cortisol out of my system. HRV is a good indicator of this.
After I’ve done 10 minutes of HRV breathing, I’ll then get some exercise. This will usually be yoga, pushups/pullups, maybe a slackline session, or a mix of all three. In any case, I do something to get my blood flowing and heart pumping.
Then last, after I’ve gotten in a nice workout and my heart is beating out of my chest, I’ll sit down and meditate for 30 minutes (or longer) depending on the day.
The goal of all this?
Induce transient hypofrontality and calm down my brain to a state of alpha/theta waves before I begin working.
Calm down the body and the mind before I start my day. Create the conditions for a calm, happy, productive mind.
Keep in mind here that although I do this in the morning, this is a great way to prepare yourself for any time that you need to perform.
If I know that I have a big meeting coming up, running and meditating beforehand will help!
If I can’t get my work done because I’m unfocused, getting in a quick workout and meditation will help!
Stressed out, frustrated and lack clarity? Getting in a quick workout and meditation will help!
This sequence is a recipe for peak performance. Although I always start my day with it, I also use it when I’m feeling off or not in a good mood. I can use it to state shift into a different mood.
But now that I’ve cleared the mind, now that I’ve created a blank slate, now it’s time to start playing around with natural neurochemistry 🙂
Before I dive into the next sections on how I structure my work day, I want to review a few key concepts here to set the stage for WHY I do what I do.
Neurochemistry of Flow States –
Studies have shown that when someone is in a flow state, their brain is producing ALL of the feel good neurochemicals dopamine, norepinephrine, anandamide, endorphins and serotonin at the same time.
What do all of these do in the brain? Shorthand version is as follows – Norepinephrine hones focus (data acquisition); dopamine improves pattern recognition (data processing); anandamide accelerates lateral thinking (widens the database searched by the pattern recognition system), and endorphins help to modulate stress levels and keep you calm along the way.
ALL of these also FEEL amazing on top of it. They affect the motivation, pleasure, learning and memory systems of the brain. That’s why when you’re in flow you perform at your best and FEEL your best while doing it.
Why is this important?
If we are aware of neurochemistry, we can play with them as levers and hack the state.
If we know that dopamine is present in a flow state, what can we do to give ourselves a fat dose of dopamine?
If we know that anandamide is needed, what can we do to trigger anandamide?
The neurochemistry gives us an understanding of WHY we’re implementing certain behaviors or “triggers”. If we know the effect that the trigger causes in the brain, it helps us to know that there is an actual scientific reason for doing it in the first place.
Which leads us to potentially the most important topic of them all…
Flow Triggers –
Put simply, there are certain “triggers” we can use to help shuttle us into a flow state.
There are “external” triggers, such as your environment and surroundings. The physical space you are in when you achieve flow.
Then there are “internal” tiggers, such as your mindset, goals, mood, and other factors that influence how you perform.
If you can stack a handful of the right triggers together they are likely to give you a first class ticket into the zone.
A lot of mastering the art of flow states is understanding your unique mind and the triggers that help you perform at your best. Understanding how and when to implement certain triggers so that you can steward the experience to the best of your ability.
There’s about 22 Flow Triggers in all, and I’m not going to go into detail on all of them in this article, but I will go into the ones that I feel are the most important, and easiest to implement.
What does this mean for me?
One of the most important triggers for me is my mood. As we can see from above, Dopamine plays a huge role in our ability to get into flow. Dopamine also plays a big role in focus, memory, motivation and learning.
So before I start my day, before I begin to work, I try to put myself in a good mood.
I usually do this by putting on some good music and dancing. Or I’ll watch some youtube videos of inspiring people or cute animals or anything that brings tears to my eyes. I want to feel EMOTION.
That emotion is a powerful trigger for me.
Next, another powerful trigger for me is novelty. Novelty also triggers dopamine. It gets me tightened. Excited about my new space. Feels like a new day, a new opportunity. Never dull or boring or mundane.
Thats why I constantly need new physical environments to work from. Physical office spaces don’t work for me. Even when I do work from an office (I frequently work from WeWork when I travel), I try not to sit in the same spot every day.
Rich environment is also another trigger – which generally means that I’m surrounded by beauty. My favorite place to do calls is while walking around in nature – combination of novelty and rich environment + walking which induces transient hypofrontality.
Even when I’m in an office, I need a visually stimulating and exciting place to be, I need somewhere that makes me feel productive. Environment is a very powerful trigger for me.
Once I have my environment on lock, I move towards my internal triggers.
Complete Concentration is the first and most important.
Quite simply – flow follows focus. In order to enter into a flow state, or any state where you accomplish a lot of work, it requires complete absorption into the moment, complete concentration.
Conversely this also means that ANY distraction that pulls you out of that focus, is counterproductive to peak performance.
If I want to perform at my best, I work on only one thing at a time. I block out distractions. I create a safe space and zone for myself to work in.
Seems simple but so underrated. This in and of itself is a huge trigger for flow. Making a conscious choice to only work on one thing at a time and ignore interruptions while doing it is HUGE for productivity.
But even when we block out the time and space to do work, sometimes we don’t have the clarity we need and spin our tires in the mud, which is why we need the next trigger before we begin working….
Clear Goals –
Confusion creates chaos.
My worst days are the ones where I have it completely open and didn’t decide how I want to spend my hours BEFORE I sat down to start working. I end up bouncing between tasks and having a day where I sat in front of my computer all day but felt like I didn’t get anything done.
Take writing this article for example – it’s a lot harder if I sit down without an outline or structure in my head of what I want to write about and how to organize it. It would be easy to jump around between topics without any sense of coherence or flow to it.
However by writing a short outline and bullet points before I get started, I create clarity for myself of what I need to write and the order I need to write it in.
The same can be said for anything that we do in work. If we have a problem to solve but don’t know how to solve it, it’s easy to get lost in the confusion and spin your tires in the mud before you begin to make progress.
Conversely when we know EXACTLY what we need to do, and how we need to do it, it becomes a lot easier for us to get it done.
Flow is about removing friction and resistance. Having clarity of what you need to do BEFORE you get started is a great way to remove friction and dive right into the zone.
That’s why, before I start my day, I write down my tasks in order of their priority. Before I start a task, I write down the individual components.
Before I do anything, I make sure I know exactly what I’m doing and how to get it done – and if I don’t I’ll spend more time in the clarity portion, journaling and figuring out the steps I need to take.
Having said that, I can have a calm mind, an amazing workspace, the time blocked out to do only one thing and clear goals mapped out, but if I’m not interested in the job I’m doing, if it doesn’t engage me, then what am I to do?!?
Another incredible flow trigger is passion. Loving what you’re doing. Or having a sense of meaning attached to it that makes you love the work that you are doing. A genuine interest in it.
When you’re interested in something, it’s a lot easier to focus, we remember more of the information, and we have fun along the way while doing it!
Passion is also what helps us to get through the many struggle phases we will go through (more on this later). It helps us to push through when things are challenging.
In any case, passion is a potent trigger for flow.
So for me? I need to be passionate about the work I’m doing. I need to enjoy what I do and have a genuine curiosity and interest in it. If I want to perform my best, the passion and enthusiasm is probably the most important ingredient.
Don’t get me wrong, this has made my career difficult as a result. I’ve bounced between jobs and started businesses and side hustles and it’s all trended in a positive direction over time and led me to wonderful places, but I sometimes envy the people who don’t need passion to do their work. For me, it’s not only a trigger, it’s a necessity.
What does this mean for you?
Keep in mind that this is what works for me based on my unique triggers. Some people can’t handle constant novelty and like the consistency of a stable workspace. Some people like to jump directly into work first thing when they start the day because it’s their most productive time of day. Some people like to use risk and work with high stakes. It’s all about knowing your unique triggers and what works best for you.
I outline these triggers to give you an idea of how I use them in my own life, and how you can potentially do the same. Some might apply, some might not, but hopefully you get the idea of how I am stacking all of these together to create the right environment for flow.
So now up to this point I’ve already used a handful of key components of flow, and we haven’t even started to actually work yet.
I’ve calmed down the body and mind via exercise induced transient hypofrontality. Meditated my way to alpha waves. Immersed myself in a rich and novel environment, boosted my mood and then set clear goals for myself so I can dive in with complete concentration doing something I love….
The Challenge Skills Equation –
Challenge plays a huge role in performance. If something is too difficult we get stressed. If it’s too easy we get bored.
Flow science backs this up too in what is called the “Challenge Skills Equation.”
More or less, your ability to get into flow is a factor of How hard is the challenge Vs. Do I have the skills for it?
You want to be neither stressed nor bored. Just like Goldilocks and the three bears, not too hard, not too easy, juuuuuust right!
Ideally it’s something that should make you say, “that sounds challenging but I think I could pull it off.”
In fact, that number is actually about 4% higher than your skills.
Here’s a graph of what this looks like –
While it’s amazing when we do find that sweet spot, it’s more likely than not that we’re going to have to navigate our way into that zone.
There will be times where work is too challenging and we need to figure out how to calm down. There will be other times where the work is too easy and we need to figure out how to make it a bit more interesting. How do we navigate those waters?
Here’s how I do it if I’m bored –
The vast majority of my day is spent on the phone. I do a lot of calls and meetings and time interacting with other people.
While I love it because I’m a people person, it’s easy for me to zone out sometimes. Hard to maintain my attention if I have a boring client or someone who doesn’t really engage me.
In these situations what do I do?
For one I’ll take out my HRV monitor and track my heart rate and HRV while I’m on the call. If the call is so easy, I should have great HRV and be really relaxed, right?! Easier said than done…
Just this slight challenge is usually enough to snap me back into the zone and remain engaged with the customer. Adding a slight challenge upped the ante enough to get me into the sweet spot.
I don’t even have to look at my score on the HRV monitor either, just knowing that I’m hooked up to it makes me much more conscious of my attention and performance.
Another one I’ll do is roll a golf ball under my foot while I work. Adding in that slight amount of tension is usually enough to bring me back to the present moment and remain engaged.
I’m also a furious note-taker. I find that writing the conversation down keeps me engaged throughout.
Last this one is for the meditators – I’ll try to watch my breath and listen at the same time. Remain engaged and present and with my breath and bodily sensations, trying to observe my own impatience. Pay attention to how what they say makes me FEEL.
Another one of my favorites? I’m a big procrastinator of the small tasks. The cleanup and maintenance. It’s easy for me to get distracted because it’s not that hard to do. BUT, I know it’s necessary. I usually also do it at the end of my day to clean up after myself and make sure my ducks are in a row for the next day.
So what do I do when I’m already tired and can’t focus and have to get through some boring, mundane work?
I put a timer on.
Sometimes I’ll press go just to see how fast I can get it done. Other times I’ll set a limit for myself like 30 minutes and I’ll see if I can get everything done in that 30 minute window.
Knowing that the timer is ticking adds a slight challenge (and also plays with the flow trigger of risk) and is enough to keep me engaged and get through the work without getting distracted and wasting time.
All of these are simply examples of how to play with the challenge to skills balance when something is too easy or disengaging.
In all of these scenarios I’m making the task slightly more difficult or challenging to try and cope with the fact that this task isn’t grabbing enough of my attention.
Here’s how I do it if I’m stressed/anxious
This is where our learnings from the previous sections on Transient Hypofrontality and Alpha/Theta waves come into play. If I’m facing a challenge that seems too difficult for me, first thing I’ll do is get a quick workout in and do some breathing exercises or meditation.
Pushups, ten deep breaths, 5 minutes of meditation, any of these can generally calm me down…if I have the time and space to do it.
But sometimes panic comes on in the moment we need to be performing at our best. When this happens, as Wim Hoff says….BREATHE MOTHERFUCKER!
Deep breathing is the best way to get control of your ship in moments where you need it most. But it does take practice – don’t wait until you’re in need of a top performance moment when you try box breathing for the first time.
It’s why I practice HRV breathing in the morning. Over time I’ve learned the style of breathing that gets my heart the calmest, so that even when I’m not hooked up to the monitor I can use that style of breathing in moments of crisis.
If I do have time and space though, and I’ve already gotten in a workout and meditation and still don’t know what do to?
I resort back to clear goals. I look at the task I need to accomplish, and I try and break it down into micro tasks. I try to find SOMETHING I can complete. I make lists of people who can help me in the unknowns. I create steps to take myself out of confusion.
I find that the simple act of writing down my problems onto paper and trying to map out steps gives me the clarity I need to be able to jump back into the zone and start making progress once again.
The key in this stage is to try and make the challenge slightly easier. Doing whatever you can to make it seem more likely that you can accomplish some small part of it. To make it seem less big.
Nailing this skill is a big part of how to remain calm in stressful situations. It’s a hard one to cultivate, but if you can get good at this, you will truly be unfuckwithable.
What does this mean for you?
Take inventory of the types of situations you have while at work. Do you struggle with boredom and disengagement, or do you struggle with anxiety and overwhelm?
At first simply try to cultivate awareness of the challenge to skills balance in your work life. Try to find the moments where you’re in the zone and pay attention to the situation that led you there.
If things are too easy or stressful, take inventory of how you got there. Implement techniques to up the challenge or tone it down as needed.
Keep in mind that this is a process of tinkering and experimenting. It’s going to take a lot of playing around before you get the sweet spot. Many failed attempts of not being able to properly calm yourself down after you bit off more than you can chew or dozing off to sleep while doing inevitable grunt work.
But it turns out that this tinkering and playing with the ratio of challenge to skills is actually a very important component of our next piece of the puzzle…
The Flow Cycle
Harvard Cardiologist Herbert Benson found that flow happens in a four stage sequence, struggle>release>flow>recovery.
This process of toning up or tuning down the challenge to find the sweet spot (also called the “Flow Channel”) are the first two stages of the cycle…struggle and release.
He found that people go through this process several times before they are able to reach the state of flow. Constantly bouncing back and forth between struggle and release, constantly tweaking the balance of challenge to skills, before ultimately finding flow.
Think of it like this…
First you struggle. You try something new that is difficult and you don’t know how you’re going to solve the problem and you beat your head against the wall.
Then you release. You let go of it. You walk away and give up out of exhaustion or frustration or both.
Then you come back to the task and POOF, you’re in the zone. You fly through everything. You’re in flow.
Think of an extreme sports athlete who is trying to hit a new trick. They keep trying over and over and over, each time that they try slowly closing the gap between their abilities and the skills needed to land it. Eventually they can relax into it and poof, like magic they did something they have never done before.
So after the experimentation of struggle and release, we ultimately find flow. We achieve our best work and feel great while doing it.
What does this look like for me?
For one, whenever I’m struggling with something, rather than trying to fruitlessly work through it while beating my head against the wall, I walk away. I take a break.
I’ll go for a walk. I’ll meditate. Key is a hard release.
I try not to switch to a different task of work, as it doesn’t give me the same release as a complete reset. But I also understand that a hard reset is a luxury we can’t always have, so in lieu of a hard reset I’ll switch tasks to something easier that I know I can accomplish quickly.
If I’m on the Slackline and I’m trying to do something I’ve never done, instead of trying over and over, I’ll switch to something easy, spend 5-10 minutes playing around doing what is well within my skill level, and then come back and try again. When I come back I almost always hit it on the first try.
When I attended Zero to Dangerous Live with Steven Kotler he used the example of Skiing. If he’s struggling on a certain part of a mountain or with a certain time he wants to hit, after spending some time in the struggle phase he will go to do easier routes on the mountain, and then come back to what he was trying after. When he comes back after doing easier routes, he usually nails what he was previously struggling to hit.
Whether its at work or in sports same principle applies, once I notice I’m in the struggle phase, I switch to something easier and then come back to it. I play with the balance of struggle into release.
I’ve personally come to realize that the key is mastering the art of the release. It’s easy to spend time stuck in the struggle phase because you can’t learn how to relax.
The better I’ve become at releasing, the better I’ve become at calming down and maintaining states of calm, the better I’ve become at getting, and staying, in flow throughout the day….which brings me to my next point.
How to stay in flow
Sometimes there is a need to perform at your best even when you’re tapped out because the situation demands it. Theres a meeting or a deadline and your focus and attention is needed for the full duration of the stint.
You need to milk a flow state for all it can give you because you don’t have a second chance.
What do we do in this situation?
Good news is you’ve already learned it all!
The best way to sustain flow is to do more of what got you there in the first place!
Add in new flow triggers. Play with the challenge skills equation. Release for a bit and do some meditation or exercise.
For example, as I’ve been writing this article I’ve been writing in silence. I just noticed my attention slipping slightly, so I went onto Spotify and put on some music. The slight addition of music is enough to change the mood without taking a hard break, and I’ve continued this tangent of writing.
The lesson here is don’t use all of your triggers at once if you don’t need to. Sometimes we only need 2 or 3, and we want to save the other triggers for when we can feel our attention slipping in order to SUSTAIN flow.
Some days its also easier to get in the zone than others, cultivate awareness of using the minimal amount so that adding in more triggers is more effective as needed.
So now that we’ve gotten into flow, and stayed there for some time, how do we get out? More importantly, how do we know WHEN to get out?
When to get out of flow
For many of us, flow is an accident. It happens at random and only afterwards can we connect the dots and say “whoa what the hell was that?!”
But because it’s random, because it’s such a fleeting experience, when it DOES happen we say to ourselves “I don’t know when I’m going to get this again so I need to stay in here as long as I can!!!”
Thus, we stay in flow for as long as we can ride it, crank out a ton of work….and then spend the next 4 days completely shot.
That one giant blast of productivity leaves you mentally and physically drained to the point where your productivity is now diminished for the rest of the week. The one flow state was too much and you burned yourself out.
You see, flow takes a huge toll on the body. It takes time for the body to recover neurochemically. Takes time to bounce back to normal.
If it was a physical activity, you’ll also physically be dealing with the recovery of your training. Rest and relaxation. Nutrition and SLEEP.
That’s why the last stage of the flow cycle is recovery (which we will get to in a minute)
The most important part of flow states is knowing when to pull out. Always leaving a bit left in the tank so that you have more for tomorrow. Not going too far.
Because if you do, that’s how you suffer from burnout or injury…which takes a lot longer to recover from.
I personally feel I have a good intuitive awareness of this one. I always like to finish on a positive note. I will usually have a moment when the thought is complete or the work feels complete, and when I notice that moment I hard stop.
If it’s on the Slackline I’ll usually stop after I complete a personal best or do something I’ve never done before. If I’m writing I’ll stop when the thought is finished in it’s entirety. If it’s freestyle poetry I’ll stop on a solid rhyme (or try to).
The signs are usually there that it’s fading. It’s like a piece of paper floating back to the ground, I slowly feel myself returning back to my normal state.
But some people suffer from the opposite. Some people can’t turn flow off. They can’t get off the wave and are taken for a ride.
How to get out of flow
For some people flow is like a rollercoaster. They get on and get off when the ride allows them to. This can be a frightening experience.
These are the people who can’t turn off. They struggle to calm down and get themselves to stop problem solving or let go of what they were working on.
If you’re thinking about work while you’re with friends and family, this is a symptom. If you have excess ripple over from your flow activity into the rest of your life, you probably need to do a better job of flipping off.
The good news? This is where transient hypofrontality comes back into play.
For me, the best way to release my previous flow and let go of whatever I was thinking about, is to go get some exercise. To clear my head and switch to something else entirely. Like earlier, I will meditate or do HRV breathing as well.
How to get out of flow is very similar to the release phase of the flow cycle. It’s releasing of flow. Hard resetting and switching to something different. You can use all of the same techniques here.
The good thing is that many of these techniques also help us/are a part of the next and last part of the flow cycle…
The final and most important piece of the puzzle.
If you want to have flow on a consistent and reliable, sustainable basis, recovery is the key.
Remember – In the flow cycle struggle happens again after recovery. If you’re not properly recovered and you go into the struggle phase of the flow cycle that’s when we’re most likely to feel the effects or even worse, burnout or injury.
Making sure that we’re properly recovered before we jump back in is key in ensuring we have enough energy in the tank to get ourselves back into flow.
The funny part is, most of us don’t know HOW to recover. We don’t know how to turn the dials back. How to actively relax.
The truth is, recovery takes work. It takes work to calm the body down. To recuperate the lost energy from exhausting your neurochemicals.
So we need to be intelligent in the way that we recover. We need to plan and prepare.
What does recovery look like for me?
Well, one of the things that I want to do in recovery is reduce what is called “cognitive load” – in layman’s terms, I like to think of it as the number of things on the mind at any given point.
You see, the brain has a capacity for it’s ability to hold information simultaneously, also called “working memory”. As the day goes on your brain accumulates more information thus increasing cognitive load.
Throughout the day I understand that I can only reduce cognitive load so much. I can meditate or do breathing exercises or go for a walk, but I’m still in flow mode, work mode, I’m focused and problem solving. It’s hard to get a FULL reset.
But at the end of the day I want to release all of that information in a serious way. I need to try and empty my mind so that I’m able to create space for tomorrow.
First thing I do is journal. I get out a pen and paper and I reflect on the day. What happened, highs and lows, energy and productivity check-ins, how do I feel, and anything else that really comes to mind. I call it a “brain dump”. I try to sit there until I’ve released all of my thoughts for the day.
Then, once I’m finished, I’ll usually get in another round of exercise. It’s usually yoga or pushups. Something basic. I just like to get some movement. Shut the computer and transition to something new. I’ve also usually already worked out at this point, so no need to go crazy either.
IF I have access (big if) I love the Sauna. Sauna is the #1 recovery tool you can use. I can’t preach enough about the benefits. Look up Rhonda Patrick and saunas if you don’t believe me.
After exercise it’s usually time for dinner. I spend a lot of time alone, and I don’t cook, so I will usually get dinner and read a book while I eat. I read fiction so that I can simply enjoy and remain entertained. Personally fiction is one of my favorite recovery tools (although I’m not sure there’s actually much science to back that up or I hope someone can find it). I’ll also add that I eat healthy – nutrition is another important aspect of recovery.
Then my night is open. Sometimes I hang out with people, sometimes I talk to a family member or friend over the phone. Despite being a lone wolf for most of my life, I realize the importance of my tribe, and I notice that when I’m more connected to my family and friends I feel better which helps me to live a happier life. In the world of flow though, it’s a great recovery tool as well 😉
Before bed I like to take some more care of my body. Stretching, foam rolling, massage wands – loosening up the body and allowing it to relax and decompress. I also find that it helps me to get into my body before sleeping.
I should also mention that once I stop working I try to stop checking my phone as well. Usually once it hits around 10pm at night my phone goes on airplane mode…that’s another important one for reducing cognitive load.
Now, I will say though that I often work late, so sometimes it’s harder than others to properly reduce cognitive load before bed. If that’s the case, I try to get extra sleep to compensate. If I can’t – performance usually suffers as a result. This is delicate work here.
Take tonight for example my last call was 10pm and now I’m writing at midnight. But since that time I’ve stretched, eaten, talked to my mom and brother, and now spent some time writing and did a nice brain dump of daily activities. I’ve created some good space between myself and my work (although my work IS about flow so not sure if I’m actually reducing cognitive load properly….hmm….)
Circling back, around the time my phone goes off, before bed I will meditate for 30 mins. 10 mins attention to breath, 20 mins body scan, then some time in gratitude.
Then last but not least, the most important ingredient of them all…sleep 🙂
Sleep is magical. YOU HAVE A NATURAL RECOVERY SYSTEM. USE IT.
Get enough sleep. 8 hours if you can. My brother recommends 10. I really don’t know if you can sleep too much.
Sleep is where the magic happens. It’s where your body regenerates and recovers and learns and retains memories. Don’t cut back on it or cut it out or try to develop clever systems…sleep.
Whew! That’s it! That’s the key to a flow filled day.
This is a routine designed to give you MOMENTUM day on day so that you have extra energy flowing over from one day into the next.
The magic happens over time though. You’re not likely to find flow immediately. At first it’s going to take experimentation to isolate your own flow triggers and how to use them.
This is a process that has taken me a lot of time and experimentation to achieve. I lay this out to give you an idea of how I use these principles in my day to day life. How I use triggers to get myself into the zone, how I have recovery techniques to calm down. How I use the challenge skills equation to keep myself engaged and working through tasks. How I use the flow cycle when learning.
There’s endless applications for these techniques, but it’s an important discovery process to isolate what works best for you.
But the real key here? Consistency.
This routine won’t work if you try it on Monday. It will only work if you do it Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday repeat for weeks and months and years at a time. THAT is where the magic happens and the real flow states are achieved.
When people achieve the impossible what are they actually doing behind the scenes? They are waking up, they have ten items on their checklist, they are kicking ass on all ten, then they are usually getting some exercise, and then they are hanging out with friends or family for a little, then they are going to sleep and then starting all over again.
THAT is what high performance really looks like under the hood. Its the ability to do that over and over and over again for years on end. Thats actually how you tackle the impossible. Theres nothing sexy going on. Thats really what it looks like. Theres no shortcuts.
So get out there and start experimenting. Put in the work day by day, week by week, month by month, until you can have flow on a reliable and consistent basis.
Want to dive more into the applied neuroscience of Flow State? Join my Free Course Foundations of Flow. In it I teach you all of the methods to get into flow on command.
Also published on Medium.