What “triggers” a flow state for you?
Is it nature? Exercise? A specific activity like writing or a physical sport? Music? All of these stacked together at once?!
If you want to get into flow states on a reliable and consistent basis, an important aspect of this is learning what gets you INTO flow in the first place.
In the same way that we can have emotional triggers (as in a certain type of person or situation can trigger an emotion out of you), or we have stress triggers, or we have motivational triggers – we have flow triggers as well – Triggers that we can use to shuttle us into the zone of flow.
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 your unique 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?
Everything that I do in the morning is designed to put me in a state of mind that will make a flow state more likely to appear. All of my routine is meant to create the conditions necessary for a flow state to arise.
As a baseline, flow states have three primary components.
1) Transient Hypofrontality
2) Alpha and Theta Brainwaves and
3) Neurochemical cocktail of dopamine, anandamide, norepinephrine, endorphins and serotonin.
This means that if I want to get myself into flow at work, I need to reverse engineer these conditions.
1 + 2 are relatively simple despite the ambiguous terminology – if you want to induce transient hypofrontality and create more alpha and theta waves in the brain you need a combination of exercise, meditation and breathwork.
This means that every day, before I begin working, I start my day with exercise, meditation and breath work. Before I sit down at my computer and try to get work done, these are the first three triggers that I will use.
But once I have done this basic work, once I have created the right conditions for flow to arise, NOW is when the implementation of triggers matters most.
What are the triggers that I use?
First, the most important trigger for me is my mood.
As we know from the Neurochemistry of Flow States, 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 and thereby give myself a fat ass dose of dopamine.
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 is another one that triggers a dopamine release. New environments, new sights, sounds, smells, tastes, people, etc all have the ability to do this for you.
So how do I implement novelty into my work day? I’m constantly changing where I work from and seeking out novel spaces that I haven’t worked in before. Traditional 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. I’ll also often switch locations when switching from one task to another also (if I’m in a place that allows me to).
Novelty gets me excited about my new space. Feels like a new day, a new opportunity. Never dull or boring or mundane.
Rich environment is also another trigger – which generally means that you’re 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.
Then 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 push through when things are challenging. When difficulty arises that passion is what will force you to find a solution because you can’t stop working on solving the problem no matter what.
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?
This is what works for me based on MY unique triggers. Yours will DEFINITELY be different. No two people have the same route to flow.
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.
In order to isolate your own triggers it’s a combination of introspection and experimentation. For me, many of my external triggers like novelty and rich environment came from introspecting back on some of my favorite workspaces over the years. The passion was another one that came to me based on my life experiences. Clear goals and complete concentration? Those took practice. They didn’t come naturally to me, but when I used them, they helped.
You will need to do the same. Reflect back on the times that you have had flow and try to dissect what those triggers were that led to it. Ask yourself about when you didn’t have flow and what could have helped you and what you struggled with. Take inventory, experiment, measure, repeat 🙂
Now get out there and go find/play with your triggers!!!
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.