When you think of the phrase “in the zone” – what come to mind for you? What are the activities/sports/hobbies/passions where you’re so focused on the task at hand that time passes by in a strange way and you accomplish more in less time?
It’s a question I ponder frequently. I ask it to about 10 people a day as I interview people for our trainings at the Flow Research Collective.
I get different answers from everyone. I spoke to someone yesterday who likes to play with legos. Another who likes windsurfing. Another who simply likes to go on long walks and think. For another it’s dance. Or a musical instrument.
Keep in mind that I’m mostly speaking with are CEOs, entrepreneurs, business leaders – people who already thrive in their work and are looking to step their game up to the next level.
It’s such a fun question because these people are so laser focused on their work it’s a topic that they rarely talk about. In the midst of trying to scale their business and tackle personal and professional goals, these are the activities that have often fallen by the wayside. Play is not a priority in dreams of world domination, and thus these are activities I often have to dig for.
Granted, for some people (especially high flying entrepreneurs), their idea of flow is work. All of their experiences in flow where they feel their best and perform at their best are at work itself. Whether it’s speaking to a large group or managing a team or closing deals – they feel most alive when they are working and growing their business.
The fun part though, is that these people know what this experience of flow is like – but don’t know how to do it on command. They don’t have a system and a methodology for it. They’re not intentional with creating the right environment for it, for driving themselves into the zone consciously and deliberately.
That’s why I love my work. Because “Flow” – has a tangible science to it. There’s lots of existing research pointing us to how to drive ourselves into the state.
I’ve already written about this at length so I’m not going to go into it in this article (and when I say I’ve written that means I’ve recycled the work of Steven Kotler into some easily digestible blog posts) – so if you’re new to this world of flow, a quick shorthand breakdown of the neuroscience of flow can be found here.
Having said that, in the world of Flow States and Peak Performance, there is the use of something called “Flow triggers”.
“Flow triggers” are the things that we can do to drive ourselves into flow. The “triggers” we can pull that will drive us into the state. They come from the work of people like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Herb Benson, Robert Sapolsky and Keith Sawyer.
In a nutshell, when we use these triggers, they are doing one of two things.
1) Pumping neurochemicals like dopamine and norepinephrine into the system – Chemicals that drive focus, excitement, and engagement.
2) Lowering cognitive load – They reduce the number of things we are trying to pay attention to in any given moment. By lowering cognitive load we free up more energy that can be better used for focus.
Here’s the thing – Flow triggers are different for everyone! Your flow triggers are unique to you as an individual.
My favorite example of this is risk as a flow trigger. Some people love risk and thrive with it. When the pressure is on they can rise to the occasion and perform better. Other people freeze up in the face of risk. They can’t handle it and freak out. One person rises to the occasion, whereas another may have to calm themselves down. Underpinning both experiences is the same neurochemical – norepinephrine. Same chemical neurobiologically, two different reactions in performance.
If this is the case, if triggers are unique to the individual, then this examination of flow triggers becomes an exercise of introspection. Of self analysis. What are MY flow triggers? How can I discover them for myself? More importantly, after I discover them, how can I USE them.
And then that’s where I step in 😎
One of my favorite things to do with people is an exercise that I call “pulling on the threads of past experience.” It’s an activity where we examine the activities that give you flow, and then break it down to figure out the flow triggers that were present during the experience. Then once we have discovered your flow triggers, we can figure out how to apply them all over your life!
So that’s what I want to do with you here today. I want to take you through a series of examples where we will look at an activity that gives someone flow, and then examine the flow triggers that were present during that experience. Then afterwards we can take those same flow triggers and look at how to apply them elsewhere.
Sound like a good plan!? Let’s dive in. First, let’s get some background information. What are the 22 Flow Triggers in all? (Credit: Zero to Dangerous)
- Curiosity/Passion/Purpose – Dopamine
- Autonomy – Dopamine/reducing cognitive load
- Complete Concentration – Reducing cognitive load
- Risk – Norepinephrine
- Novelty – Dopamine
- Complexity – Dopamine
- Unpredictability aka surprise – Dopamine
- Deep Embodiment – Reducing cognitive load
- Immediate Feedback – Reducing cognitive load/dopamine/norepinephrine depending on feedback
- Clear Goals – Reducing cognitive load
- Challenge/Skill Ratio – Reducing cognitive load/dopamine/norepinephrine depending on feedback
- Creativity/Pattern Recognition – Dopamine
Now that we have this understanding of the different flow triggers, let’s look at examples.
I’ll start off with myself. Personally one of my major flow activities (and why I do what I do for a living) is (although I don’t like this word), sales. I spend all day on the phone interviewing people to see if they are a good fit for our trainings, and if it is, they buy and join us. It’s an activity that gives me a lot of flow and fulfilment. It’s also low hanging fruit and an easy example of a high flow activity. Let’s break it down.
For one you have novelty. Every person is unique in their goals and ambitions and individual background and a story to tell. Although it’s the same call and format every time, each and every call has an element of novelty.
You also have the complexity of the individual and their personality, the nuance of their goals and ambitions and what is getting in the way of them achieving those goals whether that is physical or mental.
Then you also have the unpredictability that you don’t know what the hell they are going to say! You don’t know how they will react.
Building on the tangent of reaction, you also have immediate feedback. The person is interacting with you in real time and you get a feel and sense for how the material is resonating with them. This is especially true if you have video on.
Then there’s also risk present, as I am a commission sales guy and if they don’t close the deal I don’t make any money. Equally there is social risk in the sense that I am representing Steven Kotler and our organization, which is a massive responsibility to live up to. If I set a bad impression on that person that could reflect negatively on the whole company.
Risk also then factors into the challenge/skills balance. How comfortable do I feel with this person, how challenging of a sell? What type of caliber are they? Are they responsive and engaged? All of these questions factor into how difficult the challenge is for me on the call.
Then with all of these factors present, undoubtedly if I need to hold all of these variables in place, I will need complete concentration. I am immersed in that phone call solely focused on being present in that interaction.
I also have clear goals – I want to close the deal. Or even if you break it down into micro goals, I want to ask certain questions, identify certain pieces of information, give them a walkthrough of information I need to present, and then I want to connect that information back to how I then explain our product.
That connection is also creativity/pattern recognition. Connecting those dots.
I also have the autonomy to ask the questions I want and create my own process. Conduct the interview in the way I need. Set my own schedule.
I also love what I do, I’m passionate about it and believe in it which checks off the box of curiosity/passion/purpose trigger.
Then on top of all of this, I could be at a standing desk, or practicing embodied listening, which also adds in an element of deep embodiment.
I literally have all 12 individual flow triggers present in this experience – no wonder I spend all day in and out of flow!
But let’s say we wanted to approach it from a different angle. Let’s look at my favorite activity outside of work – the Slackline.
For one we have deep embodiment as it’s a physical activity. It’s always also outside in nature – which is complexity or rich environment.
I often also try have it rigged up in a new place, or in a new way with new tension, which is novelty.
Then I have to figure out two trees that are the right distance from each other and figure out the right type of tension – that adds in more complexity and also creativity/pattern recognition.
When you start walking the line moves based on how you move – immediate feedback.
It’s also a skill that requires complete concentration, you’ll often notice that you fall after losing focus.
If I’m out there on the highline and I’m tied into a harness – now we also have risk as a flow trigger.
So if I were trying to figure out my flow triggers here, I could say that deep embodiment, novelty, complexity, feedback and creativity are all flow triggers for me. Neurochemically this looks like low cognitive load and a lot of dopamine.
With this understanding, I can run some experiments and try to figure out how to incorporate those elements into my work. Deep embodiment through a standing desk. Novelty through changing up where I work or new techniques that I can try. Ask friends and colleagues for more feedback.
I could also learn from what are NOT my flow triggers. For example, I’m one of those people who doesn’t handle risk well – especially physical risk. It fucks up performance. As a kid I always joked that once I get competitive I fuck myself up because I get too serious, too tense. Then zoom out to how that applies to the highline – it’s been a struggle for me. The risk of the heights and challenge is too much for me to handle and I have a hard time calming myself down.
Again then how does that apply to my work? How do I keep risk low? Keep the pressure off? Notice when the pressure is getting to me? Questions along these lines.
I hope you’re starting to see the pattern – take an activity, examine what flow triggers are there, and then run experiments accordingly.
Let’s look at some other examples that I’ve done with clients of ours.
Competitive long distance running? Risk of competition. Deep embodiment as it’s a physical activity. Complexity of the terrain. Rich environment that you are running through.
Musician/speaker on stage performing? Social risk of being on stage. Novelty of the experience. Complexity of the audience. Rich environment of the stage/audience dynamic.
Sports betting/gambling? Risk of losing the money. Complexity of the variables you’re betting on. Competition which is more risk. Novelty and unpredictability.
Legos? Complexity. Clear goals (building towards the picture). Creativity/pattern recognition (finding the common pieces and where they need to go together.
Cigars and wine. Complexity of the flavours. Unpredictability of the nuance of the flavour also. Novelty of the experience. Complete concentration as you zone in on the taste.
I think you’re getting the point.
Finally, the more important piece here is that after you discover the flow triggers that are evident in the activities you enjoy, then APPLYING it back into your work in a conscious way.
For example people who love complexity usually love data and numbers. People who love competition go into sales and coaching. People who love risk go into the stock market or more high speed careers.
Some people love novelty whereas others thrive with consistency and routine. Some love risk and others freeze. Some love lots of numbers and complexity, others love simplicity. It’s all about understanding which ones work for you and then applying them to yourself at an individual level.
Zooming out on this you are also learning about the neurochemicals you like, and how your nervous system responds. Do you have dopamine heavy or norepinephrine heavy flow triggers? Like to ramp the nervous system up vs calm it down? This then adds a whole new element of understanding at a biological level.
Some triggers however, I do believe apply to everyone.
Complete concentration is essential in any situation. Flow follows focus.
Knowing where you lie on the challenge skills balance is always a factor in your performance
Clear goals of knowing EXACTLY what you want to be focused on equally applies across the board.
Shortening feedback loops and getting more/better quality feedback will always improve the learning process.
Irrespective of who you are, these are triggers you should be using religiously.
Keep in mind there’s a dark side to flow triggers as well. If you remember we’re playing with neurochemicals here. These triggers equally show you where you might be prone to making mistakes – the chemicals that you are addicted to more or less.
Too much novelty (dopamine) leads to inconsistency and impulsive decision making. Too much risk (norepinephrine) can get you killed or do something stupid or leave you perpetually stressed. Too much complexity could mean over-complication and cognitive load that is consistently through the roof. Sometimes the fact that it is a trigger makes it all the more dangerous – as in the end it fires a weapon, and that weapon can backfire 😉
Finally – try this experiment for yourself! Sit down with a pen and paper. Ask yourself “what gets me into flow?” Figure out the flow triggers that are present. Write down ways that you can consciously apply this new understanding of flow triggers into your work. Create a game plan for implementation. Put it into practice. Track and see if it has an improvement on your performance.
And with that my friends, I come to the close of this meandering exploration of pulling on the threads of past experiences to understand your flow triggers and apply them into your life. I hope you enjoyed and may this bring clarity and better performance to your life! 😄
Curious to learn more about your flow triggers and how to apply them to your life? Schedule a call with me here and I’m happy to help out!
Also published on Medium.