Have you ever felt so focused and so immersed in an activity that you lose track of time, things are seemingly effortless, and you perform at your best? That feeling of being “in the zone”, “tapped in”, “in the pocket”, or simply “flowing?”
If so, you have experienced what is called a “Flow State”
A “Flow State” is a state of mind where we perform at our best, and feel our best while doing it.
It’s a scientific term too – Flow isn’t some woo woo hippie philosophical term – it’s something that we’ve been able to study and research and categorize and decode by studying people when they perform at their best.
Many consider it to be the ultimate understanding of peak performance because its applicable across industries and walks of life. Whether you’re a doctor, a businessman, an artist or an athlete, the science of flow states can be applied and implemented.
People like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Steven Kotler have dedicated their lives to the study of it, and more importantly, how to decode and then reverse engineer it.
Over the last two years or so I’ve spent a lot of time studying the two of them and absorbing everything that I can about flow states. I’ve written a lot about it throughout that time as well (See – Flow). In reality my life has been one giant journey of chasing flow states.
However, despite the massive amount of information about flow, the trickiest part is knowing how to actually implement it. How to take all of the things that we have learned about this elusive state, combine them together, and then produce flow states for ourselves on a reliable and consistent basis.
So that’s what I want to do today. In today’s article I want to review and consolidate all of the information I’ve discovered about flow and put it together so that you have a coherent recipe you can implement into your own life.
So let’s dive right in…
Before we get started, there are some key concepts that we are going to go through. As a general baseline, it’s a good idea to review The Neurochemistry of Flow States, The Challenge to Skills Equation, External and Internal Flow Triggers, The Flow Cycle, and Transient Hypofrontality – but I will also review all of these concepts throughout the course of this article as well.
***All of the concepts/science/claims I will lay out in this article are based on the research and science of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Steven Kotler. I have not linked to specific studies throughout, but if you are interested in diving into the source/science of everything I list out, please check out their books, research, videos etc. if there are any scientific inaccuracies please bring them to my attention.
Now, as a high level overview, we want to start with the patterns that we have been able to observe in peak performance.
When people perform at their best, and when they are theoretically in flow, what common patterns and trends do we see?
- Transient Hypofrontality
- Low Alpha/High Theta Waves,
- The “Big Five” Neurochemicals (dopamine, norepinephrine, anandamide, serotonin and endorphins).
As a baseline, if you want to reverse engineer a peak performance state – you need to play with these three core components.
The good news? All of these are hackable. There are easy ways to induce transient hypofrontality, lower the frequency of your brainwaves, and trick your mind into releasing certain neurochemicals. We can stack the ingredients together to create the conditions ripe for flow to arrive.
Here’s how you do it.
Transient Hypofrontality –
One of the biggest keys to flow is learning how to calm down the mind and disrupt the rampant inner dialogue that is going on. Lots of mental chatter generally means that the mind is getting in the way and blocking flow from happening.
The part of your brain that controls that inner dialogue is your pre-frontal cortex. If you want to calm down the mind, the first thing that you need to do is learn how to calm down the pre-frontal activity.
How can we do this?
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.
How can we induce transient hypofrontality? The easiest way is to exercise. Any movement and activity that gets you into your body and gets the heart pumping is a great way to induce this state.
This means going for a run, doing yoga, playing on a balance board, or even taking a long walk is enough to calm down the pre-frontal cortex and get your mind ready to be in a flow state.
So if you want to perform at your best, MOVE!!! GET INTO YOUR BODY AND OUT OF YOUR HEAD BEFORE YOU NEED TO PERFORM.
Go for a walk before a big meeting. If your head is cloudy and you can’t focus get up and stretch, maybe even dance a little. Before a burst of focused work, spend a few minutes getting into your body.
Building on this, when we are in Transient Hypofrontality we also notice some other interesting things start to happen in the brain…
Low Alpha/High Theta Waves in the Brain –
The other trend we’ve seen in peak performance is that people perform at their best when their brainwaves are in a sustained state of low alpha and high theta waves.
If you don’t understand what this means don’t worry – here’s a basic understanding.
The main thing you need to know is that the vast majority of us spend our waking lives in Beta waves. Short fast rapid thinking that is usually associated with lots of activity in the pre-frontal cortex.
Beta waves are a blocker to peak performance. While they might be good at helping with analytical work or problem solving in short bursts, long periods of beta activity make it nearly impossible to be in a flow state (and also stress us out)
Why is this important to flow?
If you want to perform at your best – you need to get your brainwaves into Alpha and Theta.
How can you get yourself into Alpha and Theta waves?
For one – transient hypofrontality helps a lot. It’s why I put it before this.
Some other ways that help are meditation, deep breathing, and simply closing your eyes.
In general anything that relaxes you will produce more alpha waves. The deeper you fall into that relaxation, the more likely you are to produce theta waves.
But keep in mind you don’t want to get TOO relaxed or you’ll get drowsy and fall asleep. The key is relaxed alert attention. Calm and focused.
If you’re feeling stressed out at work, simply close your eyes, take a deep breath and sit still for a few minutes. If you feel like your mind is racing – same thing. If you feel friction of any form it helps to stop entirely, take a pause, and allow the dust of your mind to settle for a second.
….So just for a quick review – a large chunk of peak performance is simply learning how to calm the mind down. Mastering this in and of itself will be an incredible tool of performance for you.
We already have a stack of sequencing as well – if you want to perform better, go for a run and then meditate before whatever you need to do.
You could honestly stop reading here and this in and of itself will help you tremendously.
But naturally, we want to dive a bit deeper 🙂
So next up, let’s keep diving into the brain and see what is going on when we see people perform at their best.
Neurochemistry of Flow States –
The other common pattern we see is that, when people are performing at their best, their brain is packed with a potent neurochemical cocktail of ALL of the neurochemicals your brain can produce AT THE SAME TIME.
This means dopamine, norepinephrine, anandamide, and endorphins are all floating around in the brain of someone who is performing at their best….and then serotonin afterwards.
What do all of these do to enhance performance? 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.
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. Stack a handful of the right triggers together and 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 (Join my Free Course Foundations of Flow for the full list if you want to learn all of them), but I will go into the ones that I feel are the most important, and easiest to implement.
Let’s dive in –
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?
If the activity is too hard, and you don’t have the skills for it, you will trigger panic, freeze up, and not be able to perform.
Conversely if the activity is too easy, you’ll get bored or distracted and throw it to the wayside.
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 –
The challenge to skills equation is arguably the most important flow trigger, because if you get this right in and of itself it’s enough to potentially get you into the state.
But here’s an important point I want to circle back to – let’s say that you’ve triggered anxiety or stress mode because the challenge is too hard. When this happens we can use the understanding of transient hypofrontality and alpha/theta wave techniques to calm down the mind in the moment, thus reducing anxiety and making the challenge slightly less, thus shuttling you back into the zone.
OR let’s say that the challenge is too easy and you’re bored. What can you do to make it slightly more challenging? Can you set a timer for yourself? Set a specific goal? Stand up or walk around or add in a layer that keeps you in the present moment and engaged?
All of this work builds upon each other each step of the way. Understanding of one part of flow helps to build into the other parts. It’s all about using these concepts to better navigate the waters of flow.
Which brings me to my next most important trigger…
Complete Concentration –
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 you want to perform at your best, work on only one thing at a time, and fall into a state where you are utterly absorbed in that task. Block out distractions. Create a safe space and zone for yourself to work in. (There’s a lot of good research on this in the book Deep Work by Cal Newport).
Now, having said this, concentration is also a muscle that we can train. In today’s world many of us have a weak focus/concentration muscle, so even when we try to focus on only one thing, we can’t.
The best way to train focus and concentration? Meditation.
Focus on breath, mind wanders, notice it wandered, bring it back, repeat.
This exercise is the same thing as – focused on a project, distraction arises, take the bait of distraction, notice you’re off task, go back to the task at hand, repeat.
If you want to perform at your best, you need to master the art of focus and concentration for extended periods of time. Even better, you need to master the ability to NOTICE that you’ve been distracted and bring yourself back. To tighten this feedback loop. This alone will be a massive lever to improving performance.
However, sometimes we can be focused on a task but not have the clarity we need to get it done. We have the intention to work on one thing, but we don’t know where to begin – then that confusion ripples out into spending a lot of time and focused energy spinning your tires in the mud.
Which leads me to the next flow trigger…
Clear Goals –
Confusion creates chaos. If you don’t know exactly what you need to do, or better yet, how exactly to get it done, there’s a good chance that you’re going to make mistakes.
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.
Think about a surgeon in the operating room – imagine that they get a mystery case where they’ve never seen the situation and they need to operate on you for the first time in a unique way. The confusion and uncertainty makes them more likely to make a mistake.
Then on the other hand if it’s a routine operation they know exactly what they need to do and how to do it. The clear goals helps them to dive right in without any resistance.
Flow is about removing friction and resistance. Having clarity of what you need to do BEFORE you get started so that you remove friction and dive right into the zone.
Now – the last few triggers have all been about our internal world and things that we can control in our own minds, but what about the external world around us? How can we use our surroundings to engineer a state of peak performance?
This brings us to external flow triggers….
The first external flow trigger, and my personal favorite, is novelty. New environments, new people, new foods, new smells, new ANYTHING.
Remember above when we talked about dopamine? Any time that your brain experiences something new, it gives you a small dose of dopamine. Novelty is one of the easiest and most sustainable ways to give yourself a nice dopamine kick.
Anything new and novel helps to shuttle us into the now, helps to tighten focus, and helps us to be happier and feel calmer and more relaxed – all essential to performing at our best.
What does this mean for you and your work?
Switch things up. Try new offices or working from a new place. If you can’t do that, work in a part of your office you don’t normally work in. Talk with new people. Try a new method. Work on a new project.
Inject some NEW into your life and it’s a great way to trigger flow in a subtle way.
And my personal way to give myself novelty? Rich environments – specifically nature. Putting myself in a new physical setting that is surrounded by physical beauty is one of the best ways to give me a fat dose of dopamine, calm me down, and help me to focus on the present moment that is right in front of me (It’s why I take many of my calls walking around in a park).
Then lastly we have some other, more fun, triggers as well…
Fear is always a great way to get the heart pumping and focus you into the present moment. When you’re standing on the edge of a cliff or you’re working on a huge deal that is due in an hour there isn’t much room to think about anything else.
Risks, danger, and fear also have a way of ramping up our neurochemistry too! As risk increases, so do norepinephrine and dopamine, the feel good chemicals the brain uses to amplify focus and enhance performance.
As a catalyst for flow, risk and danger drive the focus that we need to fall into the zone. It helps us to focus on only the task at hand and block everything else out…an important precursor to flow.
Keep in mind though that risk is inherently dangerous. Playing with risk as a catalyst for flow is like playing with fire. Do it responsibly and take caution to the best of your abilities in all flow pursuits.
Let’s review quickly –
So far we’ve identified that the calm mind is a mind where flow can happen. If we want to perform at our best, we want to get our minds to calm down. Then, once we’ve done this, there are other “triggers” both internally and externally, that we can use to steward the experience.
But all of this so far assumes that flow is like a switch – it’s either on or off – you’re either in it or you’re not…and this isn’t entirely true.
An important piece of the puzzle of understanding flow states and peak performance is that flow is not binary – it is actually a four step sequence, and a sequence that must be done in it’s proper order.
So if we want to reliably and consistently experience these altered states of consciousness, it’s important that we know all four steps of the process, and what we need to do to manage it each step of the way.
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 how when you try anything for the first time 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 the 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 potentially 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 usually means 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.
For this reason I want to spend a quick section on how to properly recover…
How to Recover –
Similar to the struggle>release phase, we want to completely sever the ties to the flow state. We want a complete pattern disrupt.
This means that if it was athletic performance, we need time to recover physically. Stretching, proper eating and nutrition, sleep, saunas and massages, things like this.
If it was mental performance, we need mental recovery. Reading something fun, watching a movie, playing video games, anything relaxing that completely takes your mind off of the task you were just working on. Meditation and breathing exercises and particularly helpful, but will take some time as a practice to cultivate..
One of the most common problems that people experience is that once they have a flow state (especially a mental one), they can’t turn it off. People who come home from work and are still thinking about their day, or can’t sleep at night – these are all symptoms that you didn’t properly recover from your day of work.
Take your recovery seriously. Put in the work to create the space your brain and body needs. It’s nice to have flow states once in a while, but the key to sustainability is the mastery of recovery.
Review of the Flow Cycle
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.
After we relax 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.
Now that we have covered the key pieces, I want to review here.
Step 1 = Calm down your mind
Step 2 = Trigger your mind to release neurochemicals that enhance performance
Step 3 = Struggle>Release>Flow
Step 4 = Recovery
The real results come from putting in the work. Seriously implementing it and remaining committed to structuring your day around it.
To give you an example, here’s what my day looks like in action of implementing these techniques.
In the mornings I wake up and exercise + meditate (calm down the mind).
Before I get started with my work I write down my tasks for the day (clear goals). Then I only work on one thing at a time (complete concentration). If I’m writing I only write. If I’m doing sales calls I’m only on calls (this means my phone is nowhere around me to distract me with social media notifications).
If something is too easy and I get bored, I’ll try and make things more difficult by setting a timer or paying attention to my breath while working. If something is too difficult I’ll do breathing techniques to calm down the mind OR I’ll break the task into smaller parts based on what is easiest and I know I can accomplish (Challenge skills equation + Struggle>Release>Flow).
When transitioning in between tasks I take a five minute break to meditate and then journal (calm down the mind + clear goals). I’ll do pushups and squats in between calls. I’ll play around on balance boards as well.
I also work from my computer, so I’m always traveling and putting myself in novel environments (external triggers). If I notice a place getting stale, I try to switch things up and work from somewhere new (Novelty). In general I need to work in environments that are visually stimulating, so this also means no boring offices or vanilla workspaces.
When I finish work for the day, I journal to release my thoughts about work, and then transition to something fun like reading a fiction book or drawing cartoons or writing poetry (recovery). I stretch and meditate before bed.
And that’s a day in the life of the flow master Troy 🙂
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 because it creates clear goals. 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. This is what I have determined works best for me.
Now, as I mentioned, the real work begins with you implementing this shit into your own day and trying it for yourself.
I think I’ve laid out a solid outline here for you to follow that covers the most important information you need to consistently and reliably create states of peak performance for yourself. If you want to go deeper in the training, I recommend you Join my Free Course Foundations of Flow, which helps you with the implementation and discovery of your personal recipe and sequence for flow.
I hope you enjoyed reading, and may this help you on your journey.
Now get the fuck out there and do the work and come back to me after you’ve had your first state of losing your mind and feeling great about it 🙂
Also published on Medium.