All of us have had the experience where we want to accomplish something but regardless of what we try, we don’t make the progress that we’re looking for.
Call it the proverbial, “spinning my tires in the mud”, or “beating my head against the wall”.
There’s a problem or challenge we want to overcome, and in trying to overcome it, no matter what we try, nothing seems to work.
It’s a frustrating situation to be in. You know what you want to do, you know how to do it, but for some reason it’s just not happening.
It’s enough to drive anyone crazy – I know it does for me at least.
But like all areas of my life, whenever something pisses me off, rather than bitching and complaining, or worse, continuing to fruitlessly spin my tires in the mud, I create solutions. I experiment and find a way out of the hole.
And if you know me, you know that I’m obsessed with understanding flow states – that elusive state of mind where I’m in the zone and everything flows effortlessly.
I don’t like spinning my tires in the mud because it feels very un-flowy. It feels like a barrier to my flow states. It feels like the polar opposite of flow because, quite literally, nothing is flowing.
However, throughout my research it turns out that not only is this process of spinning your tires in the mud normal, but it is a necessary part of the process to reaching flow.
You see, in the science of flow states and peak performance, there is something called the “Flow Cycle”, coined by Harvard Cardiologist Herbert Benson.
He found that flow states happens in a four stage sequence, struggle>release>flow>recovery.
This stage of spinning your tires in the mud or beating your head against a wall is known as the “struggle” stage of chasing flow states.
It’s a necessary and important part of the process. A prerequisite to flow in fact.
Although it doesn’t feel like you’re making progress in this stage, your brain is actually doing a lot of work behind the scenes. Your brain is collecting data and trying to piece together what it means to be able to do the task.
You’re not able to flow yet because your brain doesn’t yet understand what it needs to do in order to complete it – quite simply, it needs more data and information so that you can wrap your head around what it takes.
But Herbert found that if we notice we’re in the struggle stage, we need to “release” out of it.
This usually means walking away entirely or switching to something that is easier. Then, after you release and walk away, upon your return you’re likely to get yourself into 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 if this is the case, the key to managing the struggle stage, the key to getting into flow, lies in learning the art of the release. Learning how to effectively let go, calm down, and then ideally get into flow upon your return.
For example, 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 try 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…FLOW 🙂
Here’s how I apply it –
Since discovering this technique, 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. I’ll switch to a task that is easier and I know I can handle.
For example sometimes when I write an article like this my mind will jump all over the place. I know the thoughts and ideas that I want to put down, but I can’t find the right sequence for it.
I’ll write, re-write, delete. Put down half sentences and not know where they fit in. Everything will just feel jumbled and messy and I feel like I’m not conveying my point properly.
So what do I do?
I walk away from it. I switch to a new task or go for a walk or do some meditation or breathing exercises.
Then by the time I come back, I’m usually good to go and somehow my brain has connected the dots for me.
Or take the Slackline for example. The other day I was practicing my spins/turns at the end of the line (the shakiest part), and I kept falling off. No matter what technique I was using, I couldn’t stick the spin.
So what did I do? After around 10 consecutive failed attempts, I switched to something easier that I know I can do. I walked the line normally and focused on easy spins. Half spins. Spins and turns well within my skill level at parts of the line where it’s easier to spin.
After around 10 minutes of playing around like this, I went back to trying spins at the end of the line aaaaand….Stuck it on the first try 🙂
This is a good example of struggle>release>flow in action. I struggled to hit the trick, released into something easier, and then when I came back, FLOW 🙂
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.
Keep in mind though that this is what works for me, this is how I apply it. While you can use the same principles, you will likely have to discover your own awareness of the struggle stage, and then test techniques for how to effectively release.
The key is mastering the art of the release. 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.
Experiment, measure, repeat. Over and over and over again until you’re able to master the release reliably and consistently.
So the next time you notice you’re in the struggle phase, walk away for a bit. You’ll thank me later!