In the world of Flow States there is a topic called “Flow Triggers.” These 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 – AKA chemicals that drive focus, excitement, engagement.

2) Lowering cognitive load – AKA the # of things I am trying to pay attention to in a moment. By lowering cognitive load I free up more energy that can be better used for focus.

Moreover, flow triggers are different for everyone. They depend on what gets you excited/stressed/curious/interested etc. Therefore, understanding what your individual flow triggers are, and how you can use them to drive yourself into the state, is an essential piece of learning how to perform at your best.

What are the various flow triggers/what they do in the brain and body? Here’s a quick oversimplified breakdown of them all.

  1. Curiosity/Passion/Purpose – Dopamine
  2. Autonomy – Dopamine/reducing cognitive load
  3. Complete Concentration – Reducing cognitive load
  4. Risk – Norepinephrine
  5. Novelty – Dopamine
  6. Complexity – Dopamine
  7. Unpredictability aka surprise – Dopamine
  8. Deep Embodiment – Reducing cognitive load
  9. Immediate Feedback – Reducing cognitive load/dopamine/norepinephrine depending on feedback
  10. Clear Goals – Reducing cognitive load
  11. Challenge/Skill Ratio – Reducing cognitive load/dopamine/norepinephrine depending on feedback
  12. Creativity/Pattern Recognition – Dopamine

If you want to dive into how to discover what your own flow triggers are and how to apply them into your life, I’ve already written on that topic at length here.

The purpose of today’s article however, is that while flow triggers are fantastic tools to help us drive ourselves into flow, they are equally dangerous if used improperly.

At the end of the day, these “triggers” are firing the “weapons” of neurochemicals like dopamine and norepinephrine – the same chemicals that underpin addictions and mental health disorders.

These weapons can backfire on us. Too much dopamine equals schizophrenia. Too much norepinephrine equals perpetual stress.

Playing with flow triggers is like playing with fire, and if you don’t do it properly you can definitely get burned.

So today I want to dive into the downsides of each of the different flow triggers. What can happen with flow triggers gone wrong, and how to protect against this so that you don’t fall down the slippery slope

Let’s dive in –

Curiosity/Passion/Purpose –

A great example of this trigger gone wrong is the person who is always working on passion projects that never quite make it off the ground. The people who prioritise their passion over their financial well being or even their health.

Coming from the world of Teaching English and Volunteer work, I see this one all the time. People who have NGO’s or Social Enterprise businesses where they want to help the world but can barely feed themselves and take care of their own necessities.

This could apply to the starving artist as well. Their art and passion is more important than anything else – when in reality they are just addicted to the mission and can’t give themselves the space that they need.

Also within this category I’d throw in the people who are the dreamers. Who always have ideas but never execute on them. The people who are the perpetual learners diving down rabbit holes on youtube and reading every book under the sun on self help and productivity but not actually implementing it.

These people are basically getting high off the dopamine that the ideas provide, but can’t sustain the energy in the long run.

Autonomy –

“The downsides of freedom” – Too much autonomy means you have no one to answer to or hold you accountable. Not have anyone questioning you. Can fall victim to the echo chamber where you’re not getting enough outside perspective. Make decisions that aren’t in the best interest of everyone.

You can focus on all the wrong things and never know it. Have all the flexibility in the world to schedule the day how you want and end up bouncing between tasks all day. Or spending time in deep work on something that isn’t actually going to move the needle forwards. If you lack discipline, autonomy can spiral out of control.

Complete Concentration –

Sometimes when we’re so focused on the task at hand we get tunnel vision. We start blocking out other information. Information that could be useful.

A good example of this for myself is that when I start writing my body will relax and then next thing I know I’m sitting with awful posture and then 45 minutes go by and I realise I’m incredibly tight. I’ve caused a lot of damage to my back and hips this way.

This laser focus can also betray us in the macro perspective of life. We’re so focused and in the weeds that we don’t see the bigger picture. We’re missing out on the awareness of the totality of everything else going on around us. Deep focus should equally be counter balanced with open awareness.

Risk –

This one is self explanatory – too much risk can get you killed. It’s why so many extreme sports athletes end up dying or injured. Physical risk has real consequences.

Similarly though, we can take on social risk. Take for example a career shift or quitting your job. This is an incredibly risky move. A move that can help to tighten focus, but something that can just as easily overwhelm you. It’s why changing a job is one of the top three most stressful things you can do to yourself.

This can also mean big deals, lots of money on the line, long intense hours – all of these are equally risky with an equally slippery slope. Risk can spiral out of control quickly.

Another common downside of risk is the perpetual procrastinator. If you are someone who waits until the last minute so that you feel the pressure and can then focus and bang it out – you are unknowingly leveraging risk as a flow trigger. This is norepinephrine at work. People who like risk are prone to procrastination for this reason.

Novelty –

Too much novelty can lead to inconsistency. You’re always looking to work on the next bright shiny object.

You see this a lot with people who start one project, and then when motivation gets low or they hit a sticking point, immediately jump to the next project. Constant career shifts or shifts of where they need to live. Always needing to change things up.

If you have too much novelty you run the risk of never focusing on just one thing consistently for an extended period of time. The counter balance to novelty is consistency and routine.

Complexity –

Too much complexity equals over-complication. You see this example with people who consistently bite off more than they can chew. They love the plate spinning feeling of having multiple things moving.

This is also the perfectionist. The person who needs to have every little detail right before they can let it out there. They like the complication and the nuance but this can also lead to a lack of action. The complexity makes it feel like they are moving forward because their mind is occupied, but they are just spinning their tires in the mud. The counter balance to complexity is simplicity and execution.

Unpredictability aka surprise –

This is very similar to novelty, but I look at this more as the need to improvise. These people like working in dynamic environments where things are always shifting and changing and moving. Their day is different every day.

Whereas the novelty person chooses/seeks out the novelty, the unpredictability person likes when the novelty is thrown at them and they must react on the fly.

Again though the same downside is present – inconsistency. When you’re always dealing with surprises it’s difficult to drill down and focus on one thing and one thing only.

Creativity/Pattern Recognition –

Think creative genius who lost their mind. Pattern recognition that doesn’t stop. Idea after idea after idea. The creative mind is prone to a variety of mental health disorders – creativity definitely comes with a cost when done improperly.

I always think of Doc from back to the future, constantly screaming “Great Scott I’ve discovered the secret to the universe!!!”

What’s interesting about creativity, is that in many ways the best counter balance is complete concentration. Creativity is open awareness. Allowing the dots to connect. Focus is about zoning in on one specific thing.

Now, we definitely need focus in order to get creative, but if creativity is going wild and you can’t calm down the pattern recognition systems, complete concentration on only one thing can really help to calm this down.

…An important note here that underpinning these last four of novelty/complexity/unpredictability/creativity is the chemical dopamine. Too much dopamine leads to schizophrenia. The above examples are a good idea of why too much dopamine can cause this. Dopamine is insanely powerful, don’t trust it. It’s a dangerous weapon that should be used with the upmost care.

Deep Embodiment –

Think ultra-marathon runners. Freakishly large bodybuilders. People who love those tough mudder races. Physical exercise that borders upon masochism.

You see it across all forms of exercise, the people who just take it wayyyy too far and are questionably unhealthy in their pursuit of physical health. These people love getting into their bodies so much that they end up hurting themselves. The human body can withstand A LOT of abuse, these people are good at pushing those limits.

Counter balance here? Super straightforward. Softer slower more therapeutic ways of getting in the body. Massages and saunas and meditation and things like this.

Immediate Feedback –

Too much feedback can trigger overwhelm. It’s like being bombarded with information. I think that this one relates to complexity – too much complexity and it’s harder to find the pattern underneath of what to actually implement.

In this circumstance I think of my experiences high lining. There’s so much feedback from the line shaking that it’s just too much to process. From the way that the line behaves to the environment to my body. Too much feedback too fast and its hard to know what to pay attention to.

In work this correlates to when you have a presentation and then everyone rips it apart and you have to start over from scratch. Or the feedback is too broad and not actionable enough to know what to do.

In any event, the downside of too much feedback is overwhelm, so seek less, more timely feedback instead.

Clear Goals –

In all honesty I don’t know if there’s a downside to this. I guess maybe being over focused. Too goal oriented. Not enough down time. But if the goals are clear (key word), that means you have the right priorities in check. You’ve actually evaluated what is most important. If you didn’t – this is where the downside of autonomy can come back into play. Set the wrong goals for yourself and you can spend a lot of time down the wrong rabbit hole. Measure twice cut once kinda thing.

Challenge/Skill Ratio –

To wrap up these ideas, I actually think that the Challenge to Skills balance is a great framework for calibrating where you lie on each of these.

If you’re in overwhelm, how do you make the challenge easier? If you’re bored, how do you make the challenge more stimulating? Do I need to dial up or dial back? Calm myself down or get myself more excited? Too much novelty/complexity/unpredictability or not enough? More focus or more open awareness? More complexity or more simplicity?

The challenge skills balance is a great way to continually check in with yourself and counter balance accordingly.

…and that’s all of them!

Overall to summarise, while flow triggers are great tools that can help to drive focus and improve performance, they can also backfire on us and have negative consequences as well.

Understand where you lie for each of these and take measures to re balance and reprioritise as needed.

Now, as always, let’s put it into practice 🙂

Take inventory of your individual flow triggers. Which one of these buckets do you fall into? Where do you need to counter balance? Where do you lie on the spectrum for each of these

Write it down and then implement a counter balancing technique to give you the results you need. Then like any good scientist, measure your results to see if it helped you, and then track those results over time.Hopefully this exercise also gives you a deeper insight into some of your habitual behaviours and routines and the neuroscience that underpins it.

Many of these examples above are a way of life for the people who struggle with them. Embedded and accepted and normalised ways of being because they have convinced themselves that “this is what works for ME.”

Many of these will be habits that are hard to let go of, so move slowly and patiently in the journey. Awareness is always the first step 😉

Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoyed and found some practical value!

Having a hard time with controlling bad habits and having flow triggers backfire? Schedule a call with me here and let’s talk it through!

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