Updated: Apr 9, 2020
We have all experienced it in one form or another. In the zone, runner’s high, in the pocket, or whatever the term, flow is a state of optimal being, and peak performance. Whether were playing sports, writing a novel, or having a conversation, everyone has the capability to access a flow state. Technically defined as an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best, and perform our best. Flow is where action merges with awareness. Time slows down, our inner critic goes silent, creativity sky rockets, and we seem to run on instinct. We experience STER: Selflessness, timelessness, effortlessness, and information richness. If you’re into scientific terminology a flow state is also known as transient hypo-frontality. Transient, meaning temporary; hypo meaning low; and frontality for the pre-frontal cortex which tends to go offline. For example, competitive golfers run through a putting task while having their brain’s scanned showed that the best golfers had less activity in the pre-frontal cortex (associated with cognitive control, self-consciousness, self-analysis, etc.) compared to the golfers who did poorly. What this means is that they are thinking less rather than more.
Technically defined as an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best, and perform our best
This of course, is easier said than done. The ironic thing about flow is that the more we try and pursue it, the less chance we can access it. However, there are ways to create the right conditions to increase your susceptibility to flow. Here are 4 things to incorporate into your routine to find yourself in the zone more often.
(1) Seek activities that challenge you. Flow tends to occur when there is a balance between challenge and skill level. Too high of a challenge with low skill equals anxiety. High skill with a low challenge equates to boredom. Find things that challenge you just above your skill level so that it keeps you on your toes. However, flow tends to increase as you increase the risk/reward ratio. This is why you see extreme sports athletes get into flow more often, as the higher the risk (challenge) the higher the reward (flow).
(2) Flow follows focus. Flow states emerge when the mind is free from its typical chatter, and not distracted by doing multiple things at once. Ever notice you concentrate better by turning down the music while looking for parking? Our brains work best with a singular focus and limited input. A great way to give your mind a single point of focus is to bring your attention to the breath, as it is always in the present moment. One way to do this is with a technique called box breathing; breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of four, and breathe out for a count of four. With box breathing you are learning to focus, relax your nervous system, and bring yourself to the present. Only when we are fully tuned into the present moment can we perform at our best.
(3) Set yourself clear goals with immediate feedback. Giving yourself clear objectives fuels focus even further. But these goals have no meaning if there isn't any point of reference, so feedback is crucial as it guides the direction and quality of goals. This is why video is a great source for measuring progress as the feedback is clear and immediate. For example, there was a huge creative explosion when VHS tapes came into the skating scene, where previously skaters only relied on still frame pictures from magazines for inspiration. The skaters saw and pieced together moves in real time and used that as a tool for their own progression.
For you non-athletes, the Pomodoro technique is a great way to break down big goals into smaller pieces which are more manageable. Basically, you set a timer of 25-30 minutes in which you get rid of distractions and simply focus on the task you are doing. This way you have a clear objective (eg. focus for 25 minutes on writing), and immediate feedback (work is broken down into smaller “chunks”: eg. “I did 5 pomodoro's worth of work today”). For more on creating feedback systems check out this post.
4) Learn to accept the struggle. We all know the feeling of lack of motivation before studying/doing a task, or the fear before going on that scary new slide at the waterpark. But struggle is necessary for flow to emerge. Cortisol and nor-epinephrine are released when we are stressed, but it is necessary for the dopamine that follows after you take the metaphorical (or literal) plunge. Navy SEALs have a saying, “embrace the suck” for when they train together in freezing water, treacherous terrain, or other not so pleasant environments. They understand that the bad is synonymous with the good. Where there is struggle, there can be flow. Variations in performance are not due to the absolute level of emotion experienced, but rather to the degree to which an individual can tolerate (accept) the experience of that emotion.
There are countless other psychological, environmental, and social conditions that "trigger" flow, but these are just a few to help get you started.