You create your best work, play your best game, or do what you’ve never done before.
This is “The Flow State” and there’s literature dating back thousands of years documenting how some of the greatest minds felt when they achieved optimal performance.
I was working on a personal writing project recently and something amazing went down.
The background noises faded from my consciousness and it was just me, the keyboard, and the screen. Together we brought a vivid scene to life. A world unfolded before my eyes and I sat there — ecstatic — as it happened almost without my input.
Dialogue formed, plots twisted, and characters came out of their shell. It happened around me, through me, and with me for hours.
I was in flow.
As you’re well aware, flow state can be elusive. The ability to tap into it on demand will fundamentally change your life.
This article will explore what flow state is, what happens to your body during flow state, some challenges associated with it, and most importantly – how to tap into flow state regularly.
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The Flow State has different names depending on who you talk to. Athletes call it being in “the zone” researchers refer to it as “Optimal Experience State” and gamers call it “the glow.”
Whatever you call it, the results are the same. A person experiencing flow is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.
To put it simply, you’re focused on one thing and it feels good.
In a 2004 Ted talk Professor Mikhaly Csikszentmihalyi — the man who coined the term — discussed the power of flow and how regular use can directly improve your happiness. It’s been described as:
Our brains can only consciously process about 110 bits of information a second. Anything more and we lose comprehension.
When someone talks to you, that’s 60 bits of information. When two people talk to you at the same time, you have trouble understanding because it’s beyond our conscious ability to process.
In flow state, all 110 bits of processing capacity you possess are focused on the task at hand. It’s so profound that you can’t even spare enough attention to register your breathing, fatigue, hunger, or anything else.
Think about that.
This is how a figure skater describes flow:
“It was just one of those programs that clicked. I mean, everything went right, everything felt good . . . It’s just such a rush, like you feel it could go on and on and on, like you don’t want it to stop because it’s going so well. It’s almost as though you don’t have to think, it’s like everything goes automatically without thinking . . . it’s like you’re on automatic pilot, so you don’t have any thoughts. You hear the music but you’re not aware that you’re hearing it, because it’s a part of it all.”
An optimal experience state is achieved when you strike the right balance between a challenge and your skill level. When these align perfectly, you’re able to fully focus on an activity.
If an activity is challenging but you lack the skills you need, anxiety and worry set in. When an activity isn’t challenging enough and you possess too much skill then boredom and apathy set in.
This not just a psychological shift; our entire body takes part in the experience.
In his book The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, Steven Kotler discusses the different processes that occur during flow state and uses athletes as his case study.
He has a very personal experience with the powerful effects of flow which he achieved through surfboarding.
Kotler was reduced to an invalid over a three-year span by Lyme disease and was only functional for about an hour a day.
One of his friends, a surfboarder, showed up at his house and demanded he go surfing with her. When he arrived at the beach and jumped in the water, muscle memory kicked in. He was able to ride 5 waves that day. He was hooked.
The only time he could function was in the water, but that soon changed and he went from 10% functionality to over 80% within 6 months.
Research carried out at the Worchester Polytechnic Institute with 30 Pianists found very strong correlations between physiological reactions and being in the zone.
When the pianist played pieces they enjoyed and had a lot of skill in, they experienced a reduced heart period, lowered blood pressure, and increased respiratory depth. One of the more interesting findings was the increased syncing of the heartbeat and the respiratory rate — usually, the opposite occurs.
Even social media, according to emerging research, has elements of the physiological and neurological effects of flow which may explain why we’re so easily addicted to our favorite platforms.
In the brain, a cocktail of neurochemicals are released which enable you to achieve a deeper level of focus.
As you can see, flow state is more than just a psychological event; it affects your whole body in order to give you the ability to perform at your peak.
It’s not all roses, just like with all good things there are challenges to achieving flow state and a few dangers.
There are challenges associated with achieving peak performance regularly. You need the right combination of skill and challenge to unlock it.
Unfortunately, some tasks are more suited to bringing out flow state. Things like writing, composing, drawing, and extreme sports are ideal when you’re trying to get to peak performance.
Tying your shoes, taking out the trash, and monotonous office work — not so much.
The most common problem is finding the balance between skill and challenge. Usually, we’re lacking by a few degrees in one or the other and it affects the whole process.
Later in this post, I’ll cover some ways you can overcome the challenges and obtain a flow state more regularly.
As for the dangers, it’s just like with anything else that can be considered addictive. Sex, video games, drugs etc. We tend to forget the reason why we’re doing it in the first place and only engage in the activity because of the pleasurable side effects.
Sex is for procreation right? So why are you getting it on for fun?
When you look at it like that, there’s no danger in being addicted to flow state, but what about when flow state is only achieved through extreme sports?
If you always keep in mind your end goals before inducing flow then you should be just fine.
Almost any activity can trigger flow state. Gypsies have been documented as entering flow state while raising children and women from more traditional societies have expressed flow state during routine household chores.
The actual trigger for flow state varies across societies and occupation and are divided into four broad categories.
These factors together make up the triggers you can harness to induce flow state more regularly. They’re not a silver bullet — there is none.
Up until this point, we’ve looked at what flow state is, what it does to your body, and the factors that trigger it. Now it’s time to dive into different strategies that’ll allow you to consistently achieve peak performance.
Environmental triggers are novelty, complexity, and inherent risk. Bring all these things together and you’re more likely to achieve flow state.
What happens after that?
Your phone rings and snaps you out of it or your kids come running through the door and knock over a pile of books. You’re snapped back to reality.
Apart from setting yourself up with the right environmental triggers, you also need to protect yourself from distractions while you’re experiencing complete immersion.
The motivation becomes intrinsic. To achieve optimal performance, your attention needs to be on the process as well as the goal.
When you’re focused on the process, you’re focused on the present. Peak performance occurs in the present, not the future or the past. When all of your attention is focused on the process at hand, there is less room for a wandering mind.
When your mind and attention are focused on a task that challenges you but is just outside your skill meet then flow state follows.
Being in the present tense. Social risks are the closest we’re going to get to life-threatening situations in modern existence. To the brain, emotional risk and physical risk are the same.
In social situations, push yourself beyond your comfort zone. Offer to take point on larger assignments and make a public commitment to getting the job done well.
Air your views and stand your ground when they come under scrutiny. These risks force us to focus on the now while also releasing some of the chemicals associated with peak performance.
Kick me for this one. Just let it flow.
You don’t force it:
“It’s like opening a door that’s floating in the middle of nowhere and all you have to do is go and turn the handle and open it and let yourself sink into it. You can’t particularly force yourself through it. You just have to float. If there’s any gravitational pull, it’s from the outside world trying to keep you back from the door.”
Focus is great, but a flow state is what helps you make huge strides in your craft and life. It’s not just a psychological effect, rather, it improves overall health and wellbeing for people who’ve been able to use it effectively.
To achieve flow state create an enabling environment, focus, challenges, and most importantly all of your attention.
Then again, you’re fine the way you are.