Flow Trigger: The Challenge/Skill Ratio

Written by
Steven Kotler

Flow Trigger: The Challenge/Skill Ratio

Written by
Steven Kotler

Flow Trigger: The Challenge/Skill Ratio

Written by
Steven Kotler

Let’s talk about one of the flow’s most potent triggers.

It’s called the “challenge/skill ratio”.

You’ve probably heard of it.

The idea behind this trigger is that attention is most engaged (i.e., in the now) when there’s a very specific relationship between the difficulty of a task and our ability to perform that task.

If the challenge is too great, fear swamps the system

If the challenge is too easy, we stop paying attention.

Flow appears near the emotional midpoint between boredom and anxiety, in what scientists call the flow channel — the spot where the task is hard enough to make us stretch but not hard enough to make us snap.

How hard is that?

Answers vary, but the general thinking is about 4 percent.

That’s it. That’s the sweet spot.

If you want to trigger flow, the challenge should be 4 percent greater than the skills.

In technical terms, the sweet spot is the result of what’s known as the Yerkes-Dobson law — the fact that increased stress leads to increased performance up to a certain intensity, beyond which performance levels off or declines.

In real-world terms, it’s not much at all.

In most situations, we blow by 4 percent without even noticing.

But this is not the case in extreme sports. In the big waves, big rivers, and big mountains, a half degree of difficulty can mean the difference between home for dinner and never home again.

Under these conditions, the desire for improvement keeps athletes from under stepping, and the need for survival from overstepping.

This sweet spot keeps attention locked in the present.

When the challenge is firmly within the boundaries of known skills — meaning I’ve done it before and am certain I can do so again — the outcome is predetermined.

We’re interested, not riveted.

But when we don’t know what’s going to happen next, we pay more attention to the next.

Uncertainty is our rocket ride into the now. It’s also for this reason that uncertainty causes the brain to release dopamine. A lot of dopamine.

When anything can happen, survival could be at stake. Dopamine heightens attention and pattern recognition — two things that are essential to dealing with the unknown.

Of course, being dopamine, this is all exceptionally pleasurable.

Or, as Stanford neurologist Robert Sapolsky likes to say: “maybe (meaning uncertainty) is addictive like nothing else out there.”

And maybe is also the only road to the impossible.

Therefore, the challenge/skill ratio is so important.

If we want to achieve the kinds of accelerated performance we’re seeing in action and adventure sports, then it’s 4 percent plus 4 percent plus 4 percent, day after day, week after week, months into years into careers.

This is the road to real magic.

Follow this path long enough, and not only does the impossible become possible, but it also becomes what’s next — like eating breakfast, like another day at the office.

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