Flow
August 23, 2023

What Are Flow Triggers? 22 Examples To Unlock Flow State

Steven Kotler
Written by
Steven Kotler
In this article:
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Flow triggers are internal, external, creative, and collective factors that can enhance performance and engagement by inducing a state of flow.

Flow triggers are psychological, environmental, or social factors that can enhance the likelihood of entering a state of flow, leading to heightened performance, engagement, and overall well-being.

Have you ever experienced a runner’s high? That peak state is the result of dopamine and norepinephrine cycling through your system, driving focus, excitement, and engagement. Simply put, running to overcome your limits is a flow trigger that helps you achieve a runner’s high—your flow state

Flow triggers are different for everyone, so understanding your individual flow triggers can help you learn how to perform your best. Keep reading to discover some of the most common flow trigger examples and how to use them to induce an optimal flow state. 

What Are Flow Triggers?

Common flow triggers and how they impact the brain

Flow triggers are pre-conditions that allow you to induce a state of flow—a process we like to refer to as “hacking flow.” These triggers allow you to focus all your attention on the task at hand through one of two processes:

  • Stimulating neurochemicals: Flow triggers open the floodgates for neurochemicals like dopamine and norepinephrine to enter the system. These chemicals enhance concentration and engagement. 
  • Reducing cognitive load: Flow triggers reduce the number of things we try to pay attention to at any given moment. By lowering our cognitive load, we free up more energy that can be better used to focus on the here and now.

Types of Flow State Triggers

Four types of flow state triggers

Flow triggers can be categorized into four distinct types: external, internal, group flow, and creative flow triggers.

  • External Triggers: Factors or techniques that deliberately induce a state of flow during a specific task or activity, such as listening to music to help you focus
  • Internal Triggers: Psychological and cognitive factors that spontaneously lead to a state of flow during activities, like completing a challenging task 
  • Creative Triggers: Factors that can help you immerse yourself fully in the creative process
  • Group Flow Triggers: Factors that promote a collective state of flow within a group or team setting

22 Examples of Flow Triggers

Understanding the different types of flow triggers can help you optimize flow state training, enabling you to reach peak performance faster and easier. 

When reading through each flow trigger example, note which ones resonate most and how you could apply them to hack flow.

List of internal flow triggers

1. Passion, Purpose, and Curiosity

Trigger Type: Internal trigger

Passion, purpose, and curiosity are psychological elements that serve as powerful flow triggers, driving you to experience heightened engagement and enjoyment in your work. Here’s how each plays into performance and flow: 

  • Passion: Passion refers to that deep, fiery connection to a specific activity or endeavor that fuels your journey into flow state. It sparks an intrinsic motivation that propels you to wholeheartedly immerse yourself in the task at hand, surmounting challenges and maintaining unwavering focus throughout. 
  • Purpose: Purpose gives meaning and significance to your actions and goals. When your work aligns with your values, it’s easier to get into a flow state. Purpose acts as a guiding compass, enabling you to stay resilient despite obstacles and distractions. 
  • Curiosity: Approaching tasks with genuine curiosity is key to hacking flow state. As your mind thirsts for novelty and discovery, curiosity drives unwavering focus, honing creative problem-solving abilities and a deep sense of engagement.

The triad of passion, purpose, and curiosity creates a formidable fusion of flow triggers. These triggers help boost intrinsic motivation, achieve a challenge-skill balance, and provide a clear sense of direction to enter flow state. 

2. Autonomy

Trigger Type: Internal trigger

Autonomy—the freedom to chart your own course—is a powerful flow trigger.

Achieving autonomy to enter flow state involves creating an environment and mindset that fosters self-direction and control over your activities. Here are some tips to help you cultivate autonomy:

  • Engage in tasks that align with your interests and passions. 
  • Define specific and challenging goals for your tasks. 
  • Identify and remove any unnecessary rules or restrictions that hinder your autonomy. 
  • Embrace mindfulness and be fully present in your activities.
  • Surround yourself with people who encourage your autonomy and provide positive reinforcement for your self-directed efforts. 

Remember that achieving autonomy is not about complete independence but finding a balance between external influences and personal choice.

3. Complete Concentration

Trigger Type: Internal trigger

You can achieve complete concentration, also known as "deep focus" or "immersive attention," when all your mental resources and attention are focused on a singular task, leaving no room for distractions or divided focus. This intense focus allows you to fully absorb the present, creating a seamless connection between your actions and awareness. Achieving complete concentration requires:

  • Eliminating external interference
  • Designing a conducive environment
  • Developing strong focus habits
  • Cultivating mindfulness and being fully present in the moment

The state of complete concentration is often characterized by a feeling of timelessness, where hours may pass unnoticed as you are wholly engrossed in the task at hand. This time distortion is a hallmark of flow, signaling that the challenges of the task are balanced perfectly with your skill level, creating an optimal zone for peak performance.

4. Immediate Feedback

Trigger Type: Internal trigger

Immediate feedback refers to timely and specific information you receive about your progress and performance while immersed in a task. Gaining a clear sense of how well you are performing in real time allows you to adjust your actions and strategies for continuous improvement. 

Receiving immediate feedback triggers a heightened state of concentration and self-awareness. With a clear understanding of your performance, you can become fully present in the moment and hone your attention to the task's nuances. This facilitates a seamless fusion of action and awareness, a hallmark of flow.

Here are a few tips for harnessing the power of immediate feedback:

  • Seek out performance evaluations from mentors, peers, or experts to help fine-tune your efforts.
  • Use self-monitoring techniques like journaling or recording yourself to cultivate self-awareness.
  • Collaborate with others with similar goals or interests for an opportunity to share peer-to-peer feedback.
  • Adopt a growth mindset, where you view challenges and setbacks as opportunities for learning and growth. 
  • Leverage technology and feedback tools relevant to your activities to help you track progress and make immediate adjustments. 

5. Clear Goals

Trigger Type: Internal trigger

Setting clear goals before diving into a project or task can help heighten focus, motivation, and a sense of purpose—all essential for flow. 

Well-defined and specific objectives provide a roadmap for your efforts, enabling you to easily align your actions with your intentions. When you have a clear sense of what you’re striving to achieve, you can direct your attention and energy more efficiently, eliminate distractions, and foster a deeper state of concentration. 

Clear goals should serve as tiny steps that lead to your big, overarching goals. To use clear goals as a flow trigger, start by ensuring your objectives are SMART:

  • Specific: Clearly articulate what you want to achieve, avoiding vague or broad statements. The more specific the goal, the easier it is to create a focused plan of action.
  • Measurable: Define how you will track your progress and determine when the goal has been achieved. This allows you to monitor your performance and stay motivated by seeing your advancements.
  • Attainable: While you should challenge yourself, setting overly ambitious or unattainable goals can lead to frustration and demotivation. Ensure your goals are within your capabilities and resources.
  • Relevant: Consider how achieving the goal contributes to your long-term aspirations and whether it is meaningful to you. Relevant goals provide a sense of purpose and direction.
  • Time-Bound: Setting a time limit creates a sense of urgency and helps you prioritize your efforts. It also allows you to evaluate your progress and make necessary adjustments.

Regularly reviewing and adjusting these goals ensures they remain challenging and align with your personal interests and values.

Read more about the science of goal setting

6. Challenge-Skill Ratio

Trigger Type: Internal trigger

The challenge-skill ratio, also known as the flow channel or the "Goldilocks zone," is the delicate balance between the level of challenge presented by a task and your skill level.

When the challenge of an activity matches or slightly exceeds your skill level, it creates an optimal state for flow. In this sweet spot, the task is neither too easy nor too difficult, leading to a sense of engagement and focus. 

If the challenge is too low compared to your skills, it can result in boredom and disinterest. Conversely, if the challenge is too high, it can lead to anxiety and frustration.

To utilize the challenge-skill ratio as a flow trigger, seek activities that align with your current skill level while offering a slight stretch in difficulty. Keep in mind that the challenge-skill ratio is not fixed; it will change as you continue to grow and develop. As your skills improve, what was once challenging may become easier, requiring new and more complex challenges to maintain the flow state.

List of external flow triggers

7. Risk

Trigger Type: External trigger

The willingness to take on challenges or engage in activities that involve a certain level of risk can enhance the flow experience by adding excitement, novelty, and the need for focused attention and adaptive responses. 

Risks can come in various forms, including:

  • Physical risks, like extreme sports
  • Intellectual risks, such as tackling complex problems
  • Emotional risks, like showing vulnerability in personal relationships
  • Creative risks, like pushing the boundaries of artistic expression

Taking calculated risks requires you to step out your comfort zone and utilize your skills and abilities in new and creative ways. This heightened challenge can lead to a state of flow, as it creates a sense of urgency and deep focus to navigate the risks effectively.

8. Novelty

Trigger Type: External trigger

Novelty refers to the introduction of new and unexpected elements in an activity or experience, and it can profoundly impact triggering a state of flow.

Novelty creates a sense of intrigue and excitement, prompting you to explore and interact with the new aspects of the task or environment. 

Novelty can come in various forms, such as:

  • Trying a new activity or approach 
  • Encountering unique challenges
  • Exploring different perspectives and ideas
  • Breaking routines or stepping outside your comfort zone

However, it's important to strike a balance with novelty. Too much novelty or constant changes without an opportunity to adapt can lead to frustration and hinder flow. The key is to introduce novelty gradually, ensuring it complements your skill level and aligns with your passions and interests.

9. Complexity

Trigger Type: External trigger

When you engage in complex activities, it can lead to a state of flow as you become fully absorbed in the process of problem-solving and mastering the intricacies of the task. Complexity requires a balance between flexing your skills while still within your capabilities. 

Complex tasks also encourage a state of continuous learning and improvement. As you encounter new challenges and complexities, you develop new skills and strategies that lead to a sense of accomplishment. 

Adjust task complexity based on your individual growth and progress to maintain the flow state. Gradually increasing complexity as your skills improve can keep you motivated and in the flow zone.

10. Unpredictability 

Trigger Type: External trigger

Encountering elements that are difficult to foresee or anticipate requires you to adapt and respond in real time—a perfect catalyst for hacking flow. 

When you encounter unpredictability, it captures your attention and engages your cognitive and emotional responses. Unpredictable situations provoke a heightened state of alertness and focus as you try to make sense of the new information and adjust your actions accordingly. Here are a few examples of how unpredictability can be applied in different contexts:

  • Dynamic challenges: In sports, for example, an opponent's strategy might shift unexpectedly during a match, demanding quick thinking and adjustments.
  • Sudden changes: In performing arts, an improv performance relies on spontaneous decisions and reactions to unforeseen cues or interactions with fellow performers. 
  • Unique scenarios: In problem-solving, tackling novel and complex challenges demands creative thinking.

Similar to employing novelty as a flow trigger, it's important to manage unpredictability to prevent feeling overwhelmed. Strike a balance by introducing unpredictability in a way that complements your skill level and allows you to stay engaged and challenged.

11. Deep Embodiment

Trigger Type: External trigger

Deep embodiment is a state of complete physical and sensory immersion in an activity, leading to a profound sense of flow and optimal performance.

When you experience deep embodiment, you are acutely aware of your bodily sensations, movements, and the physical feedback from the activity. Athletes commonly experience deep embodiment when performing activities that require physical skills and coordination—you may have heard of being “in the zone,” where movements flow naturally and actions unfold without conscious effort. 

While you may not be an athlete, you can utilize deep embodiment as a flow trigger in different contexts by practicing:

  • Breath control: Deep, controlled breathing can help calm the mind, reduce distractions, and enhance concentration.
  • Grounding techniques: Grounding techniques, such as feeling your feet on the ground or your hands on an object, can anchor you to the present moment.
  • Visualization: By visualizing yourself performing a task successfully and feeling the bodily sensations associated with it, you can prepare yourself for the actual experience.
  • Flow-inducing activities: Sports, dance, martial arts, or any activity that involves physical skill and coordination are excellent options. 
Creative flow triggers

12. Creativity and Pattern Recognition

Trigger Type: Creative trigger

Creativity involves generating novel and original ideas or solutions. When you’re engaged in creative endeavors, you’re challenged to think outside the box, explore unconventional approaches, and break away from routine thought patterns. 

Pattern recognition refers to the ability to discern meaningful patterns or connections within information or experiences. It involves finding order and coherence in complexity and identifying recurring themes or elements. Pattern recognition is crucial in various activities, such as problem-solving, artistic expression, or learning new skills. 

Creativity and pattern recognition complement each other in the flow state, leading to a profound sense of engagement. Creative insights often emerge from recognizing patterns and making connections between seemingly unrelated elements.

List of group flow triggers

13. Shared Goals

Trigger Type: Group flow trigger

Shared goals are a powerful group flow trigger. When individuals within a group share a common objective or mission, it creates a strong sense of belonging and commitment to the team's collective success.

Shared goals also provide clarity and direction, reducing ambiguity and conflicts that may arise when individual objectives diverge. This shared focus directs the group's attention and leads to increased synergy.

To utilize shared goals as a group flow trigger:

  • Establish clear and meaningful objectives: Create SMART goals that resonate with all team members. 
  • Encourage open communication: Encourage team members to share ideas and perspectives freely. 
  • Celebrate individual achievements: Highlight individual and group wins toward the shared goal to reinforce a sense of unity and progress.

14. Close listening

Trigger Type: Group flow trigger

Close listening, also known as active or deep listening, enhances communication, empathy, and cohesion among team members. When individuals in a group engage in close listening, they create a space for meaningful interactions and foster a strong sense of connection with one another.

Close listening involves being fully present and attentive to what others are saying—not just to the words, but to the emotions, tone, and nonverbal cues. Encourage these practices within your team by:

  • Establishing guidelines for respectful communication: Encourage team members to refrain from interrupting, maintain eye contact, and be fully present during discussions. 
  • Designating speaking opportunities: Round-robin formats or other structured methods ensure everyone has a chance to express their thoughts without interruption. 
  • Actively acknowledging and validating contributions: When someone shares an idea or perspective, others can respond with affirmations, nodding, or paraphrasing to demonstrate understanding and appreciation for the input. 
  • Practicing reflective listening: Encourage team members to engage in reflective listening by summarizing or paraphrasing what they have heard after someone speaks. 

15. Yes, And

Trigger Type: Group flow trigger

“Yes, and” originates from improvisational theater and communication techniques. It involves responding to contributions from others with acceptance and building upon their ideas rather than negating or dismissing them.

In the context of group flow, "Yes, and" encourages a collaborative and supportive environment where team members actively listen, acknowledge each other's contributions, and work together to create solutions and ideas. Here's how "Yes, and" works as a group flow trigger:

  • Accepting and validating: When someone presents an idea or suggestion, responding with "Yes, and" signals acceptance and validation of their input.
  • Building upon ideas: The "and" part of "Yes, and" implies building upon the previous idea or suggestion. 
  • Improving teamwork and communication: "Yes, and" improves team dynamics by reducing resistance and defensiveness. Instead of encountering roadblocks when presenting ideas, team members find encouragement and support, enabling a positive feedback loop.
  • Embracing uncertainty: "Yes, and" also encourages a mindset of embracing uncertainty and being open to exploration. It shifts the focus from finding the "right" answer to an attitude of curiosity and discovery. 

Practice this approach during your next brainstorming session, problem-solving exercise, or other collaborative endeavor. Facilitators and team leaders can set the example by using "Yes, and" in their responses, encouraging others to follow suit.

16. Sense of Control

Trigger Type: Group flow trigger

When individuals in a group feel a sense of control over their actions and outcomes, it creates an environment of empowerment, autonomy, and optimal performance.

In group flow, a sense of control arises from believing team members have a significant influence over their contributions to the group's goals. It involves a balance between autonomy and a shared commitment to the team's mission, where each member feels they can actively contribute their unique skills and perspectives.

To cultivate a sense of control as a group flow trigger, team leaders can:

  • Encourage autonomy: Foster an environment where team members are free to make decisions and take ownership of their contributions.
  • Promote open communication: Create opportunities for open and honest communication where team members can express their ideas, concerns, and perspectives. 
  • Provide support and resources: Offer the necessary support, training, and resources that enable team members to perform their best. 
  • Celebrate achievements: Recognize and celebrate individual and collective achievements. 

17. Blending Egos

Trigger Type: Group flow trigger

Blending egos creates a harmonious and collaborative team dynamic, where individual egos are set aside in favor of a collective focus on the group's goals. In this state, team members prioritize the greater good of the team over personal recognition or individual achievements.

However, setting aside our own need for personal gain is easier said than done. Here are some tips to help teams blend egos for collective success:

  • Cultivate a culture of respect: Develop a culture that values each team member's strengths and contributions, where everyone's ideas are heard and appreciated.
  • Encourage a growth mindset: Promote a mindset where failures and setbacks are seen as opportunities for learning and improvement rather than personal defeats.
  • Foster a sense of belonging: Create opportunities for team-building and shared experiences that strengthen bonds between team members.
  • Lead by example: Team leaders should demonstrate a humble and collaborative leadership style, setting the tone for blending egos within the group.

18. Equal Participation

Trigger Type: Group flow trigger

Equal participation occurs when all team members actively participate in the group's activities and discussions, setting the foundation for an inclusive, dynamic culture. In this state, each member's input is equally valued and considered.

For true equal participation, team members’ skill levels should be roughly the same. This way, every member can feel comfortable sharing their expertise and insight without fear of criticism or ridicule. More ways to promote equal participation include:

  • Setting clear expectations: Establish an expectation that all team members should actively contribute during discussions and group activities.
  • Rotating leadership roles: Implement rotating leadership roles or responsibilities to ensure everyone has an opportunity to take charge and guide the group's discussions.
  • Practicing close listening: Emphasize the importance of close listening among team members to promote engagement and respect.
  • Encouraging introverts to share: Be mindful of introverted team members who may be less inclined to speak up in large group settings. Create opportunities for them to share their thoughts in smaller, more intimate settings.

19. Familiarity

Trigger Type: Group flow trigger

When individuals within a group are familiar with one another, they build a strong foundation of understanding and trust. This familiarity paves the way for open communication, effective collaboration, and a shared sense of purpose.

Knowing one another’s tics and tendencies cultivates a sense of psychological safety within the group. Team members feel at ease expressing their thoughts, taking risks, and being vulnerable because they know they are among friends who support and respect them.

To harness familiarity as a group flow trigger, try:

  • Creating bonding opportunities: Organize team-building activities and events that allow team members to connect personally.
  • Encouraging regular interactions: Promote frequent interactions among team members, both professionally and socially. From regular team meetings to informal catch-ups, these interactions nurture a sense of familiarity.
  • Reiterating shared goals: Remind the team of their shared vision and objectives regularly.

20. Constant Communication

Trigger Type: Group flow trigger

When team members engage in ongoing open communication, it creates an environment where ideas flow freely, decisions are made collectively, and challenges are tackled together. This group version of immediate feedback keeps team members aware of progress, challenges, and insights—all essential for quick adaptation and informed decisions. 

Constant communication also helps develop a shared sense of ownership over the team’s objectives, motivating members to contribute their best efforts. Access this powerful flow trigger by:

  • Implementing an open-door policy: Encourage team members to reach out to one another, regardless of hierarchy or formal channels.
  • Using collaborative tools: Implement digital platforms or communication tools that facilitate seamless information sharing, such as team chat apps or project management software.
  • Scheduling regular meetings and check-ins: Schedule regular team meetings and check-ins to discuss progress, challenges, and next steps. 
  • Encouraging constructive feedback: Feedback loops help improve performance and enhance communication.

21. Shared Risk

Trigger Type: Group flow trigger

Shared risk involves teams collectively taking on challenges and uncertainties, fostering a deep sense of cohesion and commitment. When team members face and embrace risks together, they experience heightened engagement and a stronger bond, leading to a shared flow experience.

Utilizing shared risk as a flow trigger allows team members to draw upon each other’s support and encouragement to tackle daunting challenges. This requires a high level of trust that stems from collective vulnerability, knowing everyone has some skin in the game. 

To reap the benefits of shared risks, teams can:

  • Set aside fear: Foster a culture that views risks as opportunities for learning and growth rather than threats. Emphasize the value of stepping outside comfort zones.
  • Lead by example: Team leaders should be willing to take on risks and openly discuss the importance of shared risk with the team.
  • Embrace vulnerability: Establish an environment where team members feel safe expressing concerns, seeking support, and learning from mistakes without fear of judgment.
  • Celebrate collective wins: Acknowledge and celebrate team members' efforts and resilience, recognizing that shared risk builds character and fortitude.

22. Spite

Trigger Type: Bonus trigger

Spite often has a negative connotation, but it can be an intense flow trigger when channeled properly. Put simply, the motivation or determination to prove others wrong can fuel intense focus and even drive you to surpass your limits.

However, it’s crucial to approach spite with caution, as it may have drawbacks. The negative energy associated with spite can lead to stress, anxiety, and a fixation on external validation, potentially undermining the passion and purpose that are essential for hacking flow.

Instead of relying solely on spite as a flow trigger, use it in conjunction with positive and intrinsic motivations. Channeling energy into passion, curiosity, and a genuine desire to improve can create a more sustainable and fulfilling path to flow.

Find Your Flow Triggers 

Understanding and harnessing flow triggers can unlock the door to exceptional performance, engagement, and well-being in your personal and professional life. 

Want to join a community of flow hackers and get personalized training on how to perform better than ever, under any conditions? ‍Apply to train with us.

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