Learning how to induce flow is important. It benefits personal development and your sense of well being.
The Godfather of flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes in “Flow” (1990) “To improve life one must improve the quality of experience.” He goes on to explain, “One of the most frequently mentioned dimensions of the flow experience is that, while it lasts, one is able to forget all the unpleasant aspects of life.”
Flow is the opposite of frantic, distracted multi-tasking (a recipe for burnout).
When you are in flow you are completely focused on the task at hand. Every distraction falls away.
When you can get into flow, your performance goes through the roof. If you spent one day in flow, you could get more done than your peers do in a week.
Flow can show up anywhere. Even in a distraction-prone work environment.
But you should meet certain conditions.
This is how you prepare yourself and your space to induce flow.
Finding Your Flow Triggers
Flow triggers are actions that can drive you into a flow state.
They work in concert with your brain’s performance-affecting chemicals:
- Norepinephrine — along with dopamine, tighten your focus.
- Dopamine — shows up when you want something. Focus and motivation.
- Endorphins — block pain, allowing you to work longer.
- Anandamide — prompts lateral mental connections. Encourages insights.
- Serotonin — the “feel good” chemical.
Flow is the only state that releases all five of these chemicals at once. That’s why flow state can produce the most powerful motivation on the planet.
Researchers describe flow as the source code of intrinsic motivation.
Along with neurochemistry, flow triggers help you to reduce cognitive load.
Reduce what your brain is paying attention to, and more mental energy is freed up to power the thing you’re trying to do.
Think about what gets you excited, energized, engaged and curious. Those are the things that hold your flow triggers.
Here are some of the known flow triggers. See which one’s you frequently experience.
- Passion and Purpose
- Autonomy - personal freedom and independence
- Complete Concentration
- Risk-taking - mental or physical
- Novelty - Being open to new experiences
- Complexity - something that requires deep focus and concentration
- Unpredictability and Surprise
- Deep Embodiment - focusing with your whole body
- Immediate Feedback
- Clear Goals
- Challenge/Skill Ratio - a task that is slightly more difficult (about 4%) than your comfort zone.
- Pattern Recognition - a trigger for creative thinking
When you get into flow, usually one or more of these show up. You’ll notice that some of these are internal (curiosity and purpose). Others depend more on your environment (immediate feedback and pattern recognition).
Designing your life to maximize access to these triggers is possible. It starts with knowing what you can control.
Building Your Temple of Flow
The quality of your workspace has real consequences for flow.
You want to create a space that:
- Lowers your anxiety and stress.
- Reduces your cognitive load.
- Reduces friction to performing the task at hand.
- Allows focus on clear goals.
There are many practical ways to do this.
Let’s look at five important ones.
- Become a minimalist in your setup. Remove anything from your workspace that doesn’t help you start work.
- Use noise-canceling headphones to aim for a distraction proof environment.
- Regularly clean your space.
- Everything you need should be easily retrievable. Reduce the friction to starting work.
- If possible, your temple of flow should include natural light. This is important for energy, mood, and circadian rhythms.
For more practical tips, consider our 8-week “Zero to Dangerous” training course.
By setting up your space to optimize flow, you’ll be gating your attention. Your temple of flow becomes a filter to remove anything attempting to block flow.
Inducing Flow with Locus of Control
Setting up your temple of flow is a way to take more control over your environment.
How much do you believe you have control over the outcome of events in your life?
Individuals with a strong internal locus of control believe events in their life are primarily dictated by their actions.
People who believe external forces beyond their control have the biggest influence on their lives have an external locus of control.
Try this exercise: put your relationships and work activities into categories. Estimate a percentage that you have control over each.
You’ll remember that autonomy is a flow trigger. It’s no surprise, then, that flow states are more associated with areas of Internal locus of control.
Think about how you might still find flow in the areas of your life beyond your control.
Curiosity, Passion, Purpose and Inducing Flow
Areas where flow triggers can be stacked will lead to a higher flow lifestyle.
Activities that you are curious about will have a better chance of turning into passions. Once something is a passion in your life, you’ll find ways to link it to your purpose.
This is probably the path to flow that many extreme athletes take.
Make sure that your ego doesn’t get too entangled with your purpose. Make amplifying your attention on the task be your goal.
Ego and self-consciousness are flow blockers.
Skill and Inducing Flow
The flow cycle is a reflexive system that responds to inputs.
To experience flow, there has to be a balance between your skill and the demands of the task you’re doing.
Learning a skill takes time. Our brains have a limited amount of explicit working memory to code new skills.
As you progress from beginner to amateur or expert, more processes will become automatic.
You should actively look to take on new challenging skills. This will feed the risk-taking flow trigger. Eventually, you’ll reach the skills/challenge sweet spot. This will add a new high flow activity to your lifestyle.
Flow is a holistic response. It results from a harmony found between all the states of consciousness and the individuals' skills matching their goals (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
Inducing Flow Artificially
DARPA researchers wanted to test skills during flow with military snipers. So, they used transcranial stimulation to artificially induce flow.
What they found was that target acquisition improved 230% in flow.
Advanced Brain Monitoring in Carlsbad, CA performed a similar study using artificially-induced flow.
They discovered flow cut the time for novice snipers to become experts by 50%.
Last year, a similar study was performed using gamers.
Direct current stimulation (tDCS) was applied over the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) area. Anodal tDCS was applied over the right parietal cortex area. The subjects played Tetris or a First-person shooter game.
This type of stimulation has been shown to increase learning outcomes in implicit motor tasks (think long-distance putt in golf).
These two brain regions were targeted because they also appear to light up during flow experiences in complex real-life motor tasks that occur during sports, games, or other areas of life.
Participants playing either game who received the stimulation experienced significantly higher experience of flow states than the sham (or control) group.
Inducing Flow in a Group Setting
Group flow can be even more powerful than individual flow. Many of the neurochemicals released during flow are amplified in group settings.
These are the triggers for group flow.
- Complete Concentration
- Shared Goals
- Shared Risk
- Yes and…(the concept comes from improvisation. It’s the idea of agreeing and adding to another person’s suggestion to keep the conversation flowing.)
- Close Listening
- A Sense of Control
- Blending Egos
- Equal Participation
- Open Communication
In his book, Group Genius, Keith Sawyer echoes much of what we’ve already mentioned for inducing flow.
“People are more likely to get into flow when their environment has four important characteristics. First, and most important, they’re doing something where their skills match the challenge of the task. If the challenge is too great for their skills, they become frustrated; but if the task isn’t challenging enough, they simply grow bored. Second, flow occurs when the goal is clear; and third, when there’s constant and immediate feedback about how close you are to achieving that goal. Fourth, flow occurs when you’re free to concentrate fully on the task.”
Personality Traits Conducive to Flow
High-flow individuals usually have many traits associated with an autotelic personality.
- Low self-centeredness
- Highly independent
- Collaborative and cooperative in group settings.
We don’t know yet if training up these traits produces more flow or not.
However, aiming to embody these traits more certainly won’t block flow.
A study conducted by Martin Seligman, Director of the Penn Positive Psychology Center, and Chris Peterson from University of Michigan found that using five core strengths at once induces an extremely high-flow environment.
Focus on training up your strengths. This seems to make people capable of more flow.
Here’s a quick strengths assessment:
- List five major accomplishments.
- List three character strengths that helped you accomplish each one.
- Find the overlaps.
- Check your results with someone who will be honest with you (a BS detector).
- Map out a program to train up in these strengths.
“If you’re really interested in high performance work, you need to review your own life,” Steven Kotler.
Avoid These Flow Blockers
Knowing what blocks flow is just as important as knowing how to induce flow.
There are five main flow blockers to avoid:
- Distraction and interruptions. This is why controlling your inputs and environment is so crucial to inducing flow.
- Negative thinking and a fixed mindset. Thoughts like, I’m just not good at getting in flow; or making excuses why you can’t make the suggested changes above will block you from ever experiencing more flow.
- The task is too challenging, too boring; your motivation to perform is not high enough.
- Your mental or physical preparation is lacking.
- You’re trying too hard. Over thinking, over training, not recovering and burning out.
Want to discover the single biggest thing blocking your flow?