How To Trigger Flow Without Taking Physical Risk

Written by
Steven Kotler

How To Trigger Flow Without Taking Physical Risk

Written by
Steven Kotler

How To Trigger Flow Without Taking Physical Risk

Written by
Steven Kotler

Environmental triggers are qualities in the environment that drive people deeper into the flow.

High consequences are the first in this category.

As you likely know, flow follows focus, and consequences catch our attention.

When there’s danger lurking in the environment, we don’t need to concentrate extra hard to drive focus; the elevated risk levels do the job for us.

And this doesn’t just mean taking physical risks.

The science shows that other risks—emotional, intellectual, creative, and social—work just as well.

Here’s how Harvard psychologist Ned Hallowell puts it:

To reach flow, one must be willing to take risks.

The lover must be willing to risk rejection to enter this state. The athlete must be willing to risk physical harm, even loss of life, to enter this state.

The artist must be willing to be scorned and despised by critics and the public and still push on.

And the average person—you and me—must be willing to fail, look foolish, and fall flat on our faces should we wish to enter this state.”

These facts also tell us that those exponential entrepreneurs with “fail forward” as their de facto motto have an incredible advantage.

If people don’t have the space to fail, then they don’t have the ability to take risks.

On Facebook, there is a sign hanging in the main stairwell that reads: “Move fast, break things.”

This kind of attitude is critical.

If you’re not incentivizing risk, you’re denying access to flow—which is the only way to keep pace in a breakneck world.

A rich environment, the next environmental trigger, is a combination platter of novelty, unpredictability, and complexity—three elements that catch and hold our attention much like risk.

Novelty means both danger and opportunity, and when either is present, it pays to pay attention.

Unpredictability means we don’t know what happens next; thus we pay extra attention to the next event.

Complexity, when there’s lots of salient information coming at us at once, does more of the same.

How to employ this trigger on the job?

Simply increase the amount of novelty, complexity, and unpredictability in the environment.

This is what Steve Jobs did when he designed Pixar.

By building a large atrium at the building’s center, then locating the mailboxes, cafeteria, meeting rooms, and most famously, the bathrooms, beside the atrium, he forced employees from all walks of the company to randomly bump into one another, massively increasing the amount of novelty, complexity, and unpredictability in their daily life.

Deep embodiment is a kind of total physical awareness. It means paying attention to multiple sensory streams at once.

Take Montessori education. The Montessori classroom has been shown to be one of the highest flow environments on Earth.

Why? Because they emphasize learning through doing.

So, the equation for an ideal environment for flow looks something like this:

High consequences + rich environment (novelty, complexity, unpredictability) + deep embodiment = focus = flow state.

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