How your brain craves flow

Written by
Steven Kotler

How your brain craves flow

Written by
Steven Kotler

How your brain craves flow

Written by
Steven Kotler

Did you know that psychological triggers are conditions in our inner environment that create more flow?

They’re psychological strategies for driving attention into the now.

Back in the 1970s, pioneering flow researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified clear goals, immediate feedback, and the challenge/skills ratio as the three most critical.

Let’s take a closer look.

Clear goals, our first psychological trigger, tell us where and when to put our attention. They are different from the high, hard problems of big goals.

Those big goals refer to overarching passions: feeding the hungry and opening the space frontier.

Clear goals, meanwhile, concern all the baby steps it’s going to take to achieve those big goals.

With these smaller goals, call them sub-goals, clarity is of the utmost importance for staying present and finding flow.

When goals are clear, the mind doesn’t have to wonder about what to do or what to do next—it already knows.

Thus concentration tightens, motivation is heightened, and extraneous information gets filtered out.

As a result, action and awareness start to merge, and we’re pulled even deeper into now. Just as important, in the now, there’s no past or future and a lot less room for self—which are the intruders most likely to yank us to the then.

This also tells us something about emphasis. When considering clear goals, most have a tendency to skip over the adjective clear to get to the noun goals.

When told to set clear goals, we immediately visualize ourselves on the Olympic podium, the Academy Award stage, or the Fortune 500 list, saying, “I’ve been picturing this moment since I was fifteen,” and think that’s the point.

But those podium moments can pull us out of the present. Even if success is seconds away, it’s still a future event subject to hopes, fears, and all sorts of now-crushing distractions.

Think of the long list of infamous sporting chokes: the dropped pass in the final seconds of the Super Bowl; the missed putt at the end of the Augusta Masters.

In those moments, the gravity of the goal pulled the participants out of the now, when, ironically, the now was all they needed to win.

If creating more flow is the aim, then the emphasis falls on clear, not goals. Clarity gives us certainty. We know what to do and where to focus our attention while we are doing it.

When goals are clear, metacognition is replaced by in-the-moment cognition, and the self stays out of the picture.

Applying this idea in our daily life means breaking tasks into bite-size chunks and setting goals accordingly.

A writer, for example, is better off trying to pen three great paragraphs at a time, rather than attempting one great chapter.

Think challenging yet manageable—just enough stimulation to shortcut attention into the now, not enough stress to pull you back out again.

Immediate feedback, our next psychological trigger, is another shortcut into the now.

The term refers to a direct, in-the-moment coupling between cause and effect. As a focusing mechanism, immediate feedback is something of an extension of clear goals.

Clear goals tell us what we’re doing; immediate feedback tells us how to do it better.

If we know how to improve performance in real-time, the mind doesn’t go off in search of clues for betterment; we can keep ourselves fully present and fully focused and thus much more likely to be in flow.

Implementing this in business is fairly straightforward: Tighten feedback loops. Practice agile design. Put mechanisms in place so attention doesn’t have to wander. Ask for more input. How much input?

Well, forget quarterly reviews. Think of daily reviews.

Studies have found that in professions with less direct feedback loops—stock analysis, psychiatry, medicine—even the best get worse over time.

Surgeons, by contrast, are the only physicians that improve the longer they’re out of medical school. Why? Mess up on the table and someone dies.

That’s immediate feedback.

The challenge/skills ratio, the last of our psychological flow triggers, is arguably the most important.

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; not hard enough to make us snap.

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 fairly 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.

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