What Are Flow Triggers? And How Do They Work?

Written by
Troy Erstling

What Are Flow Triggers? And How Do They Work?

Written by
Troy Erstling

What Are Flow Triggers? And How Do They Work?

Written by
Troy Erstling

Let’s talk about flow triggers. The things that you can do to drive yourself into a flow state.

The concept of flow triggers is based on the work of people like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Herb Benson, Robert Sapolsky, and. Keith Sawyer. 

In a nutshell, when we use these triggers, they are doing one of two things. 

They are either: 

  • Pumping neurochemicals like dopamine and norepinephrine into the system - Chemicals that drive focus, excitement, and engagement.
  • Lowering cognitive load - They reduce the number of things we are trying to pay attention to in any given moment. By lowering our cognitive load we free up more energy that can be better used for focus. 

Here is the thing, flow triggers are different for everyone. 

They depend on what gets you excited/stressed/curious/interested etc. 

Therefore, understanding what your individual flow triggers are is an essential piece of learning how to perform at your best.

What Are the Various Flow Triggers and What Do They Do in the Brain and Body? 

Here’s a quick oversimplified breakdown of them all, including the mechanism they use: 

  • Curiosity/Passion/Purpose - Dopamine
  • Autonomy - Dopamine/reducing cognitive load
  • Complete Concentration - Reducing cognitive load
  • Risk - Norepinephrine
  • Novelty - Dopamine 
  • Complexity - Dopamine
  • Unpredictability and Surprise - Dopamine 
  • Deep Embodiment - Reducing cognitive load
  • Immediate Feedback - Reducing cognitive load/dopamine/norepinephrine depending on feedback
  • Clear Goals - Reducing cognitive load
  • Challenge/Skill Ratio - Reducing cognitive load/dopamine/norepinephrine depending on feedback
  • Creativity/Pattern Recognition - Dopamine

Using Flow Triggers in Your Toolbelt

For today’s article, we want to explore the idea that flow triggers can be looked at as an “toolbelt”. An inventory of tools that can be used based on what the situation requires of you. 

Just because you know what your triggers are, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to use them all at the same time. 

You want to have contextual awareness and use only what the situation demands of you. 

You want to keep something in your toolbelt so that if you can feel attention slipping away, you can pull out the big guns when the previous tools are no longer working.

It’s like having a hammer vs. a gun vs. a bazooka. There’s no reason to be bringing out the bazooka every day to work when a hammer can suffice. 

More importantly, that nuke is fucking heavy! 

Takes a lot of energy to use it. Using the nukes every day is not sustainable. 

We often find that the simplest tool - that requires the least force - is the most effective. 

Think of it like drinking a cup of coffee. Ideally, you should only be drinking it if you’re tired and need energy.

If you already have great energy levels, if you’re already stimulated, you shouldn’t need the cup of coffee. You want to save it for when you need it most for maximum benefit.

We think of using triggers in the exact same way.

For example, as I’ve been writing this article, I’ve been writing in silence. I just noticed my attention slipping slightly, so I went onto Spotify and put on some music. 

The slight addition of music is enough to change the mood without taking a hard break, and I’ve continued this tangent of writing, thus maintaining my focus and energy levels.

I only use the flow trigger when it becomes necessary. I tap into the toolbelt as needed so that I get maximum benefit from it. I don’t rely or lean on the trigger, I use it as a supplement when the situation demands it.

Some days, it's easier to get in the zone than others. 

Sometimes, we only need two or three triggers, and we want to save the other triggers for when we can feel our attention slipping in order to SUSTAIN flow.


Taking Flow Trigger Inventory

Practically speaking, take an inventory of your flow triggers by journaling.

When was the last time that you felt in the zone

Where were you? What did you do?

And what did you do right before?

Then take it a step further and try to prioritize the flow triggers by effectiveness.

Which ones give the most bang for their buck? 

Which triggers are the daily reliable ones?

 Which ones do you pull out when you need to perform at a high level?

Map out the frequency with which you can use each flow trigger:

Daily, weekly, monthly.

Ask yourself if you’re using the right triggers in the right situation.

Course correct accordingly. 

How Do We Use Our Flow Triggers in a Sustainable and Reliable Way?

By SAVING our triggers for when we need them most. 

By having a toolbelt of different options that we can use when we need them. 

Knowing what tool to use in what moment and in the precise quantity that you need it. 

The precision of a Samurai warrior. This is the true Kung-Fu of Flow, my friends. 

Now get out there and build your toolbelt!

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