You have experienced flow.
It may have been for just a fleeting moment, or perhaps you have learned to prolong the flow experience. You spent much of your childhood in a state of flow, and you can do much to spend more of your adulthood in flow.
Being in flow is to slip into psychological state of optimal consciousness, characterised by total focus, absorption and peak performance.
In the 1970’s psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi led a huge research study into optimal states of mind and peak performance. The study demonstrated that these states derived from total immersion in activity. He named this the “flow state”, and its easy to know why: flow is flowy.
We are familiar with the flow of water along a riverbed, the flow of an artist immersed in a painting, the flow of a jazz band creating on the fly. We all know what it feels like to flow, and what it feels like when something is not flowing. One is a smooth, harmonious, effortless state of ease, the other is stagnant, blocked and… un-flowy.
My feeling is that since the beginning of humanity, we have used flow states to achieve peak performance. Just like hunters of the past would have honed attention to kill prey, and artisans immersed themselves in their craft to achieve excellence, today, elite athletes, entrepreneurs and artists tune into flow to unleash their potential.
Now, businesses and sports teams are now looking to set up their cultures to try and achieve collective flow. Flow is the key that unlocks full human potential. It is the gateway through which we walk to be our greatest selves.
In the last 40 years psychologists and neuroscientists have started researching the state and offering all kinds of models, neurobiology and analysis to the discussion.
What happens when we flow?
When we slip into flow our brain’s electrical and chemical patterns change, driving a shift in how we process information. We act spontaneously and effortlessly as our senses become heightened, time becomes distorted, our sense of self vanishes. Our attention becomes laser focused. We feel calm and completely in control. We achieve our goals with style and ease.
We become better adapted to make rapid and complex decisions. Pattern recognition and creativity are boosted. A dazzling array of neurochemical, neuroanatomical and physiological changes occur that allow us quite simply, to do shit better and faster.
Recent studies have shown that we are 500% more productive when in flow and up to 300% more creative. Elite units in the military have started artificially inducing flow (using trans-cranial stimulation – electric currents in areas of the brain) so they can accelerate learning.
How do we achieve Flow?
There are 3 critical Flow factors:
- Finding the Sweet spot
This is the fundamental ingredient for achieving Flow, and getting this right is the difference between frustration and flow. The difficulty of your task has to be just right. If the task is too easy, you will get bored and eventually stop. If the task is too difficult, you will get frustrated and eventually stop. Either way, you won’t find that joyous sweet spot of flow. There has to be the right challenge for your skill level, so be aware of making things harder or easier to maximise the chance to flow.
- Concentration and focus:
If you are distracted while trying to do anything, you won’t find flow. Distractions are like speed-bumps in the road. They slow us down and stop our momentum. It is very simple: No focus, no Flow. When you want to focus, create an environment where you will not be disturbed. Take action to deliberately craft this environment. This could mean noise cancelling headphones, switching off the phone, shutting down facebook or going surfing by yourself.
- Goals and feedback loop:
Goals focus the mind, and establish a mechanism to measure your progress and provide a sense of achievement. People in Flow achieve their goals. Immediate feedback allows you to know if you hit your goal, come close or wildly missed. This feedback is an essential component of the perpetuating loop of deep flow states. Feedback allows for adjustments and improvements which the challenge/skill ratio just right and keep us in the sweet spot of Flow.
Understanding these 3 critical Flow Factors empowers us to take action to upgrade our performance.
What can I do now to optimise my flow?
- Challenge yourself and take a few risks:
Of all the triggers for flow states, risk is the most powerful. This is because our mind and bodies have in-built systems for survival and protection. When we take risks, our subconscious steps in and we suddenly gain access to a powerful set of tools to get us out of the situation in one piece. Our subconscious system reacts rapidly compared to our conscious system.
It also draws upon a huge hard-drive of data to create the optimal responses to risky situations. Every single thing you do in life is recorded in your brain. When we are in flow states, our brains access our subconscious hard-drive, finds what it needs in a microsecond and merges this memory with the novelty of the new situation you are currently in, to form a creative response. Risk= creativity. So take a risk, push outside your comfort zone, and see how your body and mind react.
- Meditation & mindfulness:
When we meditate we are training the mind to achieve a state of heightened awareness. Achieving this state requires concentration and mental discipline. The regular practice of seated meditation is probably the single-most powerful way to train yourself for optimal performance in every sphere of life.
Mindfulness is the art of bringing the quality of awareness without judgement to every moment and task we engage in. Practice brushing your teeth with mindfulness, have a mindful shower, make your tea as though there is nothing else in the world going on. In doing so you are training yourself to live in the present moment, the only place that flow (and life) occurs.
- Use the force young Jedi:
Flow is a state of mind, its a powerful force and it has a dark side, which I call the anti-flow. If you find yourself fixating on problems, being self-critical, complaining about life comparing yourself to other people, moaning about your problems or bitching about anything even silently in your mind… you are in danger of succumbing to the Dark side.. and you will not find flow in this place.
Look for the awesome-ness and beauty of each moment and every situation. I have a buddy Steve, and when it starts to rain he gets excited and wants to play. He has trained himself to see the opportunity to splash around and be a mucky kid when it rains, so he has turned a problem into an opportunity. You won’t find Steve sulking at the window when it pisses down outside! You’ll find him running, surfing, riding his bike climbing trees or jumping in puddles.
Every problem presents an opportunity to learn. Your attitude is the one thing you ALWAYS have control of. Use it wisely.
Looking for ways to add more flow in our lives is a worthwhile journey.
Not only will you have a lot of fun doing so, but you will set yourself up for greater productivity, creativity and performance.