Tapping into Flow
With so many of us fixated on the journey of personal development, it comes to no surprise that guidelines for achieving “flow” have become widely popularised. It is helpful to recognise that; “flow”, is a process. Flow can be identified as a highly ordered and optimal state of being — a heightened state of consciousness. When a person is in “flow”, they feel and perform at their best. Typically, a person may experience the momentum of “flow” when completely immersed in an activity. Both laser focus and experiencing a deep sense of enjoyment are key indicators that a person is in the flow-state. We see this phenomenon frequently when we observe high-performing athletes or composers in action. It is important to note, however, that being “in the flow” or “in the zone” is not a new concept. In fact, this state of flow has been well documented from around the world, for centuries. Even in spiritual traditions; they talk about achieving this state. With extra-ordinary processing capabilities and heightened sensory perceptions; it is no wonder that so many of us are seeking ways to unlock this potential. To truly understand the power of flow, we must first take a closer look at what it feels like to be in this optimal state. What is the experience?
Many surfers recall accessing a state of flow when they are feeling; “in the zone”, and catching their wave. According to Steven Kotler, author of Stealing Fire; “It’s the moment of total absorption. Time speeds up or slows down like a freeze-frame effect. Mental and physical ability go through the roof, and the brain takes in more information per second, processing it more deeply.” It’s in this flow-state; that we seem to have access to a higher level of intelligence and an increase in awareness. This is reflected in our effortless actions. We melt into the moment; intrinsically absorbed in the task at hand. Even our sense of time and our sense of self seem to dissipate. We experience oneness; an altered state of consciousness — there is a great sense of deep embodiment. Intuitive awareness, mental clarity and enhanced creativity are all by-products of experiencing this optimal state of flow. According to Dr. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, our human brain can consciously process up to around 120 bits of information per second This is the capability of our conscious mind. Our subconscious mind, however, is able to process over a whopping 1 million bits of information per second. Yes, you read that correctly. The key point to acknowledge here is that; if we access the flow state — we essentially are able to tap into the ability of our subconscious mind.Through altering our state of consciousness we have the opportunity to access this intelligence and experience this extraordinary potential. Interestingly it has been discovered that our prefrontal cortex, located at the top-front of our cranial brain, slows down when we access into this flow state. This process is referred to as ‘transient hypofrontality’. The prefrontal cortex can be thought of as the part of the brain which is our sense of self. It is responsible for how we make meaning of the world, our sense of morality and our ego. Hacking into flow states provides us with the ability to silence our inner critic which stems from the prefrontal cortex. In flow, our mind’s typical Chit-chat begins to quieten and we move into a realm of connectedness.
The key components of flow state:
- Enhanced performance
- Loss of self-consciousness
- Distorted sense of time
- Increased level of focus
- Bursts of creativity and learning
What is happening to our brain and body during this state of flow?
When we enter the “flow state”; we are entirely absorbed in that moment. Our inner critic is silenced and we completely lose track of the outside world. All the meanwhile — our performance is extraordinary. To take this further, it is important to note that there is a distinctive change that occurs with our brainwave patterns and our neurotransmitters every time this state of flow occurs. The flow-genome project have been able to document this process particularly well. They call it the flow cycle. The flow cycle consists of four stages.
The Flow Cycle:
1. Stage one: The Struggle
At this initial stage, our mind is usually involved in trying to solve a challenging problem or learning a new skill. It is likely that we have higher doses of cortisol and adrenaline deposited into our body. The activated sympathetic nervous system raises our heart rate in preparation for the challenge at hand. This can be experienced as healthy stress or frustration. Depending on our level of skill and if we have applied the challenge to ratio principle, we will either be boosted up to stage two and geared towards entering the state of flow, or if the challenge is too much it will just feel overwhelming. Typically in this alert state we will be operating with BETA brainwaves. The important point to note here; is that when the brain is highly aroused and engaged in mental activities it will produce BETA waves.
2. Stage two : The Release
After the initial stage of struggling, our mind will want to take an opportunity to reset, release and come back into a state of balance. This means that the increased levels of stress hormones begin to diminish and the BETA brainwaves start slowing down. This is the moment where our brainwaves transition from BETA to ALPHA wavs of 8-12 Hz. If we take time out to reflect after completing a task — our brain would be in an ALPHA State.
3. Stage Three: The Flow State
Once we have reflected, we may choose to have another attempt at solving the initial problem. Since we have already experienced the first wave of struggle, we are now more prepared to go a little further to overcome the challenge by entering the zone. This is the point where the initial level of difficulty of the challenge decreases, as we stretch and develop our abilities with our full attention. In the flow-state our brain is flooded with endorphins and dopamine, giving us that motivational feeling and sense of euphoria. This is the space between ALPHA and THETA - a dream-like state at 8hz. This is the moment where we have successfully found the sweet spot between what we find too easy and too challenging. It is ecstasy!
4. Stage four: The Recovery
Once we have experienced the peak of the flow state, our mind brings us back to our usual state of being. Our sense of time, space and self returns. This is where we feel a sense of reward and fulfilment. This is reinforced by the release of serotonin and oxytocin. Our mind has gone in to full recovery.
What prevents us from reaching flow?
Perceived stress is one of the major reasons we may not be able to achieve a flow-state. Stress is a natural response when the brain and body picks up information that something is potentially problematic or dangerous. This is our survival mechanism and it is a huge factor in our evolution; it has helped us to stay alive as a species. Today, however, the threat is not comparable, yet the mind/body still reacts with the same stress response as if the danger were real. Stress has a degenerative effect over time and usually consists of an imbalance in your autonomic nervous system (ANS).Every human being has what is called a sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system, once activated, increases our heart rate but is also known to generate what is referred to as a “fight or flight” response within the body. In contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system is primarily responsible for the body’s ability to relax. Interestingly, when we are in a state of flow; both of these systems work synergistically together in a highly ordered state. This level of coherence generates a cohesive balance within the autonomic nervous system.
When we are not in a state of coherence or “flow”, our ANS is in consistent flux between both systems. Pro-longed stress can result in higher levels of activity in the sympathetic nervous system which can lead to a number of health issues. When we experience “fight or flight”, aside from the increased heart rate, there is usually high levels of cortisol, adrenaline and other “stress hormones” pumped into our body. Although adrenaline usually depletes after a short amount of time, cortisol can stay in the body for days at a time. This is the main reason why sometimes we can feel wired and on overdrive. It is because our body is flooded with cortisol. Harbouring these high levels of cortisol in our system can impact our state of mind and prevent us from reaching the flow-state.
Why flow is beneficial?
- Improved performance
- Highly sensitive
- Increased levels of awareness
- Further learning and skill development
- Sense of clarity
- Improved decision making
The conditions required to cultivate the flow state:
To truly harness the potential of achieving the flow state; it is important that we first create the right conditions. Take note in mastering these four key flow triggers and make sure you keep these in your Productivity toolbox!
Set crystal clear goals
In order to maximise your potential of cultivating flow; it is important that you have your goals clearly set out. You need a clear, concrete objective. If you lack clarity in what you want to achieve, it can cause unnecessary setbacks. You need to know exactly what you are doing — and why you are doing it. Intentionally set actionable goals that make it easier to block out distractions. Remember, setting specific goals can prevent your mind from wandering. Keep in mind if you are too concerned with the outcome it can hinder your performance.
Create a Feedback loop
Receiving immediate feedback is essential for achieving and sustaining flow. Having immediate feedback is curial so you can change direction when required. Creating a Feedback loop will not only provide you with real-time results; but it will give you a chance to make the necessary adjustments to stay in the flow. Ultimately - immediate feedback leads to fast growth and innovation.
Elon Musk shares a beneficial insight into the importance of feedback loops; “I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better. I think that’s the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.”
Master your challenge to skill ratio
In order for the flow-state to occur, you need to make sure your skill level is well-suited to the challenge. You have to know that the task is challenging but feasible. Balance is key. If the challenge level of the task is too high — it can cause you overwhelm and distress. If the challenge level of the task is too low — you are likely to get bored, distracted or have your mind wander. Make sure you develop your skills to meet the challenge appropriately. As csikszentmihalyi says, “if challenges are too low, one gets back to flow by increasing them. if challenges are too great, one can return to the flow state by learning new skills.” Slightly stretching your current abilities and skill-set in a challenge can result in cultivating a flow-state. as ““Flow shows up when we’re stretching, pushing our skills to the max.” - Kotler
Undivided attention (The laser-beam focus)
It is incredibly important that you maintain a high level of concentration and a laser-focus when carrying out your task. Maintaining this level of attention can help you reach a flow state. Don’t allow any internal or external distractions to lead you astray from the task at hand. Remain attentive for the entirety of the session — allowing yourself to become completely absorbed into the activity. Sustain this high level of focus and you will momentarily forget about everything else, including your sense of time, sense of surroundings and even sense of self. You have to learn to control your consciousness. Make sure you singularly focus on one task at a time only — multi-tasking is considered a procrastinators dream! Multi-tasking is perhaps one of the greatest obstacles we face today, with so many distractions at the tip of our fingers. Concentrating on a single task increases our productivity, increases our accuracy for the task at hand and increases our power of retention.
To achieve and maintain flow requires us to step outside of our comfort zone. This is the growth mindset that will empower us to take necessary risks. We need high consequences for what we do. A method we can adopt to ensure we keep ourselves uncomfortable; is to make ourselves socially accountable.
As individuals; we tend to access a flow-state when we are doing something we enjoy and are skilled at. After reading this blogpost, you may have a better idea of what makes you happy and what has the potential to bring you into this state of flow. What are the specific activities that you do in your life that drives flow? Remember— everyone accesses this flow-state differently. Are you more likely to access flow when you are moving your body or just thinking? Knowing what really gives you joy and focus can increase your chances of cultivating this flow-state. Jot all of these answers down to give you a snapshot of what is working for you. Sometimes it can be fun to let your curiosity take you into exploration of other activities you have not yet listed that may also spark your creativity. Flow is like a muscle, the more you train it — the easier it will be to access this state more frequently.