Flow 101: Get In The Zone

Flow 101: Get In The Zone

“It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion. During those spells I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken.”

-11 Time NBA Champion, Bill Russell


“There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other… Sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger.”

-Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


I love the zone. I can’t get enough of it. I wish I could live there, the place where utter focus meets sheer bliss and I feel as if I am capable of accomplishing anything. I feel…almost godlike.

We’ve all been in the zone before. Hours pass, and we have performed far beyond our normal everyday capabilities. Some call it a superpower, others say it’s an altered state of consciousness. In science, it’s called flow, and it doesn’t have to be impossible to find anymore.

Most people hope to find flow. They hope that they will absolutely crush their next presentation. They hope that they will play their most inspired athletic performance during the upcoming game. They hope that when they finally sit down to write that article, that they’ll enter the zone and sit back 4 hours later with a masterpiece in front of them, scarcely aware of what just happened during that time.

It’s time to stop hoping for flow, and to start triggering it.

What is Flow and Where To Find It

If you start digging into flow, you’re bound to read about a man named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The only thing more interesting than watching someone try to pronounce his name, is the psychological theory he has developed on the topic of optimal human performance. He literally wrote the book on the subject of flow and started a revolution of “flow seekers”, hunters searching for that blissful state of ultimate productivity.

What could happen in a world where people could trigger flow whenever they wanted? Think about a time when you felt in the zone, so engrossed in what you were doing that it seemed time stood still and every obstacle in front of you was easily conquered. Your final product, whether it is a work of art, a business deal, the score on the scoreboard – is incredible. You look around the room, wondering if it was actually you who accomplished this feat.

Now imagine, that all the work you ever do felt like this. These are the symptoms of flow, imagine that every time you sat down to work, it felt like this:

  • Laser-Like Focus
  • Disappearance of Ego (Non-Awareness of Self and Others)
  • Impaired Perception of Time (Intense Focus on the Present Moment)
  • Bliss
  • Complete Control Over the Situation
  • Unfettered Creativity and Productivity

Here’s the problem: there’s no magic button that we can push to trigger flow (yet). But there are things that we can do that give us a much higher chance of entering that elusive state.

To trigger flow, there appears to be two things we need to consider:

  1. Finding the right activities and timing in which flow occurs more often
  2. Routines that prime the brain to more easily enter a flow state

The first consideration was set in motion by Dr. Csikszentmihalyi himself. Looking at the diagram below, you can see that flow occurs in moments when a high level of skill meets a high level of challenge. If you are engaged in an activity where your skills are not prepared for the high intensity of the challenge, then you may find yourself in a state of arousal or even anxiety. Too skilled for a simple challenge? You’ll probably feel control or even begin to relax and get bored.

Because flow occurs at the intersection of a high level of skill and challenge, it is no mystery that most people experience flow while working on pursuits in which they dedicate most of their time. This fact presents important information for us to consider if we are interested in getting in the zone more often.

  1. Choose an activity that you are good at. This could be anything. Drawing, socializing, bartering, researching, running, skiing, you name it.
  2. Increase the challenge of the activity to the point where you are unsure if you will be able to do it. Let’s take skiing for example. Maybe you have been skiing for a while and have gotten good at running intermediate routes identified by a blue square. These slopes are beginning bore you and you’re becoming aggravated by how many people are running them at the same time. They are the most popular after all Looking at the diagram above, you’re beginning to slip into control and boredom. It’s time to up the ante and challenge yourself to an advanced slope, represented by a black diamond. While these have scared you in the past, your skills have advanced to the point where you need to subsequently meet them with increased challenge in order to enter flow.

Considering these two steps is what Csikszentmihalyi identifies as the way to choose activities that trigger flow more regularly. Now, let’s take a look at how contemporary researchers have expanded on Csikszentmihalyi’s theories and provided even more actionable advice on the topic of achieving flow states. After all, what good is a theory unless we can apply to our lives?

People that Flow On a Regular Basis

Are there people that are in a flow state on a regular basis? People that have created a map for finding the zone? Author Steven Kotler believes the answer is yes, and that he has found them.

In his book, The Rise of Superman, Kotler examines the theoretical basis for flow, combines research and personal anecdotes of the world’s best extreme athletes, and extrapolates the findings into formulas that can be applied by anyone anywhere to help them achieve a flow state.

Action-adventure athletes are those people that you see doing insane stunts on TV (often sponsored by Red Bull) that if they were to fail, have an excellent chance at dying. These are extreme surfers, skaters, paddlers, skiers, and climbers that have to perform at the top of their game or risk death. There is no room for error, no hoping for flow. They either find it or it’s game over.

These athletes surround their lives around what Kotler calls Flow Triggers, and one of the biggest triggers for flow is risk. Hurling your body down a snowy mountain at 100 miles an hour. Pretty risky. That’s why these athletes were the perfect case-study for Kotler to examine. They enter flow states more regularly than almost anyone else on the planet.

Kotler found that Csikszentmihalyi was on the right track and expands on his theories to find what works when attempting to enter a flow state:

  1. The 4% Principle. As above, choose an activity that challenges you enough so that your skills are pushed, but not overwhelmed. The key here, is to find an activity that pushes you 4% past your best performance. Maybe you are practicing a difficult passage on the piano and can play it at 75% of the speed at which it should be played. Crank the metronome to 79% and get to work. If your personal best is to run a mile in 6 minutes (360 seconds), your new challenge is to run it in 5 minutes and 45 seconds (345.6 seconds). Eventually, you will meet your goal and it will become your new baseline, the level which is easy for you. Continue being 4% better again to stay within flow and not become bored or overwhelmed.
  2. Do What You Love To Do. What challenges you, but also provides instant gratification? The idea that you should choose something that is instantly gratifying seems to contradict the previous theories concerning mastery and optimal human performance. Kotler speaks of three popular theories of mastery that all start with an M. The Mother’s Theory is that a person’s ability to achieve mastery and success depends wholly on how they were nurtured in the environment that they were brought up in. The Musician’s Theory is that 10,000 hours of structured deliberate practice must occur before mastery can occur (this is a popular theory put forth in Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers). The Marshmallow Theory pertains to a 1960 study in which children were presented with a marshmallow, told they could eat it now if they wished, or wait for the researcher to come back in 15 minutes, and they would receive a second marshmallow. Most children ate the treat at once, but a few held off their lust for the gooey goodness and were rewarded with a second helping. Each child was studied for 40 years. The ones who could delay gratification (by not immediately eating the marshmallow) were far and away more successful and happier than those who ate the marshmallow right off the bat. The theory goes that, if you can delay gratification and put the work in without needing immediate results, the more likely you will achieve mastery. Kotler say’s that’s a load of baloney. The extreme athletes he studied often came from less than positive upbringings, most didn’t have 10,000 hours of deliberate structured practice, and weren’t delaying gratification at all. They simply went outside and did what was exhilarating. As a populous, they’re pretty impulsive. They got out and had fun doing something difficult. You should do more of the same.
  3. Use Fear As Your Compass. Most people like to structure their lives around comfort and ease. That’s why the world’s most successful, groundbreaking, and influential – aren’t most people. Recognize that on the other side of fear and pain, lies your greatest potential. If you imagine that your comfort zone is a real physical bubble, each time you reach outside of it, prove your self and your doubts wrong, you expand your comfort zone. What was once outside your comfort zone is now within your skill set. It’s time to push yourself 4% harder yet again. Look for those things that scare you, and use fear as your compass. Instead of moving away from them, move towards them. If something scares you, it’s probably a good idea to try.
  4. Reorient Your Perception of What’s Possible. Since the time when humans began timing their runs up until 1954, running a mile in less than 4 minutes was thought to be physically impossible. Some doctors actually thought that trying might kill you. Then, Roger Bannister ran a mile in 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds. Surely, a record so groundbreaking would not be broken for years to come, right? It was broken about a month later. Pretty soon, loads of people were breaking the 4-minute barrier. Now, high schoolers are doing it. Once one person proves that something is possible, it’s almost embarrassing to see that we ever thought it was impossible. Be like Bannister. Be the one that perceives impossibility as possible and go for it. Your body and mind will have to catch up to your ambition, and you will be triggering flow.

The Flow Cocktail

Your brain operates thanks to the help of neurotransmitters. These chemicals help your brain perform a myriad of different functions. Six of the most important are:

  1. Dopamine. Rewards you with positive feelings when you achieve a goal. Can also be highly addictive. Cocaine acts directly on your dopamine system.
  2. Norepinephrine. Also known as adrenaline, norepinephrine provides a surge of energy. Triggered when doing something scary (related to the fight or flight response).
  3. Anandamide. “The Bliss Molecule.” This chemical produces a heightened-state of happiness and is important for memory, motivation, and movement control.
  4. Serotonin. Often associated with confidence as serotonin has a calming, relaxing effect on the body. The more you prove yourself in stressful situations, the more your body will increase serotonin output. Also aids in memory consolidation.
  5. Oxytocin. Directly linked to human bonding and intimacy. Simply being around people increases your levels of oxytocin, but doing something nice for them takes your oxytocin output to a whole new level. So does skin to skin contact. Oxytocin actually improves your empathy and compassion for others.
  6. Endorphins. Natural pain killers present during intense exercise and orgasm. Laugh more, eat chocolate, and in general, do things that you love to do. Maybe even have a drink.

Interestingly enough, the only time these neurochemicals are actively present at the same time is, yep you guessed it, when you’re in a flow state. If you can engage in activities that stimulate the production of these neurochemicals, you begin to prime your brain to enter flow. So we have to create this neurochemical cocktail to enter the zone. How? Finding our flow triggers.

The Flow Triggers

As you can see from the description of the neurochemicals above, there are different ways to trigger the release of these neurotransmitters. The more triggers you pull, the more chemicals are released, the more your brain is primed and ready to enter a flow state. So, what are some of the most universal flow triggers?

Kotler identifies 17 flow triggers that he breaks down into four categories: Psychological, Environmental, Social, and Creative. Instead of trying to explain them myself, I’ll let Kotler explain it in his own words. Remember, that these slides may be the most important thing you read today. By consciously channeling the information and cultivating more triggers in your life, you may just enter flow more often.


Putting It Into Practice

Obviously, we’ve covered a lot of material. But it’s time for you to start thinking about how to cultivate more flow triggers into your own life. How can you push yourself, do things that are scary, and enjoy life more?

In the last month, I’ve been centering my life around trying new things, putting myself out there, and creating quality work as much as possible. A few of these things are:

  • Learning Kung Fu. I’ve never practiced a martial art, but I figured that I might as well try. I’ve discovered that sparring is one of the easiest ways to enter flow. There is no room to concentrate on anything else. If I get distracted by how I look doing it or what’s on the to-do list for tomorrow, I get hit or thrown on the ground. Not to mention, practicing the meditative forms of Tai-Chi also cultivates inner focus and concentration.
  • Improv. Related to Kotler’s “Always Say Yes” trigger above, we learn in improv to answer whatever our partner says to us with “Yes, and…”. This forces us to accept, rather than to negate, what our partner is offering us, contributing to a group flow experience. Stepping into a scene on a whim is the definition of following fear as your compass. It’s pretty damn nerve wracking to get up there and try to make people laugh with nothing to go off of. And laughter, remember, is an excellent trigger for the release of endorphins.
  • Freelance Writing. Blogging online is a pretty new pursuit for me. I’ve always been passionate about writing, but grade school and college took the fun out of it. Having to write in a specific style about something that my professor said I needed to write about, put me in a box that I am now escaping. Writing about what I want is liberating, but it can sometimes be hard to motivate myself. By using the flow trigger of isolated focus (putting everything away and blocking time-wasting websites), setting clear goals, and pushing myself to share and research things that I have never written about, I am challenging myself 4% more. It’s strange to say, but as I write this sentence, I have a feeling that the background behind my computer is hardly noticeable. It wouldn’t be the first time since I’ve taken writing more seriously that I’ve entered flow.

In the next article, we’re going to examine how to build your own specific flow trigger routine based on the insights of world chess master and martial arts champion Josh Waitzkin. His method involves a routine that you can personalize that can eventually get you in the zone within 5-10 minutes.

When do you find yourself in flow most often? What activities or strategies work for you? What have you accomplished while you were in the zone? Leave me a comment below because I’d love to hear from you. If you share something I’ve never considered, I might have to do a little research and add it to this article! Now go out there and challenge yourself 4% more. Flow is waiting.


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This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. I love the notion of an “always say yes” social flow trigger. It never occurred to me to think of it as contributing to “flow,” a concept I hadn’t really thought about until your piece, but it makes sense. You are essentially showing respect to the speaker, you are not saying they are wrong, but rather adding something to their view or statement. That is a vastly more positive approach to social interactions than simply disagreeing.

    Regardless of whether or not you’re doing improv!

    Thanks, great post!

    1. Thanks for the comment Jon! I agree, and the idea of “group flow” is a novel and exciting concept to me as well. Thinking back, I can think of multiple teams I was a part of, whether it was music, sports, or business, that seemed to get into a rhythm together and performed better than before. And crucial to this “flow” was the freedom for everyone to be heard and accepted. Goes to show how important communication and openness is in the world today.

  2. This was quite interesting for me. I am a 210+ average, competitive bowler and look to find that “flow” when I’m bowling a tournament. You have given me several thoughts as to where I can take my thinking to ensure that I perform at my best each time I bowl. I like the idea of trying to get into “the flow” in all aspects of your life. Thanks for the great tips and information!

    1. Glad I could help and I really hope you find the zone in your next competition. Let me know if you discover any new insights!

  3. Fantastic article on flow state! i will utilize what i learned here to all challenges in my life. Very helpful

    1. Thanks Josh!

  4. Any time I sit down to work on my novels I feel a sense of flow and man, do I love it. To just get lost in what I’m doing, usually something where I’ll give “an hour or two” of my time and realize that four to five hours have passed. I love that feeling, and the only downside is an increasingly messy apartment. Now that I have a blueprint on flow, I can immerse myself deeper into it. Thanks for the background and outline regarding flow, and hello to some successful writing.

    1. Awesome Todd! I too have searched for a blueprint for flow most my life. It’s a pretty exciting time we live in!

  5. What a nice post you wrote! I really enjoyed reading it and I could not be silent about your post so I decided to leave my comment here and say Thank You! For sharing this quality post with others.
    Actually this is exactly the information that I was looking for about human performance and when I landed to your website and read this post, it answered all my questions in details.
    So I’m happy that you decided to write about this topic and share it with people. It’s very useful and can definitely be used as a great source for human performance.

    I will come back to your website again for sure and I’m looking forward to read your new posts.)

    Thanks!

    1. Glad to hear from you Ali. Looking forward to getting to know you!

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