You know what the zone is and how to find it. You know what activities will get you there. You know that pushing yourself appropriately is the key to finding flow. Now it’s time to build a routine, specific to you, that will trigger the flow state whenever you need it.
What Triggers Flow Again?
In an earlier article, we discussed the “flow cocktail” or the presence of six neurotransmitters that co-occur only when a person is in flow. The six most important neurochemicals are:
Other than this delicious neurochemical cocktail, other important considerations lie with what researcher Steven Kotler calls “flow triggers”. After the first seven, they relate to a group flow experience. The seventeen flow triggers are:
- Intensely Focused Attention: Solitude, uninterrupted concentration, and no multi-tasking.
- Clear Goals: Define what you are doing and why. Your mind should know exactly what to do next.
- Immediate Feedback: Are you meeting your goals? You should know at once how to get back on track and improve.
- The Challenge/Skills Ratio: The difficulty level of your chosen activity should be slightly higher than the skill level you actually have. Not too difficult (or we will give up), but not too easy.
- High Consequences: Elevate the level of risk involved. Do what scares you. Surf a big wave. Cross the room and talk to someone you find attractive. Bet money on getting your project done on time.
- Rich Environment: Being surrounded by novelty, unpredictability, and complexity force us to focus our attention just like risk does.
- Deep Embodiment: Embody what you believe in and value. If you don’t believe in your ability to achieve your goals, you are can not be successful.
- Serious Concentration: When with a group, make sure that distractions are put away. You cannot trigger group flow if some people are on their phones. You’re only as strong as your weakest link.
- Shared Clear Goals: Your group should know what the goal is and be invested in it.
- Good Communication: Listen and then elaborate. Never negate a teammate’s idea when you can simply improve upon it. Speak assertively, instead of being passive or passive-aggressive.
- Familiarity: Get to know your teammates, so that you can understand each other without even saying anything. You’ve got their back, and they’ve got yours.
- Equal Participation (and Skill Level): Everyone pulls their own weight and has the ability to do so.
- Risk: Failure as a possibility triggers flow. Make sure your group has some skin in the game.
- Sense of Control: Micromanaging is out. Maximize autonomy by ensuring that your teammates are competent.
- Close Listening: Really listen. This doesn’t mean thinking about that to say next before the person is finished talking, but truly developing the conversation and idea in real-time.
- Always Say Yes: Be additive, rather than argumentative. The first rule of improv comedy. Just go with it.
- Creativity: Linking new ideas together, creating your own, and sharing them with the world requires risk-taking, intense concentration, and accomplishing goals. This is a powerful flow trigger.
The Flow Formula
In his book, The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin lays out the blueprint for triggering the zone. As a world-champion martial artist and international chess master, he does not have room to simply “hope” to be in the zone on a given day.
He had to develop a way to find flow whenever he needed it.
After an especially brutal martial arts tournament in Taiwan where he was caught off-guard by foul play on the part of a proud officiating homeland that did not want a foreigner to win, Waitzkin vowed to find a way into the zone whenever he needed it.
He began devising a formula that would enable him to enter the zone on the shortest of notices. It worked. Now he trains top-performing athletes and businesses in the art of peak performance. Let’s take a look at his formula, pick it apart, and adapt it to our own lives.
Building Your Trigger
Waitzkin emphasizes that we must integrate certain healthy patterns into our day to day lives to call on the power of flow when the pressure is on. Kind of like calling on the power of Greyskull.
The idea, is to choose an activity from your life that, when you are doing it, provides the closest approximation to being in a flow state. An activity that draws out your best focus, makes you happy, every second feels productive. Waitzkin provides the example of an entrepreneur named Dennis, that never felt more serene or focused than when he was playing catch with his young son. Dennis was struggling to find the zone whenever he was in a board meeting, often stumbling over his words and focusing more on how he appeared than the quality of the meeting. He needed a flow triggering routine.
Choose your “flow activity” first. In my case, it is playing an instrument, recently guitar. As I learn a difficult guitar solo or improvise over a blues progression, time passes quickly and each time I nail a novel lick, I achieve a mini-accomplishment. Remember that accomplishing goals triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter related to flow states. Research also shows that when musicians are improvising, their prefrontal cortex shuts down (the part of the brain that identifies as “I”) and the musician effectually melds with the music. No more critical self-talk, only flowing with the progression of the notes and rhythms.
It doesn’t have to be a conventionally “flowy” activity like writing, running, or something else that we typically associate with high achievement. In fact, Waitzkin says that most times, people dismiss their activity as simply “taking a break”, but those activities can be the most powerful. There is no wrong answer. It’s up to you and you alone. Whatever your activity, make sure that it yields positive feelings and draws your attention. Ask yourself: “When do you feel closest to blissful focus in your life?”
If you’re stuck, we will take a look at a list of activities that may help you trigger a flow state below.
Build Backwards from your Flow Activity
Now it’s time to build a four to five step routine that leads up to the commencement of your chosen flow activity. The idea is that, the more you practice this routine every day, the more habituated your brain becomes to a flow state. Essentially, you are conditioning yourself to trigger an altered state of flow consciousness every time that you do the routine.
For Dennis, Waitzkin chose activities that were enjoyable, recognizable, and already filled with flow triggers. First, Dennis enjoyed a nutritious snack, a fruit and protein shake that he enjoyed making. Second, Dennis meditated for fifteen minutes using a breathing technique he had learned before. Meditation is highly recommended in the quest for flow because it increases attention, breaks down the ego, and closely replicates the physiological state of a person already in flow. Third, Dennis stretched for 10 minutes, following a stretching program from his high-school football days. Fourth, Dennis chose a song that was meaningful to him, in this case, the Bob Dylan song “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”. This was a deliberate choice on Dennis’ part because he wanted a song to be something that would trigger his flow state for him. Any choice of song would have worked as long as it matched his own tastes. After these four steps, it was time for Dennis to play ball with his son.
The final routine looked like this:
- Eat a light snack for 10 minutes.
- 15 minutes of meditation
- 10 minutes of stretching
- 10 minutes of listening to Bob Dylan
- Have a catch
Dennis’ routine could work for anyone, so long as his activities line up with actual activities already present in your own life. We will break down the routine in a second, but first, let’s look at Dennis’ level of success using this formula.
Does It Work?
Dennis followed this routine for a month, going through the steps each time before throwing the baseball with his son. Because the activities were enjoyable for him, it never felt like a chore.
The key here is internalization. Dennis repeated the habit until eventually his body and mind came to associate the routine with flow-like feelings of clear concentration, happiness, and the enjoyment of the moment. The next step was to do his routine before one of his undesirable business meetings. It was time to transplant his routine.
After the first month, Dennis performed his flow routine before an important meeting at work. He simply replaced the catch with his son with a board meeting.
It worked. Dennis felt serenely focused in a normally stressful environment, able to full attend to the here-and-now.
The point of this system is to create a link between the routine and the flow-like activity so that you cannot help yourself from catapulting into a flow like state, even if you switch out the final activity. It does not matter what activity comes after the routine, simply that the routine is personally enjoyable and repeated until the feeling of being in the zone is internalized.
Shortening The Routine
Dennis’ final routine clocked in at 45 minutes. That’s a good chunk of time that some of us don’t have available to us. What happens if you need to trigger flow at a moment’s notice? Something happens and you have to go on stage in five minutes, or the meeting was pushed forward in the schedule, or your name is called early to enter the ring. What then?
The same benefits can be wrought from a routine that has been shortened. For the first month, you should perform the whole routine as is, but after that, it’s time to get experimental.
Begin by gradually altering your routine. In Dennis’ case, he began performing the routine each morning before work. He replaced his light snack with breakfast, and listened to Bob Dylan on his ride to work. Then, Dennis began to cut back on his meditation and stretching time. Instead of fifteen minutes, he meditated for 12. Then he stretched for eight, rather than ten. He didn’t notice any difference.
Next, alter the order of your routine. Dennis switched stretching before his meditation. He removed the snack/meal altogether if he wasn’t hungry. He reduced the time stretching and meditating to just a few minutes. He always finished with Bob Dylan because he enjoyed it so much. But he didn’t experience any difference in effect. No matter what changes he made, he was always left in a state of blissful alert focus. He was in the zone.
Waitzkin even says that, eventually, Dennis could have paired the routine down so much that just singing the Bob Dylan song in his head would have triggered a flow state. Remember that, no matter what routine you choose, make sure it is specific to you. Let’s take a look at how.
Choosing Your Own Routine
It’s time to breakdown the routine. Let’s look at Dennis’ routine and the purpose of each activity. You’ll also find Steven Kotler’s flow triggers (mentioned above) are present in many of the examples.
- Eat a snack for 10 minutes. Nutrition is important for performance. Ever tried to play a sport on an empty stomach or do anything at all after a huge lunch? The key here is balance. There are also foods that enhance the presence of those neurochemicals needed to induce a flow state. We’ll discuss those next.
- Meditate for 15 minutes. Waitzkin specifically states meditation as one of the best practices to incorporate into one’s life, especially if hunting for flow. In fact, deep meditation is a flow state in and of itself. Meditation aligns with the first of Kotler’s flow triggers, Intensely Focused Attention. Meditation also provides another trigger, Immediate Feedback. When the mind wanders, gently bring your awarness back to whatever you are focusing on. It is a challenge, especially for most of us monkey-minded Westerners.
- Stretch for 15 minutes. Stretching can be both a mindful activity and an exercise, and as you are about to find out, exercise is one of the best activities for putting oneself in the zone.
- Listening to Music. Listening to and creating music, provides a rush of neurotransmitters prevalent in a flow state.
Stack Your Neurochemical-Inducing Activities
Remember, Flow is the only time in which these six neurochemicals are produced by the brain at the same time: dopamine, norepinephrine, anandamide, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphines. Luckily for us, there are activities and foods that can boost the production of these chemicals. The more of these activities we can stack, the more our brain is stewing in a flow cocktail of peak-performance juices. Let’s take a sip.
Here are the six neurochemicals, with a list of activities and foods that are known to cause their production (if the activity/food shows up more than once, it’s italicized):
- Activities: Exercise, Meditation, Listening/Playing Music, Laughing, Accomplishing Goals, Quality Sleep.
- Food: Tyrosine-rich foods like Almonds, Eggs, Bananas, Avocados, Fish, Beans, and Chicken. Also, Dark Chocolate.
- Activities: Exercise, Meditation, Getting a Massage, Expressing Gratitude, Exposure to Sunlight.
- Food: Tryptophan-rich foods like Nuts, Eggs, Salmon, Poultry, and Spinach.
- Activities: Doing something risky/scary/difficult, Exercise, Striking a Power Pose, Deep Breathing, Cold Exposure.
- Food: Caffeine, Bananas, and Dark Chocolate.
- Activities: Exercise (Runner’s High is associated with Anandamide)and smoking the Devil’s Herb (I can hear the potheads rejoicing already).
- Food: CBD Oil, Dark Chocolate, Black Truffles.
- Activities: Exercise, Laughing, Sex, Making Music, Intermittent Drinking.
- Food: Dark Chocolate, Hot Peppers, Eating Your Favorite Food
- Activities: Metta Meditation (Loving/Kindness Mediation), Social Events, Doing something moderately stressful (especially with someone else), Petting a Dog, Getting a Massage, Listening to/Making Music, Yoga, Intermittent Drinking, Cold Exposure, Sun Exposure, Sex.
- Food: Anything with Vitamin D or Caffeine.
Choose a few activities that trigger the neurotransmitters above to create your own flow-inducing routine. As you can see, some activities and foods are listed for almost every single chemical! These are the ones I like to focus on in my own routine, which I will share below.
Remember, it’s best to pick activities that you can do on your own at any given time. For example, while sex is listed multiple times, it’s not something that you can easily do anywhere at any given moment. If you are that lucky, please leave a comment below so that I may learn your incredible secrets.
My Personal Flow Routine
The personal flow routine that I have set up looks like this:
- Drink a Flow Shake. This is a personal recipe that includes many of the neurotransmitter-rich foods above. I’ll share the secret formula in a future post.
- Meditate. For ten minutes, I practice a simple breathing mediation. I pay attention to my breath, noticing as the air enters through my nostrils, down my esophagus, filling my lungs, and then back out again. If my mind wanders, I congratulate myself for noticing and then bring my attention back to the breath.
- Yoga/Tai Chi/Kung Fu. For me, this is a continuation of my meditation while also incorporating exercise into the mix. Exercise is listed under almost every neurotransmitter above. Stretching deeper and perfecting different martial arts forms also allows me to make “little wins”, triggering the production of dopamine.
- Listen to “Ride On” by AC/DC. I don’t know why I’ve always loved this song, but from the moment I heard it, it made me feel something. The slow, constant shuffle of the drums and bass put me in a state of mind that feels about the same as riding solo down an abandoned highway, sun setting as I’m chasing down a dream. It makes me feel unstoppable.
- Play Guitar (My Flow Activity). As I mentioned before, making music (specifically improvising or playing on stage) puts me in a state of serene concentration that nothing else can. This is what flow is all about. If flow points the way to the purpose of a person’s life, then I know that mine is to make music.
I have been performing this routine for the past few weeks, usually upon waking, and the results have been miraculous. Even after my first try, I felt an energy that catapulted me through the writing that I had been putting off for some time. What’s more, I felt that state of blissful energy and awareness carry me through my whole day. People were asking me why I was so chipper all of a sudden. My performance throughout the day was remarkably alive. As I continue experimenting, I will begin to play around with the routine, shortening and rearranging it. I can’t wait to see what’s possible.
What Will Your Flow Routine Be?
What will your flow routine look like? Do you already have one? Regardless, if you are interested in hacking into a flow state more often, you owe it to yourself to give this method a try. I would be fascinated to know what works for you or what you are thinking about trying. Leave a comment below and good luck! Imagine what this world would look like if we were all in the zone every single day!
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