There is absolutely nothing like flow.
Flow is that energized, hyperfocused state when we are completely absorbed in whatever we are doing. You’ve felt it right? Working in such an absorbed fashion that you look up and hours have flown by. Feeling completely engaged and focused. Call it flow, peak performance, or being in the zone, it’s when we work and live at our absolute best.
The concept of flow was first noted and studied by University of Chicago psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who came to believe that flow is the ultimate state of happiness. In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi says you know you’re in flow when the work is effortless, when you feel:
- Completely immersed and engaged in what you are doing
- A sense of ecstasy, feeling outside everyday reality
- Great inner clarity
- Confidence in the task at hand
- A sense of serenity
- Timelessness, hours seem to pass in minutes
- Intrinsic motivation, meaning whatever has produced the flow is its own reward
Musicians feel it. Artists feel it. Writers feel it. Athletes feel it. We can all feel it. You don’t have to be a famous composer or writer to get in the flow. We can all get there so we work better, with real joy and passion. How? Well, there’s a simple science to it, but the bottom line is that in order to really experience flow, we have to train ourselves to disengage from the distractions that surround us all day every day. We can’t get to flow if we’re overwired. And that means we have to learn to unwire.
The Four Phases of Flow
Flow used to be somewhat intangible. No one was really sure how it worked. But with the advent of advanced neuroscience (thank God for the MRI), we now know how flow works, how to get there, and how to sustain it. Steven Kotler of the Flow Genome Project integrates neuroscience, flow research, and practical advice for hacking flow. Initially, flow was perceived as a simple on/off state. Now we realize that it is primed by struggle and release, and Kotler describes flow as having four phases.
The first phase is Struggle, almost an “anti-flow.” It’s a time of acquisition, where we are loading and overloading new information, news skills, and new capabilities into the brain. This is when the executive function part of the brain is in overdrive, and it’s not exactly fun. You’re struggling to get going, and this is where the hard part comes in. With so many distractions at our fingertips, we need real grit to NOT surf the web, check email, peruse Zappos, etc. You have to push through this phase, edit, and stay focused. With our lives so overwired and the digital distractions so great, it takes a new level of discipline, persistence, and dedication to stay in the struggle.
Release is the second phase, and it’s not something that people living overwired do with grace or ease. Release happens when we stop thinking about the problem, when we shift our mind away from the topic at hand, when we shift our attention from learning toward focus. This can be optimized by doing something physical but not exhausting (taking a walk, gardening, etc.). All too often when we are overwired we shuffle from doing, doing, doing to done, which means we are numb, exhausted, and checked out. A key part of release aligns perfectly with what I call unwiring. Unwiring means to step away from technology—no cell phones, no laptops or tablets, no checking email or surfing the net. This is release, trading conscious cognitive processing for unconscious processing, which shifts the neurochemistry in the brain. This happens best by changing our physiology, our focus, and our attention, which allows the brain the opportunity to make new neural connections. By unwiring, we open the door for flow.
The third phase is the coveted state of Flow. This is the hyperfocused, present, creative phase where we integrate knowledge and experience, where time stands still (or flies by actually). It feels familiar and wonderful, like coming home. It’s where we are at our peak.
The more often we are in flow, the more easily it becomes to get there. And this carries over into different types of low, for example from gardening to athletics to coding a website to writing a book. The more often we get into flow, the longer we can stay there over extended periods of time. This is in part because we master the intense focus, the presence, and the neurochemistry that optimizes flow; we are training our brains. Kotler also suggests that while you can’t go backwards in the cycle, you can extend flow by optimizing your environment and eating dark chocolate (yes, really—eating dark chocolate during the flow state has been shown to elongate the experience).
The final phase of flow is Recovery. During flow, neurologically our brains go crazy, producing five neurochemicals to create the hyperfocused, creative, expansive state. This can be exceptionally draining. While the brain is typically only 2 percent of our body weight, it expends 25 percent of our calories. (Yes—thinking can be hard work.) As the neurochemicals recede don’t expect to feel great. The key to the recovery phase is rest, nutrition, and sunshine to rejuvenate. If we want to train our brains to get back into the state of flow, we must recovery properly.
Five Hacks to Get into Your Flow
Do not stress out about finding your flow. Stress just creates cortisol (the bad stress hormone) in the body and blocks learning. Instead, find your grit and use these five tips:
- Embrace the struggle. It’s vital to flow. Struggle is the first phase, and you have to be strong to stay in the struggle and avoid the myriad temptations of our digital lives—Facebook, email, texts, etc. There are so many opportunities to be distracted and avoid struggle. Be strong! Don’t justify busy work (i.e. email); work on important things.
- Unplug, unwire, and unwind. We can’t just struggle our way into flow. We have to unwire. A critical precursor to flow is taking time to unplug from the stress and strain, to unwire ourselves from our technology and devices, and to truly let ourselves unwind. When we do, we change the way our brains operate, we change our neurochemistry, and we shift the way we think. Then and only then can we enter flow. (The Breakout Principal illustrates the importance of shifting gears: If you’ve ever been working intensively on a problem only to take a break, go for a walk, grab a bite to eat and then have an “A-ha! Eureka!” moment, then you know how vital it is to shift gears.)
- Flow whenever and wherever you can. Turns out the more we get into flow, the easier it becomes to get there. So if you crave more flow at work, spend more time on weekends in flow doing what you love—gardening, cooking, dancing, etc. Flow is like a muscle or habit; it gets easier over time.
- Be here now. Flow only happens when you are in the present. In fact, that’s the very nature of flow, being absolutely lost in the present. If you are worrying about the past or planning for the future you won’t get in flow. Eager to optimize your likelihood of getting in flow? Then set clear goals, remove distractions, have dark chocolate on hand, and go with it.
- Embrace the funk of recovery. Once we are out of flow we need time to rejuvenate. Sleep, sunshine, and nutrition are essential. Rather than lamenting that the flow state has ended enjoy this period of recovery. Relax and rejuvenate. You wont be able to get back into flow if you don’t.
Flow is a state that we can all experience. I don’t want to leave the impression that technology is evil. Quite the contrary; I love technology (my love for my iPhone runs a very close third to that of my husband and son). But we can’t get into flow if we are overwired, responding to every ping, ding, and post, and distracted by our gadgets. Only by unwiring can you go with the flow.