The Flow State: How to Supercharge Your Life
In 1993, Michael Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to victory over the Phoenix Suns in what is widely considered his greatest NBA Finals ever. He averaged 41 points per game, the highest ever in NBA Finals history, cementing his place as one of the greatest, if not the Greatest Of All Time.
Of course, Jordan’s raw talent and extensive training were key drivers in his success, but there was something else at play here. A state of mind that those at the top of their game seem to be able to access. You see it in the surfer on the 100-foot wave, the concert violinist leading an orchestra, even in your coworker whose productivity seems superhuman.
What all these top performers have mastered is flow. A state where the outside world fades away, time stops, and you become completely immersed in what you’re doing.
Research has shown that we all have the ability to find the flow state. But how we do it is not as clear cut. The idea of deep concentration and rapt attention has been around for much of modern human history. Transcendent spiritual experiences like flow states have been reported for centuries in different religious texts around the globe. But the official ‘flow theory’ was created by psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmilhalyi (muh·hay·lee / chik·sent·mee·hai·ee) in the 1970s.
Mihaly began surveying people about times in their lives when they felt and performed their best. He spoke to rock climbers, musicians, painters and scientists, curious to figure out what made them continue to perform and create at a high level despite the challenges. He concluded that when respondents enjoyed certain experiences so much, they were willing to go to great lengths to experience them again. They all described a kind of ‘current’ that carried them through these activities and experiences.
Today, there are researchers and companies that devote their resources to unlocking the power of flow. Steven Kotler, one of the leading researchers on flow, became interested in the topic after watching action athletes like snowboarders, skateboarders and BMX bikers. How did they achieve seemingly impossible aerial tricks and death-defying moves with such grace over and over again?
Kotler, like Mihaly before him, identified factors such as risk and challenge to be key to achieving a state of flow. Eventually, he founded The Flow Collective, a group which both researches flow and trains people and companies in the group to create a happier, more productive world.
With endless opportunities for distraction and a society more and more interested in productivity and mindfulness, unlocking the ability to enter into this mental state could potentially supercharge your life. When you’re in flow, your brain shuts off all non-critical processes. You care solely about the task at hand and embody a mindset that is focused on the journey, not the destination. The game, not the medal. The climb, not the view from the top… you get it.
You’re able to find this focus because, in a flow state, boredom and fatigue are not a thing. You don’t get antsy or achy. Your mind chatter fades away and you become completely free of distraction. But don’t mistake this for relaxation. When you’re in flow you’re not relaxed. According to research over the past several decades, the most important component of finding flow is a task or experience that meets a particular challenge-skill balance. Think of it this way, if you’re really good at drawing but don’t find a particular piece very challenging, you’ll probably get relaxed and eventually bored. Alternately, if you’re a beginner skier and you’re insisting on going down the steepest runs, you’ll grow frustrated and angry with yourself and the possibility for enjoyment is pretty low.
To unlock flow, you need to find tasks that allow you to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. You need to be put in situations where your brain needs to work, but not so much that it gets frustrated by poor results. Think of an activity that you enjoy, are skilled at, but find just challenging enough that it’ll hold your interest. That might be a great place to find your flow.
But finding flow isn’t quite that simple. Though much of the internet might want you to believe it is. There are tons of videos on how to enter a flow state on command and even playlists called ‘flow state music’ that promise you the deepest concentration at the snap of a finger.
In reality, though, going into the flow state requires practice. And there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ formula. But there are definitely some things you can try. You can start by creating a ritual every time you are faced with a task, letting your brain know that you’re about to begin. This is one of the reasons many athletes have a pre-game ritual where they eat the same thing, and do the same thing before every single game. These seemingly small acts help to condition the brain, letting it know beforehand that it’s time to get serious.
Other things that can help trigger flow include meditation and other mindfulness activities, since they help to eliminate distraction and promote focus. Novelty or risk can also trigger the flow state. If you’re used to working at home, try going to a coffee shop to experience a new environment. If you’ve been lifting the same weight for months, try something a few pounds heavier. That added risk of failing might be just what you need to tune out the noise and focus on what you’re doing.
Think of all the essays or assignments you did in record time back in school when the risk of failure was imminent. Pattern recognition is another great way to get into the flow state. Ask any writer you know, and they’ll tell you that there’s nothing worse than staring at a blank page. Well, instead of doing that, you can start your work day by editing what you wrote yesterday. This process will trigger pattern recognition in your brain, telling it that it’s time to focus. Then, when you get to the blank page, it becomes much easier to create since your brain is already in the flow state.
It’s also helpful to find out what your peak creative and productivity times are. Are you an early bird? A night owl? Maybe you really are superhuman and do your best work on Wednesdays at 3pm when the rest of the world has hit its crash. Once you find your time, try your best to schedule your calendar so that you’re doing your most meaningful and challenging work at this time.
You can also turn toward your emotions for help. If you’ve ever fallen in love, you’ve experienced the tunnel-like attention you give your partner. To use a cliché, it’s like nothing else in the world matters. Similarly, feelings like love, passion and curiosity for the task you’re taking on, or the experience you’re about to embark on, can help achieve a flow state. Once the parameters are set, it’s time to turn your attention inward, focus on your body, your breath, and let your concentration and creativity take over.
Now so far, we’ve been talking about flow in relation to an individual. But ask Michael Jordan himself, and he’ll tell you - there’s no greatest player of all time, only the greatest team of all time. We see this every time we watch an amazing game or see a talented cast of actors navigate the story of a play. In group flow, there is no domineering ego or negativity. Members of the team, cast, or group merge together as one. And the challenge-skill balance is important here too.
If you put Meryl Streep in a high school drama production, the students would probably feel intimidated and might not be able to stay present in the work. Or, if you see fans holding their breath when the third-string quarterback enters the game, it’s because they’re unsure that the rookie can handle the pressure and lead the team back into its collective flow.
Whether you’re on your own or in a group, flow will come when you not only concentrate but truly love the thing you’re doing. If you don’t love music, it’s very unlikely you’ll find any flow trying to teach yourself to play the piano. But if you are obsessed with coding and are constantly challenging your skills, you’re probably very familiar with how good the flow state makes you feel.
Why does it make us feel so good? Because the brain in a flow state is getting constant hits of dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with our reward system. Once the dopamine starts releasing, it reduces fatigue and discomfort and allows us to be immersed in the task at hand. While dopamine tends to be the star of the show when it comes to studies on the flow state, the brain locus coeruleus norepinephrine (low·kuhs / suh·roo·lee·uhs / naw·reh·puh·neh·fruhn) (or, LC-NE) system has also been researched as a key component of the flow state.
The LC-NE system is involved in regulating how engaged we are with a task. If the LC-NE system wants us to disengage from a task, it can trigger boredom, inattentiveness, stress and distraction, none of which are part of a healthy recipe for flow. Most of us struggle to stay focused for long periods of time on things we dislike. If you have ADHD, this feeling can become chronic. In any instance of struggling to stay engaged, our LC-NE system is signaling us to disengage from the task at hand. Maybe because we're not receiving enough dopamine to keep the brain interested.
But, if our reward system keeps firing and the LC-NE system doesn’t tell us to disengage, we find ourselves in control, feeling clear, and having a sense of direction. And the benefits of being in this mental state are endless. One study by The Flow Collective found that motivation and creativity can increase 400-700%, while The Department of Defense conducted a study which found that learning spikes 200% when you’re in flow.
Now, medical researchers are starting to use this concept to help patients with certain medical issues. Helping older patients experience flow later in life has proven helpful for cognitive optimization. Similarly, video games and virtual reality applications are being developed as therapeutic training for people with neurological diseases and people who are rehabilitating from neurological damage. By gamifying certain exercises and therapies, some doctors find that patients stay motivated to engage - and therefore heal.
Not only does flow provide us with focus and enhanced intellectual capacity, but it’s also a positive, happy experience where people describe feeling ecstatic. Steven Kotler, the founder of The Flow Collective, said that if people want to enjoy their life, learning how to find flow is the best pathway.
But what if we can’t find that little voice that seamlessly guides us through a challenging task? What if flow doesn’t always feel like it’s in reach? Most of us dread doing our income tax or answering emails, so any attempt to find flow in these activities is probably futile. Yet, as with so many buzzy ideas, it can feel like we’re expected to find flow in everything we do or we’re just wasting valuable productivity stored somewhere in our brains.
But the reality is that we can’t find flow in every task. And we shouldn’t feel like we have to. It’s not just dreaded tasks that can feel difficult to jump into. Even the idea of an accomplished artist or athlete constantly locking into their flow state is a myth. Take writing for example. What’s one feeling we don’t get when we’re in a flow state? Bored. If you’ve ever sat down to write anything creative, you know that a large part of writing is boredom. The quiet, wandering mind is where we conjure up ideas.
t’s easy to go down an internet rabbit hole of how to find your flow state. You might even be in one right now. As valuable as learning how to find your flow can be, obsessing over finding it will most likely have the opposite effect. Like anything else, finding flow is a skill and learning new skills can be tough and frustrating to learn. Not being able to find flow, even in a task that meets all the parameters of enjoyment, challenge and timing that we’ve talked about, doesn’t mean the task isn’t worth doing.
If we start using flow as a precondition to get things done, we will most likely get a lot less done. If flow doesn’t come, it’s on us and all of the other mechanisms we’ve built inside ourselves to deal with internal triggers like self-doubt and external triggers - like that dirty laundry waiting to be folded - and get the work done.
Flow is a tool we can seek out to improve our lives. It is a mindset to help us boost productivity, conquer challenging tasks, and lean into our creativity. The promise of being able to turn off the outside world and turn on the most positive parts of our inner world is alluring and something to strive for. But as soon as we get too fixated on achieving these feelings, we might lose what flow is really about.