What is flow? It’s that mindset we get into when we’re so absorbed in what we’re doing that our surroundings vanish. We’re so focused on the task at hand that we stop questioning ourselves, stop thinking about mistakes we’ve made in the past, and trials and tribulations we have to face in the near future. We become fully absorbed in the present moment, experience time dilation, and achieve more than we ever thought was possible. We pick that bar off the ground 3 more times than we thought we were going to. We read 10 pages of a book in half the time we expected. We write twice as many pages, phenomenally quickly, and have to do almost no editing. We figure out the problem that’s been nagging at us about our business we’re building, or our rocky relationships.
There’s an amazing book on the subject of flow, called The Rise of Superman. It has that title for a good reason. When we access flow states, our productivity and efficiency rises to seemingly superhuman levels. Our skill and intuition increase exponentially. Steven Kotler, head of the Flow Genome Project, along with Jamie Wheal, have discovered through decades of research that flow is a common trend in top performers in every field. In the book, they lay out how flow has helped athletes achieve goals that everyone believed were impossible, such as Tony Hawk completing the first 900, which is 2 and a half spins. Jazz musicians and freestyle rappers are commonly in flow states. So are writers, artists, scientists, CEOs; anyone can access this mindset. Action-adventure sports athletes are just the easiest examples, because their accomplishments are so meteoric and visual. Freeclimbing, or rock climbing with no ropes, is almost impossible if you’re not completely tuned into the moment. So is parachute skiing or snowboarding, in which people get dropped onto a mountain, ski or snowboard off a cliff, and parachute to safety like James Bond. Some athletes even do this twice a row, parachuting from the first cliff to a second one, snowboarding or skiing off it, and pulling the second chute. Real people actually do this!
When we’re in the zone, our brains our in transient hypofrontality. This means that our prefrontal cortex is temporarily slowed down, which is responsible for self-editing. We question ourselves less, allowing us to intuitively know which step to take next, leading to exponential expertise. This is how master chess players can know which is the correct move to make, without having to explain the reason. It’s how a surfer can feel when the exact moment is that they have to ride that wave. It’s how a powerlifter can squat a thousand pounds without thinking about technique, or how a sculpter can create a sculpture without thinking about each piece they take away from the start. Flow is a shortcut to mastery.
Flow states can potentially cut your learning curve in half! In a study using flow to help train military snipers faster, it was found that novice learners could become expert snipers in half the time it normally takes, if they were in flow while training.
This has phenomenal implications. People working on the Flow Genome Project have been researching how to engineer flow states. In order to do that, we have to take into account that it isn’t just transient hypofrontality that we desire. We need every component. MRI and FMRI technology have determined that our brains need to be doing specific things to be in flow. Other than transient hypofrontality, our brains need to be in alpha. There are four main brain states; alpha, beta, theta, and delta. If you’re thinking a lot, and you’re working really hard on a problem, your brain is probably in beta. Alpha is kind of in the middle in terms of brainwave activity. Your mind isn’t on hyperdrive, but it isn’t asleep either. When your brain is in alpha, you get intense feelings of concentration and creativity. You’re relaxed, but still highly focused, and you’re open to new ideas and free of judgement, due to transient hypofrontality.
There are a few key ways to engineer flow states, that release certain chemicals in the brain. The main psychological components of flow are intense focus, risk, altruism, dissolving the ego, and a sense of control. We need to take on a challenge that isn’t too extreme, but still difficult enough to require deep concentration. We need to stop questioning ourselves about the problem, and look at it objectively. This will allow us to control the variables intuitively, and move quickly from one step to the next. Being kind to others actually helps with flow states too.
The neurochemicals that are released during flow are dopamine, norepinephrine, anandamide, endorphins, and serotonin. Risk can release norepinephrine, intense focus can release dopamine, dissolving the ego can release anandamide and endorphins, and altruism can release serotonin. These are potent neurochemicals, and it’s why people can get addicted to flow states. If you took a drug cocktail to put you in the zone, you would use cocaine for the dopamine release, speed for norepinephrine, marijuana for anandamide, heroin for endorphins, and ecstasy for serotonin. That combination would probably put you in the hospital.
So if we want to access flow naturally, how can we do it? Well a fairly easy way is to do moderate intensity exercise for 20 minutes to get us focused, and then meditate for 10 or 20 minutes to get relaxed and dissolve our ego. But if you want to cheat and take shortcuts, and have a better chance of accessing flow, there are other ways that will almost certainly not harm you. As Steven Kotler said, “The quickest and easiest way to enter flow is a 20 minute run, then a cup of coffee, then marijuana.” I’m sure he’s not advocating doing it this way all the time, but those are the facts.
Do you want to cut your learning curve? Do you want to progress faster in your goals than you even thought was possible? Then it’s time to start cultivating flow states. Scientists are learning more and more all the time about flow triggers. The more time we spend in flow, the greater obstacles we will transcend. Use it as the most valuable tool we have for improving our success in life. I’ll join you there, in the zone.