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10 Hacks to Trigger Flow States

“Champions work hard in training and work easy in the competition.” - Lanny Basham

Photo: Matthieu Petiard via Unsplash

One way to improve performance and enjoyment for any activity is to tap into the benefits of flow states. Flow is an altered state of consciousness characterized by increased alertness but with decreased mental processing. In sports, this is often described as being ‘in the zone.’ In this state, performance comes easily.

Why should you care about flow? Multiple studies have shown that flow can improve physical performance, mood and satisfaction. Some have even gone so far as to say that flow is the meaning of life. Being in flow correlates highly with enjoyment, whether in sports, work or a social situation.

Like sleep, however, you can’t just try hard to get into flow – you have to let it happen. But there are things that you can do to set yourself up that will increase your chances of getting into flow. Here are ten flow triggers to get you in the zone. Some are internal, some are external, some are social.

Risk - Higher risk activities are more likely to trigger flow. This may account for the popularity of action and adventure sports. I can’t say I’ve truly been in a maximum flow state while running. Perhaps in low grade flow. I used to hit flow states in soccer regularly. I would have moments where I would nearly have a black out experience, unsure of how I did what I did with the ball. These days, however, my flow states track closely with risk, and the two environments where I experience this are in the operating room and while skiing. There’s nothing like knowing that someone trusted themselves or their child to me for an invasive treatment to really get me dialed in. Likewise, bombing down the steeps on snow makes my focus laser sharp.

Rich environment – The more the brain encounters environmentally, the more it will be primed to produce a flow state. There are three key components to a rich environment.

o Novelty - the brain thrives on novelty. Newness leads to new neurologic connections in the brain.

o Unpredictability - just like an exciting movie, if you don’t know what’s coming next, you’ll be more activated and alert.

o Awe - an awe-inspiring environment is more likely to produce flow. My mind immediately goes to natural beauty. In fact, the outdoors seems intrinsically more likely to produce novelty, unpredictability and awe.

Humility – Perhaps going hand in hand with awe in the face of nature, is humility. Like falling asleep, getting into flow is to a certain extent about letting go. Letting go of ego. Letting go of the notion that we as individuals are important when considering the universe as a whole.

Clarity and Goal direction. These two go hand in hand. We need to focus on the task at hand. Without these, the mind will wander and succumb to distraction.

Skill matching - A key idea for generation of flow is that the task undertaken should not be too hard or too easy. Too hard and it will generate frustration and anxiety. Too easy and it will result in boredom. We want the task to be just a little harder than something that would exactly evenly match our skill level.

Social flow: Shared goals, shared skills, and conversation - Group flow is a phenomenon in itself, something observed in teams that successfully work together. Teams that share goals and communicate are more likely to engage in flow. If you share overlapping skills on a team then additional flow-generation is supported.

Service - Lastly, service can promote flow. Similar to awe and humility, engaging in service strips away some of the ego-dominance that can impede free flow.

Can you pick one of these flow triggers and turn up the dial a bit on it to bring some more flow into your life?

Interested in more? Check out Steven Kotler's The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance or anything by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

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