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How to enter the 'flow state' for effortless creativity
Taking a modern look at a millennia-old concept.
- We experience the "flow state" when a given task becomes effortless and time slips by without our noticing.
- The concept has appeared in many ancient philosophies like Stoicism and Taoism, and modern research has confirmed this experience is real.
- By learning more about the flow state and how to trigger it, we can both work more productively and feel more satisfied with life.
When writing the Principia Mathematica, Isaac Newton was said to have forgotten to eat, bathe, and sleep. Michelangelo, too, often became so engrossed in his paintings that he would forget to eat or sleep. Some of you have undoubtedly had an experience where the hours felt like minutes, when you were so wrapped up in the task at hand that forgetting a meal is a real risk.
If that's the case, then you've experienced something called the "flow state."
The idea of flow has been around for millennia. The Taoist concept of wu wei, or effortless action, is very similar to flow, as well as Aristotle's idea of eudaimonia, or the state of possessing a "good spirit." However, this ancient concept has only recently been empirically studied and characterized.
Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced me-high chick-sent-me-high) first studied flow states in the 1970s. The experiences of painters such as Michelangelo inspired him to study the phenomenon, which he defined as "being so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost." It's an absorbing, intrinsically rewarding state that we enter when performing certain tasks.
What's the flow state about?
Flow only happens when you've got the right level of skill for a task with the right level of challenge. Specifically, Csíkszentmihályi identified three components necessary to enter the flow state:
- The activity must have a clear set of goals and progress, which adds direction and structure to the task.
- The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback, which enables the person to adjust to the evolving nature of the task and know how well they are doing.
- There must be a good balance between the perceived challenge of the task and the individual's own perceived skills.
Painting, for instance, is a great task to induce to the flow state. It's clear when a painting is finished, it's clear how well one is doing, and, if the painter has talent, the act of painting can be satisfyingly challenging.
When in the flow state, an individual experiences intense focus and concentration on the present moment. Their actions and awareness merge, so that it seems like the task is almost performing itself. Despite this, there's still a sense of personal control over the task at hand, and performing it feels intrinsically rewarding. It's a sublime experience that many people spend their lives in pursuit of, and it's the practical manifestation of the phrase "find a job that you love, and you'll never work a day in your life."The graph below shows how important the right mixture of challenge and skill is to enter the flow state. Too little skill and too much challenge will produce anxiety, while too little challenge and too much skill will simply be relaxing.
How to go with the flow
Almost everybody experiences flow at one point or another during their lives. While about 15 percent of people report that they never experience flow, some lucky few have been found to have an autotelic personality, or a propensity to seek out and experience flow. Based on the Big Five personality traits, autotelic people tend to score high in extraversion and conscientious and low in neuroticism and agreeableness. This last feature may seem odd, but autotelic people's low agreeableness has more to do with a certain arrogance and self-centeredness — the personality of the "cantankerous creative" — than with outright hostility towards others.
For the rest of us, however, flow is something we need to relentlessly pursue. In utilitarian philosophy, the paradox of hedonism states that pursuing happiness directly does not yield happiness; rather, happiness is a byproduct of performing work and activities that we love to do — in short, performing the intrinsically rewarding tasks that give us flow. This isn't just in the realm of philosophy either; there's empirical evidence that experiencing flow increases positive sensations and emotions.
Arguably, the most important criteria in the pursuit of flow is to pick the right task. Many things that we seek out in our leisure time — such as watching TV — don't really provide us access to the flow state. Instead, tasks that are likely to encourage flow tend to have high consequences (e.g., rock climbing or public speaking), clear feedback, and take place in a rich and varied environment (so not your office cubicle). Steven Kotler, co-founder of the Flow Genome Project, identified several flow "triggers" that make entering the flow state more likely. To hear him describe these triggers and how to achieve flow, check out the video below.
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A study looks at the performance benefits delivered by asthma drugs when they're taken by athletes who don't have asthma.
- One on hand, the most common health condition among Olympic athletes is asthma. On the other, asthmatic athletes regularly outperform their non-asthmatic counterparts.
- A new study assesses the performance-enhancement effects of asthma medication for non-asthmatics.
- The analysis looks at the effects of both allowed and banned asthma medications.
WADA uncertainty<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDc4NjUwN30.fFTvRR0yJDLtFhaYiixh5Fa7NK1t1T4CzUM0Yh6KYiA/img.jpg?width=980" id="01b1b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2fd91a47d91e4d5083449b258a2fd63f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="urine sample for drug test" />
Image source: joel bubble ben/Shutterstock<p>When inhaled β-agonists first came out just before the 1972 Olympics, they were immediately banned altogether by the WADA as possible doping substances. Over the years, the WADA has reexamined their use and refined the organization's stance, evidence of the thorniness of finding an equitable position regarding their use. As of January 2020, only three β-agonists are allowed — salbutamol, formoterol, and salmeterol —and only in inhaled form. Oral consumption appears to have a greater effect on performance.</p>
The study<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTIzMDQyMX0.Gk4v-7PCA7NohvJjw12L15p7SumPCY0tLdsSlMrLlGs/img.jpg?width=980" id="d3141" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ebe7b30a315aeffcb4fe739095cf0767" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="runner at starting position on track" />
Image source: MinDof/Shutterstock<p>Of primary interest to the authors of the study is confirming and measuring the performance improvement to be gained from β-agonists when they're ingested by athletes who don't have asthma.</p><p>The researchers performed a meta-analysis of 34 existing studies documenting 44 randomized trials reporting on 472 participants. The pool of individuals included was broad, encompassing both untrained and elite athletes. In addition, lab tests, as opposed to actual competitions, tracked performance. The authors of the study therefore recommend taking its conclusions with just a grain of salt.</p><p>The effects of both WADA-banned and approved β-agonists were assessed.</p>
Approved β-agonists and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzkxODk0M30.3RssFwk_tWkHRkEl_tIee02rdq2tLuAePifnngqcIr8/img.jpg?width=980" id="39a99" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b1fe4a580c6d4f8a0fd021d7d6570e2a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="vaulter clearing pole" />
Image source: Andrey Yurlov/Shutterstock<p>What the meta-analysis showed is that the currently approved β-agonists didn't significantly improve athletic performance among those without asthma — what very slight benefit they <em>may</em> produce is just enough to prompt the study's authors to write that "it is still uncertain whether approved doses improve anaerobic performance." They note that the tiny effect did increase slightly over multiple weeks of β-agonist intake.</p>
Banned β-agonist and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjI3ODU5Mn0.vyoxSE5EYjPGc2ZEbBN8d5F79nSEIiC6TUzTt0ycVqc/img.jpg?width=980" id="de095" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="02fdd42dfda8e3665a7b547bb88007ef" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="swimmer mid stroke" />
Image source: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock<p>The study found that for athletes without asthma, however, the use of currently banned β-agonists did indeed result in enhanced performance. The authors write, "Our meta-analysis shows that β2-agonists improve anaerobic performance by 5%, an improvement that would change the outcome of most athletic competitions."</p><p>That 5 percent is an average: 70-meter sprint performance was improved by 3 percent, while strength performance, MVC (maximal voluntary contraction), was improved by 6 percent.</p><p>The analysis also revealed that different results were produced by different methods of ingestion. The percentages cited above were seen when a β-agonist was ingested orally. The effect was less pronounced when the banned substances were inhaled.</p><p>Given the difference between the results for allowed and banned β-agonists, the study's conclusions suggest that the WADA has it about right, at least in terms of selection of allowable β-agonists, as well as the allowable dosage method.</p>