Everyone has experienced flow — that state of mind where you’re “in the zone” and able to perform tasks optimally with little conscious effort. In flow, time seems to pass differently. Your deep-seated skills take over and run on autopilot. You might even find that you’re able to successfully perform tasks at a level that was previously out of reach.
Flow is naturally rewarding. Whether it’s playing baseball, programming, or writing a novel, we have some of our best experiences and do some of our best work while we’re in flow states. It sharpens our skill sets while releasing
So how can you best take advantage of flow? Researchers have identified 22 “flow triggers” that can catalyze flow states by either preparing yourself or your environment for them. In this interview with Big Think, researcher and writer Steven Kotler explains how to utilize flow triggers, and also how to understand the intrinsic motivators that drive flow states.
STEVEN KOTLER: Flow is often described as a state of kind of 'effortless effort.' We feel like we're propelled through the activity. Everything else just seems to disappear. Time is gonna dilate, which is a fancy way of saying it's gonna pass strangely. Five hours go by in like five minutes. Occasionally, it'll slow down, you get a freeze-frame effect, I mean, anybody who's been in a car crash for example. Intuition tends to get turned up a lot. This is a basketball player in the zone, seeing the hoop and suddenly it's as big as a hula hoop. And our frown muscles tend to be paralyzed. And what that frowning is, is a sign that the brain is doing work. This is a constant issue in my marriage where my wife thinks I'm mad at her or somebody and I'm like, "No, no, I'm just thinking. This is just me thinking. I'm in robot mode."
My name is Steven Kotler. I'm a writer and a researcher, and my latest book is "The Art of Impossible." Flow itself, actually, the term is coined by Goethe, who uses the German word "rausch," which means overflowing with joy. Nietzsche actually wrote about flow. William James worked on the topic, but Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is often referred to as the Godfather of Flow Psychology. He was very interested in sort of well-being, meaning of life, and he went around the world talking to people about the times in their lives when they felt their best, and they performed their best. Everywhere he went, people said the same thing. "I'm in this altered state of consciousness where every action, every decision I make, seems to flow effortlessly, perfectly, seamlessly from the last." Flow actually feels 'flowy.' More specifically, it refers to any of those moments of rapt attention and total absorption. You're so focused on the task at hand, so focused on what you're doing, everything else just seems to disappear. But one of the things that athletes talk about a lot is what they call "the voice." Often, when I'm skiing in flow, I will get directions- right, left, do this, do that, and it's very quick. You either do what the voice is telling you to do or you tend to crash. The challenge-skills balance is often called the "golden rule to flow." And the idea here is pretty simple. We pay the most attention to the task at hand when the challenge of that task slightly exceeds our skillset. So, to do this work and to get good at it, you have to get good at being comfortable with being uncomfortable. You wanna stretch but not snap.
So there are a number of different things you can do to sort of prepare yourself and prepare the environment to drop into flow. The flow triggers are your toolkit. 22 of them have been discovered. There are probably way, way more, but so far, researchers have identified 22. The most basic of flow triggers- complete concentration. You really wanna sorta start your work session if you can in relationship to your physiology. I like to wake up at 3:30, four o'clock in the morning. That's when I'm most awake, most alert. I am married to a night owl. My wife doesn't wake up 'til five, six, seven o'clock, eight o'clock at night. That's when her brain comes alive. And then you wanna try to block out 90 to 120 minutes for uninterrupted concentration. Practice distraction management ahead of time. So you wanna turn off your phones, turn off email, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, et cetera, all your messages, all your alerts. There was a study where they found that coders in flow, if they get knocked out by distraction, a knock at the door, a text alert, or whatever, it can take 'em 15 minutes to get back into flow if they can get back in at all. Flow only shows up when all of our attention is in the right here, right now.
One way to kind of explore flow triggers, there's a cluster of them that are predominantly dopamine triggers. They drive focus, they drive attention, they drive alertness and excitement, and there's a lotta different ways to get dopamine. Novelty produces dopamine. We see the same thing with unpredictability, complexity, the experience of awe. You look up at the night sky and you see stars everywhere and you know those stars are actually universes, and you get sorta perceptual vastness. If you've ever done a crossword puzzle or sudoku, you get an answer right, that little rush of pleasure you get, that's dopamine. And then you usually get a couple of answers right in a row, that's because the dopamine that is now in your system is amplifying pattern recognition. We get that same dopamine from risk-taking. And this could be physical risks, emotional risks, social risks, intellectual risks, possibly spiritual risks. We get the dopamine not as a reward for taking the risk, which is what some people used to believe, but now we know it's to kind of drive motivation. Now, there are lots of different intrinsic motivators, but from a motivation standpoint, there are five and they're all designed to be built into one another and work in a sort of specific order, in a specific sequence. The most basic human motivator is curiosity. One of the things we get from curiosity is focus for free. When we're curious about something, we don't have to struggle. We don't have to burn a lotta calories trying to pay attention to it. Curiosity is designed, biologically again, to be built into passion. And think about, we've all fallen in love, how much attention you pay to the person you're falling in love with. You can't stop thinking about them, can't stop staring at them. That's a tremendous amount of focus for free.
Now, passion is incredibly useful, but as a motivator, you can go one better, which is purpose. Everyone's talking about, "Oh, I have a purpose," and it's this big altruistic thing and it's good for the world, and all those things may be true, but from a peak performance perspective, it's very, very selfish. Once you have purpose, the system demands autonomy. I want the freedom to pursue my purpose. And once you have that freedom, the system wants the last of the big motivators, mastery. Mastery is the skills to pursue that purpose well.
One of the really incredible things about being human is we're all built for peak performance. Flow is universal in humans. It's actually universal in most mammals and definitely all social mammals. There's a shared collective version of a flow state, a team performing at their best, a group performing at their best. This is called 'group flow.' In fact, studies have shown that the people who score off the charts for these characteristics, who score off the charts for overall well-being and life satisfaction, are the people with the most flow in their lives. We're all capable of so much more than we know. That is a commonality across the board. It's the largest lesson in 30 years of studying peak performance has taught me. And the way I sorta like to think about it, is motivation is what gets us into the game. Learning allows us to continue to play. Creativity is how we steer. And flow, which is optimal performance, is how we amplify all the results beyond all reasonable expectation.