Updated: Jan 5
How to get in the zone: tips to find your flow (and the science behind it)
You can take your business (and yourself) to the next level by taking advantage of the flow state. These days' biggest organizations are taking advantage of flow to their advantage. Google and Facebook, for example, use particular flow triggers. Flow is a key part of Toyota's and Patagonia's philosophy. They produce impressive results. The same can be done by indie hackers.
Throughout the years, I have researched states of consciousness. It is a fascinating subject to me.
As a result, I am very familiar with the flow state, but I wanted to improve my ability to access it in my daily work, so I did some research. This is what I learned.
Meaning of being in the zone
Rowers call it "swing." Musicians refer to it as being "in the pocket." Others describe it as being "in the zone," achieving optimal performance and experiencing excellence. Obviously, it isn't a new concept. It was discussed thousands of years ago in ancient Greek and Indian cultures and became a matter of widespread study in the second half of the 20th century. The same applies to everyday people as well as athletes and artists.
This fabulous state has been discussed in reference to programmers, scientists, actors, chess players, surgeons, and more.
What does it mean? Flow is nothing but the process of dissociating from distracting or irrelevant elements of one's environment while performing an activity. An individual is at the peak of their abilities in this state. The individual is fully immersed and fully present. The subconscious and the body take precedence over the conscious mind. Awareness and action become inseparable. It appears that time is bending. There is ease and grace in the midst of difficulties. A sense of ecstasy and clarity pervades. There is even a sense of spirituality.
At that special level, strange things happen, as Celtics player Bill Russell noted. It would be a game of intense competition, yet he wouldn't feel competitive, which is an accomplishment in and of itself. His lungs would swell with strain, and he would cough up parts of his lungs as we ran, yet he did not feel pain. In spite of the fast pace of the game, he could not be surprised by any of the fakes, cuts, or passes. He almost seemed to play in slow motion. He could almost predict how the game would progress and where the shots would land during those spells. His predictions were always accurate, and he always felt as if he knew each and every Celtic, as well as the opposing players, and they all knew him.
Flow as a science
People who are flowing go through a number of bodily processes. We'll look at how that works.
In order to experience flow, the prefrontal cortex must temporarily become inactive, which is where the higher cognitive functions live. Though this seems counterintuitive, it is indeed helpful. This way, your mind won't be so distracting. You can also down-regulate other parts of the brain. There is research that suggests that the right parietal lobe deactivates, resulting in the sense of self-becoming increasingly separate.
As your consciousness shifts from Beta waves of thinking, fast-moving awareness, down to Alpha waves, which are more relaxed, your brainwaves change. At the bottom of Alpha, which corresponds to daydreaming, the waves become slower, and then they move into Theta, which corresponds to REM sleep and deep meditation. Right where Alpha meets Theta, flow occurs.
Another set of chemicals are released by the brain when you are in flow, all of which enhance performance and/or pleasure: norepinephrine (which enhances focus), dopamine (which enhances focus), endorphins (which block pain), anandamide (which gives insight), and serotonin (which feels good).
It is evolutionary biology that gives rise to flow triggers, which catapult our attention into the present. Neuroscientists say that these triggers cause our systems to release adrenaline and dopamine. We have evolved to build the ability to focus under uncertain, volatile, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) conditions and be aware of what is happening in the present moment due to evolution. Our presence in the deep "now", as researchers refer to it, is necessary for flow to occur.
Research by Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi revealed that flow has experiential dimensions in addition to the altered state of consciousness that it describes. The "Flow Triggers" are not simply experiential, a study led by Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler contends.
Even though I don't believe I need to convince you that flow is important, I'll briefly talk about a few of the pretty much endless advantages:
· Productivity gains
· A higher level of performance
· Motivational boost
· The ability to think creatively and imaginatively
· Increased intuition due to decreased impulse control
· Better control of emotions
· A happier and more fulfilling experience
· A higher level of courage
· A lesser amount of self-criticism
· Oneness and unity
In addition to its other benefits (somewhat unexpected), flow is also contagious. Group flow is when people enter flow together. With a cofounder, this might be worth trying.
Let's look at a few studies related to benefits:
In one study, none of the 40 participants succeeded in solving a puzzle that required deep creative insight. Nevertheless, 23 of the subjects answered it correctly in a flow state. Researchers from a variety of fields found that people in a state of flow were 7x more creative. Flow state participants even report an increase in creativity the next day.
A 10-year study also found that executives were five times more productive in flow.
A flow's dimensions
In what ways can you tell when you're in flow? You can't. You aren't thinking, and that's the point. Most people will drop out as soon as they realize they're in it. If verbalized, it is particularly evident. Several people have reported this, and I have seen it myself.
The truth, however, becomes apparent in retrospect. In his pioneering study of flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi divided it into nine dimensions, which give us clues.
The flow state can be described by the following six characteristics:
1. A high level of concentration
2. Convergence of awareness and action
3. Self-evaluation and social evaluation are less apparent
4. Control over the outcome of the activity
5. Feel that time is speeding up or slowing down
6. An autotelic experience is when the goal (and reward) are in the task itself
To achieve a flow state, the following three conditions must be met:
1. Combining challenge and skill. Steven Kotler suggests that the challenge should equal or exceed the skill level by about 4%.
2. Objectives that are clear
3. Instantaneous and clear feedback
It is important to note that flow is an active state. The fact that time passes while passively watching a TV show does not indicate that you're in flow.
A total of 22 flow triggers have been identified so far and more are currently being investigated. These can generally be divided into the following basic categories:
· Individual flow triggers, and
· group flow triggers
When you use these triggers strategically, your brain will release the correct set of neurochemicals to help your system free up and flow.
INDIVIDUAL FLOW TRIGGERS
By leveraging internal models and maps, you can gain access to triggers.
1. Clearly defined objectives
The objectives of a successful outcome are well understood by you, and you're attempting to achieve them.
2. Clear feedback
Whether it is from yourself or others, you receive immediate feedback. As a result, you can make course corrections in real-time, pushing your boundaries and limitations further than you may expect.
3. Balance between challenge and skill
You should choose an activity that will challenge you while still fitting within your capabilities. You should not let your anxiety about the activity paralyze you. In addition, the task should not be below your level of competence, since this may lead to apathy and boredom.
4. Focus on the task at hand
Laser-focused attention is crucial to completing a task. The mind is freed from distractions during this state. Stress and anxiety are temporarily dispelled.
Your intrinsic motivations are strong. Rather than being motivated by extrinsic factors such as fame, money, power, etc., you are guided by intrinsic factors. The activity itself is a reward in and of itself. It gives you a sense of significance and that your contribution is larger than your own being.
The captain of the ship pays more attention. You alone have the authority to decide where your ship will go and how you will steer it there.
As a species, we are curiously capable of designing our surroundings. Likewise, the environment can influence our experiences, increasing our chances of finding flow. Here are some additional triggers you can utilize to increase your likelihood of altering the environment:
7. Profound Consequences
Tasks should involve some degree of risk. What matters is the presence of risk and not its kind. Risk is calculated in an egalitarian manner by our brains. Here are a few examples:
· Risk of physical harm
Putting yourself in situations where you may be physically threatened is a part of this. Life is at risk in action-adventure sports. Death may be a possibility, depending on your daredevil metrics.
· Risk of social exclusion
It occurs when participating in an activity requires risking your social status. For example, you may decide to share a controversial idea.
· Risk of emotional distress
Engaging in demanding conversations and demonstrating vulnerability is key.
· A risky creative process
Artists who surrender to their creative downloads produce the best works of art. Creating without breaking the rules is no fun, according to me.
· Risk of financial loss
When you've got lots of money at stake, your focus is likely to be directed that way.
Shiny new object syndrome can also be applied here. Whenever we encounter something new, our brains pay extra attention. Landscapes, business ventures, even video games can catch your attention.
Your system should not be overwhelmed by the complexity of the activity. But it shouldn't be so easy that your brain determines that it doesn't need extra attention. You have to know how you will handle the complicated terrain.
Anything driving salience in the brain can be attributed to this. This is telling the brain, "Hey! I'm not sure what's going on, pay attention! You might want to pay attention”.
As you act, you become aware. There is often an association between this and a feeling of belonging. The paintbrush may seem to be the painter's arm. It is possible that a racecar driver cannot distinguish his body from the car. Some surfers believe they are part of the ocean.
12. Identifying patterns and creativity
I find this trigger to be one of my favorites. A cascade of pleasurable chemicals is released whenever you link old information with new and develop an original idea. It's a state of high creativity. Get to work on a great idea right away. Your neurochemicals favor you. However, it is not as easy as it sounds.
GROUP FLOW TRIGGERS
Csikszentmihalyi says that "the fear of being left out of human interaction is one of the most fearful things we can face."
As a result of studying Csikszentmihalyi's seminal work, Keith Sawyer came to discover that improvising groups can achieve a collective state of mind that he named Group Flow. Groups of geniuses can reach states of peak experience, where improvised innovation can flourish to the highest levels. Flow is more powerful when it is shared than when it is solitary. Social bonding neurochemicals have to play a role in it.
To explain the phenomenon of Group Flow, Sawyer describes 10 conditions in his book Group genius: The creative power of collaboration. They include:
13. Common goals
Having a clear direction for steering the ship is crucial for the group. Team members must share a common vision and have a compelling mission. A generous helping of loosely defined meaningful goals blended with a bit of competition may create a recipe for group genius.
14. Participation by everyone
The members of the group must be equal in their contribution to the project. Their skills must be comparable and complementary. In cases where a member has a skill level that is significantly higher than another, the member may become arrogant or dominant and neglect contributing to the team. When someone's skill level is too low, it can cause frustration for the individual and prevent the emergence of group flow.
15. Balancing egos
Hive minds come into play at this point. The sole basis for your behavior is no longer your own internal sense of self. Listen closely to your group members and build spontaneously upon their contributions, becoming absorbed in the experience at hand. A jazz musician experiences this regularly. In this way, the performers seem to submerge their egos. There are magical moments when it appears that they are reading from the same script, even though a script does not exist. Music is created spontaneously and creatively by the collective genius of the group.
16. Listening closely
It may be called active listening by coaches and deep listening by improvisers. Having conversations with ourselves prevents us from entering group genius mode. Innovation can only happen when we are able to deeply listen to each other. Those around us need our full attention in order to be energized.
17. I agree, and
It is imperative to keep the story moving forward during improvised acting. For instance, one of your actors announces, "I just noticed a glow-in-the-dark monkey in the kitchen!".
It is not your task to dismiss their ideas, but rather to make every effort to accept, extend, and build upon them. Try to say something like, “Oh wow, I hope he can attend tonight’s dinner party!” instead of denying it.
At Amazon, Jeff Bezos insists on the acceptance and implementation of all employee ideas. In the case that a supervisor rejects a worker's suggestion, they must write a two-page letter explaining why.
18. Absolute Focus
Teresa Amabile, who is a Harvard University Professor, stated that a deep sense of fulfillment and personal challenge drives the highest levels of creativity, regardless of field.
Team members must pay attention to the moment. In their endeavors, they should not be too concerned with the rewards or punishments they might receive. When we do this, we take our attention away from the present moment and activate brain regions that are associated with flow suppression. Harvard University's Teresa Amabile discovered that stress can trump creativity. Inspiring flow in the team can be achieved by focusing on challenges that are inherent in the task.
19. The feeling of control
To experiment with new ideas is the ultimate freedom for creative groups. Critics say it is costly to be innovative. Yet innovation is ultimately affordable. The antidote to mediocrity is autonomy - as Tom Kelley said.
Humans are driven by autonomy and freedom. People experience relatedness, autonomy, and competence when they feel empowered by Self-determination theory. Choosing what to do is something that humans need to perceive as being within their control. Additionally, we should be able to determine when the task is performed, how it is performed, and with whom it is performed. Teams need autonomy to be able to create group flows. Micromanagers need to step aside.
Patagonia founder, Yves Chouinard, instituted the policy, "Let my people go surfing," which implies that employees can get up and leave when it starts to surf. The entrance hall of Patagonia is lined with employee surfboards since it is located near the Pacific Ocean. Due to their commitment to providing employees with flow, they have earned a high ranking on the list of best places to work.
ROWE: Results Oriented Work Environments, is slowly but surely being implemented by some organizations, allowing employees to work however they want as long as they get the job done. There is a drastic increase in both employee engagement and productivity following the implementation of these changes.
20. Sense of familiarity
The members of the group must have a good understanding of each other's performance styles. However, the members need not always finish each other's sentences. It is no longer necessary to pay attention or listen closely when you are too familiar with the members of your group. To harness group flow, however, it is imperative to understand their performance style.
Participants to conference meetings who come prepared with agenda items usually do not have a group flow. A collaborative process through spontaneous brainstorming leads to the emergence of new ideas that build upon each other. Informal, social settings where people are more likely to explore themselves and not likely to succumb to self-doubt make this more probable.
22. Risk sharing
The phenomenon of group flow during rehearsals is not common among many improvisational groups. In order to lock in flow, you will need a crowd and the possibility of failure. The fear of performing on stage is often harnessed by professional actors to move towards the flow state.
Organizations are usually devoted to minimizing risk and eliminating the possibility of failure. Both individuals and teams at large suffer from this, as it is probably one of the worst things that can happen in an organization.
The default setting should be to risk failure. In order for innovation to flourish, teams must foster environments that encourage experimentation and accept failure.
Triggering Bonus Flow
Steven Kotler takes this a step further by incorporating spite as a flow trigger. To Steven, spite needn't be hateful or malicious. Someone may have cast doubt on you or your dreams and you feel the need to prove them wrong. If this is the case, then flow may develop. The data to support this has yet to be gathered. This makes us focus on what we need to do, allows us to make our challenge/skills balance stronger, and encourages us to be focused on the task at hand.
As a personal experience, I learned a great deal about not caring what other people think of me. My dreams allow me to explore my creativity and are intrinsically rewarding to me. It would absolutely fill my ego with joy if I could prove the doubters wrong along the way. Let's face it, I'm only human, and I'm wise to take advantage of what I can! There is something positive about having egos!
Despite all the talk about ego-death, Michael Pollan said he got the book written with the help of his ego. It appears that not only noble triggers create flow. They just need to serve a noble purpose.
Finding flow and getting into the zone - flow state triggers
That brings us to the big question. While we've all used flow from time to time, how can we do it constantly?
Flow can be more accessible if we use some general practices.
· Don't forget to look after yourself. Get enough sleep, exercise, and eat well.
· Make sure you know what you want to accomplish. Your subconscious can help you if you know what you need to do.
· Put yourself in a state of flow. Your chances of finding it increases the more you enter, so keep trying. Swimming, table tennis, running, cycling, rock climbing, and martial arts are commonly known activities that induce flow.
· Consider creating a pre-flow routine, much like an athlete would before a game. Try moving around, listening to music, or visualizing.
· Practice meditation. You get used to being able to let the subconscious take over and quiet your conscious mind.
· Visualize. The brain's attention, perception, memory, and motor centers are affected by this practice.
· Concentrate on a single objective - for example, your breathing, an image, etc.
· Don't be afraid to fail. Without it, you won't be able to risk anything. Risk contributes to flow.
You need to prepare your environment for flow state before getting into it:
· Organize your day so that you don't think about other tasks.
· Give yourself plenty of time to flow. I usually allow myself two hours. Put an alarm on to keep you from worrying about time.
· It is important to time it correctly. Make sure you drop in when it is most convenient for you. The times around 11 AM and 6 PM are when many of us are most energetic, so they make for good flow times. Nonetheless, circadian rhythms vary from person to person so be sure to track yours.
· Don't be distracted. Don't ignore this.
· Ensure that all the tools are available. Having them in front of you will make it easier for you to use them.
· Pick something you love to do.
· Make sure that the task you choose has high stakes.
· Challenge yourself, but make sure you can complete the task.
· Ensure your task requires creativity.
· You can monitor your progress if you break your goal up into tasks if feedback isn't immediate like in a sport.
Get into the flow as soon as you have a ready environment:
· Decide what you want to achieve.
· Don't let the goal distract you from the task.
· Jams should be turned on. Consider Brain.fm and Endel focus music, which are specifically designed for concentration. You can also listen to classical music for concentration. Avoid music that has lyrics that will cause you to become distracted. Try something you'll barely notice because you're very familiar with it.
· Follow the pre-flow routine outlined above.
· Close your eyes and relax.
· Maintain a straight posture.
· Keep your attention on your breath. For a more present experience, take several deep breaths before beginning.
· Keep your thoughts to a minimum and refrain from verbalizing them.
· Avoid talking to anyone.
· Try not to push yourself too hard.
· Enjoy yourself.
Once you've finished:
· You should journal about it.
· Identify the things that worked and did not work.
Can't seem to get into the zone?
You might not be able to handle problems because your nervous system has been overstimulated (anxiety, stress, overwhelm). In these cases, it is best to slow down. Breathe, take a break, or reset your mind in some other way. The other possibility is that you are under-stimulated (bored, depressed, lethargic, etc.). Get your blood flowing, drink water, and eat something before getting started.
Triggers based on flow state for groups
Flow state triggers were compiled by Steven Kotler. His triggers for group flow are not included in the how-to steps above. You must meet the following requirements if you are doing this with a cofounder, team, etc.
· The team shares the same goals
· The team understands the risks
· Team members are familiar with one another
· Equal participation by the team
· The team communicates constantly
· Each team member pays attention to the other's needs
· The word "yes" is often used by individuals
Keep yourself in the zone
If you're already in flow, staying there can be challenging. Whenever you start thinking about being in the zone (or staying in the zone), that is when you are likely to lose it. Do not verbalize your thoughts like that. Dismiss the thought as quickly as possible, and then get back to work. This might help you stay focused. It's always possible to get back in it even if you drop out by stilling your mind again. Alternatively, if that doesn't work, try following the steps listed above. You'll find that staying in flow becomes easier if you continue the above practices.