Our minds are distracted a great deal of our waking hours. In fact, about 47% of the time, we’re thinking about something other than what we’re doing. This leads to distraction, poor production, even unhappiness. (1)
The opposite of this state is to be in full presence. To be so fully engaged in what we’re doing that time distorts, we aren’t aware of our bodies, and we’re able to achieve far more than we ever would have thought possible. We feel our best and we perform our best.
This is called flow.
We can all remember a time when we felt this way. A time when we were so focused on mountain biking down a technical trail that we didn't register the exertion. A time when we were immersed in playing an instrument or listening to music and hours flew by like seconds. A time when we were out walking and inspiration seemed to fly at us, disparate ideas coming together to create a new whole.
In Steven Kolter’s book, The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, psychologist Ned Hallowell is quoted saying, “Flow is the doorway to the ‘more’ most of us seek. Rather than telling ourselves to get used to it, that’s all there is, instead learn how to enter into flow. There you will find, in manageable doses, all the ‘more’ you need.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist and the father of “flow,” calls it the secret to happiness. Psychologists have even shown people who have frequent, extended periods of flow are the happiest people on earth.
But the questions still remain: what is flow? And how can we cultivate the conditions for flow in our daily lives?
Creating a momentary new reality
Altered consciousness, altered perception
Everyday reality is fairly mundane and predictable. We’ve got our routines, which help us conserve energy so we don’t have to make the same decisions all the time. We know where we’re going, how to get there, and generally coast on autopilot.
Our brains are operating on fast-moving beta waves, making quick decisions and juggling all we have going on.
Flow state is a break from reality, a break from the mundane and the predictable. It’s a state of being involved in what we’re doing, having a sense of serenity and ecstasy, slipping into timelessness, and being driven by intrinsic motivation.
When we’re in a flow state, our brainwaves are somewhere between alpha waves and theta waves. Alpha waves are present when we’re daydreaming, and theta waves occupy REM sleep and the moments just before sleep. (2)
Both have the characteristic of being slower than the typical beta waves. And while we’re cruising at this lower altitude of flow, our self-monitoring and impulse control turn off. We feel more courageous, and our bodies are flooded with a cascade of positive neurochemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins.
Now you know why flow involves the feeling of ecstasy!
In flow, we performance optimally and are our most creative because the normal parts of our thinking mind that interfere with subconscious processing fall away. Suddenly, we’re stepping into a momentary new reality, one without a critical voice or doubt. We are, in a sense, capable of just about anything.
4 steps to increasing performance and happiness
Flow sounds a bit illusive. It’s about doing things, without trying to do them. It’s about relaxing and slowing our minds so we can move faster and birth insight. It’s about being so focused and alter that our awareness of ourselves drops away.
A composer in 1975 described flow like this: “You are in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist. I have experienced this time and again. My hand seems devoid of myself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there watching it in a state of awe and wonderment. And (the music) just flows out of itself.”
Like this composer, athletes are also no strangers to flow. They push through pain without even noticing it, and are singularly focused on the task at hand. This level of focus is particularly important because without it, their activity could cost them their lives. Big-wave surfer, Laird Hamilton, says, “If you just get out of your own way… It is amazing what will come to you.”
Not all of us are looking to access flow while throttling down a 50-foot wave, or while composing an aria. How can we find flow at work? At home? While engaging with the people whom we love?
Here are four compulsory components in flow, derived from research by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Steven Kotler. They are things you can consciously practice to increase your chances of tapping into the secret of happiness.
Balance Challenge and Skill
Finding the sweet spot
Flow happens when we’re met with a challenge and we have a skillset equal to it. (3)
When we have low skill and low challenge, we live in a state of apathy. A 2011 Gallup survey showed that 71% of American workers were “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” at work. These individuals are probably in the realm of apathy or boredom (having more skills than are challenged) on the above graph.
The categories of “arousal” and “control” are prime positions for stepping into flow, either being just slightly under skilled or slightly under challenged.
Here’s how you can find your perfect balance between skill and challenge:
- Identify what you’re really good at. This might be something you’ve trained in for a decade, or maybe something that comes naturally to you. It’s also something you find engaging, interesting, and intrinsically rewarding.
- You probably know what your level of accomplishment is in this skill. How can you push that a bit further? Identify what the professionals are doing, or maybe what no one has done before! Set a very clear goal for yourself: you are going to accomplish ______ in ______ amount of time. Be specific, and reach just beyond what you previously thought possible.
- Design a flow chart for how you’d like to go through your process of accomplishing your goal. The more detailed a container you create, the more focused your flow will be.
- Recalibrate as needed. If you find your challenge is beyond your capabilities, work on obtaining more skills. If your skills exceed the challenge, figure out how you can take it up a notch. Check back in with yourself and make changes as needed.
Creating the perfect container
Flow is a state of complete focus. Your brainwaves slow down, you stop self-monitoring, you lose awareness of hunger, fatigue, pain, discomfort. You are completely “in the zone.”
Most of our days are not spent focused. We’re thinking, analyzing, judging, and critiquing. Maybe we’re focused on the task at hand, but we’re also flipping back and forth between emails, social media, text messages, and different tabs on our browser. Work life – and home life, for that matter – are not designed for focus unless we make a conscious effort to shape them.
Here are some basic steps you can take to decrease distraction and increase focus, both at work and at home or your social life:
- Get to work earlier. One of the main distractions at work might simply be the presence of other people. Things also get hectic later in the day as meetings are taking place, emails are being responded to, and questions are being thrown around. Get to work early and use that time to focus on one particular task, something that strikes a perfect balance between your skill and a challenge. Then, see if you can negotiate leaving early. Not only with you help preserve your energy, you’ll miss traffic!
- Create a strict technology schedule. When I’m writing and flipping between Facebook or texting, it takes me that much longer to get back into the rhythm of formulating sentences. The pull can be strong, but we need to be stronger, designating periods of time when our phones are off (or on silent and flipped over), we don’t check email, and we certainly don’t wander to other sites. If you need help creating this discipline, there’s a Google Chrome extension called StayFocused that will block you from sites of your choosing after a designated amount of time has been filled. Say you only want to allot 10 minutes to Facebook every day. After you’ve spent 10 minutes on Facebook, StayFocused will block you from the site. This is one of the ways in which technology can actually support your focus instead of hinder it!
- Take care of your body. It sounds obvious, but being aware of your body’s needs can enhance your focus. Does coffee make you jittery and have trouble focusing? Switch to tea. Do heavy carbs in the morning make you crash in the afternoon? Switch to a protein breakfast. And if you really want to boost your memory, improve your concentration, improve your mental health, and enhance your creativity, move your body before you start the work day.
Combining novelty, unpredictability, and complexity
As Steven Kolter writes in The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, there’s a reason we have sayings about the universe existing inside a dewdrop, or a snowflake. In nature, we encounter a rich environment that combines novelty, unpredictability, and complexity. The magical trio for flow.
This amalgamation helps create an experience in which we’re challenged, engaged, focused, and in awe. It doesn’t sound entirely concrete, but here’s a practice to cultivate a sense of being in a rich environment:
Find a spot in nature. It might be a trail, a garden, the woods, or even the night sky. If you don’t have access to nature, you can also get at the same effect by mixing up your routine. Both will throw us into a scenario where we’re not on autopilot; we’re outside our normal habits, enveloped in novelty, unpredictability, and complexity.
If you’re in nature, engage all your senses. Look around, listen, touch, taste, and smell. What do you notice? What surprises you? Treat the moment as if you were seeing everything for the first time. See that moss weaving up the tree? Hear the sound of a trickling creek? Allow yourself to be in wonderment, in awe. (4)
If you’re changing your routine, observe your experience in the same way. What do you notice about going to a different coffee shop, or setting a pomodoro timer and dancing with abandon while you take a five-minute break? Encourage play, experimentation, and letting go of your internal critic, the one that might be accustomed to holding you back from doing things out of the ordinary. Because that’s exactly where you want to go; out of the ordinary and to the extraordinary.
Letting your body do the work
We often think processing, learning, and insight come from consciously engaging our mental faculties to figure something out. With flow, we want to get out of our heads and into our bodies. We have just as many neurons in our guts and hearts as we do in our brains. Half of our nerve endings are in our feet, hands, and face. We are sensory beings, and flow is a sensory, full-body experience. (5)
When we try and “think” about things, our minds actually get in the way of our bodies’ ability to process information faster and in greater quantities than our minds.
This is why flow is most accessible to high-level athletes; they have an inherent embodiment while skiing down technical slopes. Here’s how we can practice embodiment:
- Walking meditation: Meditators don’t always sit while they’re practicing. A walking meditation engages the mind in the body’s movement, focusing on walking slowly on the earth. You can do it inside or outside. Any place that’s quite and you have a bit of room to move. Let your hands fall to your side and gaze ahead of you, keeping your focus soft so that you aren’t “looking” at any one thing. As slowly as you can, pick up one foot and set it down on the ground in front of you, feeling as each part of your foot comes in contact with the earth. Transition your weight, and again, as slowly as possible, move the next foot. Keep your awareness on your body, on the sensation of moving your feet, of moving through space, of breathing all the while.
- Yoga: The Sanskrit word yoga means “to yoke.” Yoga is a practice of bringing the mind and the body into union. If you’re new to yoga, attend a class. Find a teacher who isn’t looking to tone your gluts, but who’s looking to bring you into a certain level of awareness, one that is body-focused. If you like practicing at home, set up a daily yoga routine, even 10 minutes long. This training will drastically improve your body-awareness throughout the day and improve your chances of getting into flow.
- If there are sports or movements you enjoy (biking, boxing, walking, gardening, etc.), work to bring the same level of awareness to that activity. Be aware of your body as you run down the soccer field or bike around a lake. Notice your muscles, your breathing, and marvel at how much your body accomplishes without thinking about it. This is the state you want to be in for flow.
Unleash your power
Don't define it
It’s hard to imagine all that we’re capable of, and it probably hinders us in a way, setting boundaries and expectations. As you experiment with flow, hold a bit of wonderment. Let go of who you think you are and where you think you're going. Flow knows best, so follow its lead.
There might be times when you’re flow for just a few minutes, a few hours, or not at all. It’s okay. Keep playing and figuring out what is most effective for you. Your potential is there. You just need to find ways to keep stepping out of your head, into your body, and let life flow through you.