Flow is the state of mind (or rather performance) that many take as a natural manifestation of super-sharp focus.
You know that feeling when you’re doing something and you don’t notice the time? When you don’t care about the space and not even about other things that may be on your to-do list. You feel on top of the world, extremely productive and–most importantly of all–you love every moment in this state of flow.
Even if you think you don’t, you probably experience flow several times a day: perhaps at work, while reading a good book, while on a run or during exercise, … even while you ‘kick back’ with a TV show to fill your time.
Crucially however, all of these experiences of flow happen at random. Some days, there are more of them and some days you just can’t get into it no matter how hard you try to focus. It just doesn’t happen and your work feels like a slog. Ever wondered why that is?
Is it because you ate something bad? Maybe it’s your sleep – are you getting enough of it? Or was it that the last few days were more stressful for you than usual? Actually, none of these things are the cause of flow impotence.
The shortcuts for getting into the flow state anytime and anywhere
Brilliant author and journalist Steven Kotler defined several principles for getting into the flow (make sure to check out his books for more brain pickings). I lied in the title by referring to these principles as shortcuts – they’re more like a list of essential conditions that have to be satisfied in order for your psyche to thrive and make flow possible.
Before we dig into these conditions, there is one rule you must be aware of:
Flow can be applied only to the activities that are on the borderline between very easy and boring tasks and extremely difficult that could be off putting.
This means that whatever task you want to achieve flow with, has to be challenging. It has to be more challenging than the stuff you’re easily capable of delivering most days. For example, writing articles like this puts me into a state of flow instantly. And whilst scribbling down my thoughts and strategies comes easy, it’s difficult to shape those scribblings into a quality, easy-to-read article which you, dear reader, would appreciate and share. Editing is always a struggle but it’s just the struggle I need to achieve flow.
As long as there are stakes and risks involved if you don’t complete the task, you will unlock the flow. So don’t try to apply these principles to a task you can pull off without a sweat. This won’t deliver the happiness you’d experience in the quality state of flow.
Here are the essential conditions Kotler outlines as being precursory to unlocking this state of extraordinary performance called flow:
1. Embrace risk
Psychiatrist Ned Hallowell states that:
“to reach flow one must be willing to take risks <…> (we) must be willing to fail, look foolish, and fall flat on our faces should we wish to enter this state”.
What is a risk? Let me give you a few examples, courtesy of Hallowell. Think: a seducer risking rejection, an employee asking for promotion, you pitching an idea to your boss or investors, maybe even an athlete who has to disregard his health to push his body to the limit. Regardless of who you are, taking risks and embracing the possibility of a failure is key to unlocking flow.
Remember that uncertainty in what might follow will force your mind to be present, and being present is the medium for the flow state to flourish.
2. Have Clear Goals and Embody the Process
Another must-have is the drive from which flow is going to emerge. This drive must be specific–the more specific, the better. You can help yourself specify a goal by thinking of your big goal and then breaking out the smaller milestones that when lined up one after another will reach that big, impossible goal. Got that? Now you can tackle those lined-up milestones knowing exactly which tasks you need to clear to hit each milestone, and to ultimately reach the big goal.
Steven Kotler in his book Bold states:
“When goals are clear, metacognition is replaced by in-the-moment cognition, and the self stays out of the picture”.
The pre-condition here is that you need to get micro-feedback as you approach problems in the state of flow. Feedback is essential in order to understand how far away you are from reaching the goal and what milestone you must check off before bouncing out of the flow. Having these micro checks and confirmation will allow you to be present, thus extending your state of flow.
Furthermore this process must be embodied by making ideas actionable in real time. For example if you are learning a subject you need to take it out of your head and work on it physically too. If you’re intrigued by these strategies and want to try them out, then absolutely bring them into real time by starting to practice them right away. This is how you embody and kickstart the process of reaching flow.
3. Hack your environment
The right environment is an absolute must. It cannot be the workplace you’re used to. Your environment needs to serve you by triggering those risk mechanisms again through novelty so you can get into the flow.
Here are some ideas for how you can use your environment to enter flow:
- Try working or studying from a coffee shop or a workspace that’s different from your usual one. I can guarantee that, without distractions, you’ll be in the flow within a few minutes on hunkering down. This shortcut is why I spend a lot of my free weekends dedicated to work in various coffee shops around my city.
- Used to work sitting down? Get a standing desk or make a quick standing workstation. Switch your body position regularly throughout the day.
- Cannot concentrate on that audiobook you’ve queued a while back? Embody it by cleaning the house while you listen, gardening or going for a walk in the park. All of these typically mundane tasks will help you hack flow.
- Are there any songs that make you feel productive? Collect them into a playlist which you can listen to anytime you need to work or study. Everyone has at least a few hits they turn to. So pop some jingles in your Spotify and reach for them whenever you need a shortcut to flow.
- Make use of rituals. Most people think that caffeine is a shortcut to flow state. However, the secret is not caffeine itself but the habit of brewing, feeling and embodying the coffee as liquid. It’s this experience that causes you to drift into the flow of productivity. Replace coffee with tea for long enough to make it a habit and it’ll become a ritual just as strong.
To further improve your ability of kickstarting flow, you should focus on two things: idea sex or pattern recognition (i.e. merging different ideas together) and a habit to take risks, which we already discussed. Idea sex you can practice via a daily habit such as the one popularised by author and entrepreneur James Altucher who writes down 10 ideas every day. Risk taking you can practice as long as you’re willing to fail and take a risk that’ll break boredom.
The great thing about these conditions for flow is that they can also be applied to small teams and organizations. In such a context, there would be an additional shortcut which is the complete alignment of the whole team throughout whatever project they’re working on. Alignment is key reaching goals successfully in any company or group setting.
Before you walk away from this article completely, remember to give at least one of these shortcuts a try right away. Never forget that embodying the knowledge also leads to the happy state of flow.
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