High Performance On Demand: A Practical Guide On How To Find Flow

It was in March of 2003. We took a team bus to the Anaheim Pond convention center - we'd made it to the CIF regional finals for boys basketball.

We were facing a powerhouse - Mater Dei High School - a program known for producing some of the best players in the country year over year. We, Mayfair High School, were the obvious underdogs.

However, my experience that day is one I've never forgotten.

From the minute I stepped into the convention center to the last horn as the clock hit triple zero, I was in the zone. Everything felt effortless - I felt like I could play with my eyes closed and not miss a beat.

The ball felt a part of my being. I could see the play before the play. It didn't matter who was guarding me, they were at my mercy. Even though the pace of the game was fast, everything felt slow. Time didn't matter. Hundreds of people in the crowd went unnoticed.

I never fatigued.

In the midst of the biggest game of my life, amongst screaming fans, and high expectations from the coaching staff, I felt calm - like a geisha pouring tea.

Pregnant with confidence and a focus that couldn't be shaken, I was in a state of peak performance.

At the time, I really didn't think much of it. I walked away knowing I played well - but I didn't understand why or how I entered such a state.

It wasn't until years later, that I learned that what I experienced is what researchers call flow - an optimal state of consciousness. This is a peak state we we feel our best and perform our best.

There is a ton of lingo that floats around referencing this concept. If you have an athletic background, being in the zone might ring a bell. If you are more of a creative, tapping into your inner muse might sound familiar to you. If you're into endurance sports, the runners high is that place where time melts away.

Whichever verbiage you prefer, the experience is unforgettable.

The interesting part about flow is that it's not confined to the typical events you'd assume it flexes its power within.

Just the other day, I met a friend at Starbucks. There was no angle to the meet up - just a casual conversation over iced green tea.

Then flow hit us both.

We talked for two hours straight about ideas, concepts and jabbed at some of the big questions in life. What I had felt in 2003 in the basketball game, showed up again over a decade later in a very different environment.

But there was a connective tissue to the experience. We lost track of time, conversation had rich fluidity, each topic was transitioned effortlessly, and we were both operating at optimal state of consciousness. I mentioned to him at one point in our conversation "Man, this would make a great podcast."

Nonetheless, it begged me to find an answer to this question: "Can flow be tapped into on demand?"

To me, this question carries weight.


In the next 10-20 years, we're going to see the largest shift in knowledge and responsibilities in the American economy. Baby boomers will be passing the baton down to the younger folk - this includes me.

This means we have to be ready for this shift - we must learn how to be our best selves when it matters the most. 

However, given the environment of work today, our ability to focus is becoming more valuable and more rare at the same time.

We have more access to information than ever before, which is a luxury and a curse. We're terrible at managing this privilege. The result is mistaking activity for achievement -  and endless distraction that prevents us from practicing deep work consistently.

Also, creativity is becoming the new literacy. In fact, IBM conducted a study that highlights how important creativity is and will be in the decades to follow:

According to a major new IBM survey of more than 1,500 Chief Executive Officers from 60 countries and 33 industries worldwide, chief executives believe that -- more than rigor, management discipline, integrity or even vision -- successfully navigating an increasing complex world will require creativity.

Creativity is number one. Not top five, but number one. This is consensus not only in America, it's agreed upon worldwide. So if you think creativity is reserved for the hacky sack players in the upper right corner of the U.S.A., you need to think again.

However, if we can unlock the flow state on demand, a clear advantage awaits. According to Steven Kotler, author of The Rise of Superman, creativity triggers flow; then flow enhances creativity.

In my opinion, figuring out the scaffolding of creativity and flow and then backing it with your own recipe is the going to be the priceless skill set of the next few decades to come.


The Science Of Flow 

Steven Kotler does a wonderful job on dissecting flow in his book, The Rise Of Superman. He draws on 150 years of research based on flow. While Kotler highlights modern day stories of action and adventure sport athletes, his pillar for reference comes from the godfather of flow - Mihaly Czikzentmihalyi.

Csikzentmihalyi was born in Flume Italy, which is now Rijeka, Croatia in 1934. He had a tough upbringing witnessing one of his brothers being killed and another being sent off to Siberia. When Csikszentmihalyi was seven, he as sent to an Italian prison camp.

In camp he learned how to play chess. His interest in the game became an obsession. Interestingly, chess allowed him to bypass the realization of the tragedy and bad situations in front of him. When he was playing chess, these things didn't seem to matter.

He realized that this trait was rare in the camp. He said this:

In prison I realized how few of the grown ups around me were able to withstand the tragedies of war visited upon them, how few of them had anything resembling a normal, contented, satisfied life once their job, their home, and their security was destroyed. So I became interested in understanding what contributed to a life worth living.

This lead him to find out what activities produce the deepest satisfaction and greatest return for the human being. This was the foundation of his happiness study.

He interviewed a broad scope of people: dancers, artists, rock climbers, surgeons, chess players, Italian farmers, Navajo sheepherders, Chicago assembly line workers, Japanese teenagers, and elderly Korean women.

They all said the same thing: when they were at their best and felt their best was when they were experiencing peak experiences - an expansion of self-expression, united and deeply involved with something that mattered to them.

Csikszentmihalyi called this experience a flow state. He also noticed that it wasn't by chance that this optimal state of consciousness occurred. He reported this:

It was clear from talking to them, that what kept them motivated was the quality of the experience they felt when they were involved with the activity. The feeling didn't come when they were relaxing, when they were taking drugs or alcohol, or when they were consuming expensive privileges of wealth. Rather, it often involved painful, risky, difficult activities that stretched the person's capacity and involved an element of novelty and discovery.

Flow became a groundbreaking discovery and has matured into a decision making strategy powerhouse. The reason why it's so potent can be attributed to what happens at the neurochemical level during the state.

Flow requires a set of neurochemicals to be released in order for the state to take place. 

When a person enters the flow state, five neurochemicals (dopamine, norepinephrine, endorphins, anandamide, serotonin) massively amplify the immune system and flush out the stress-causing hormones.

Individually, these parts can stimulate a small change. But together, they induce a drug-like experience.

Dopamine amps up your ability to process inputs, endorphins heighten your pain threshold (the most common endorphin is 100 times more powerful than medical morphine), norepinephrine tightens focus and anandamide allows you to think laterally, connecting seemingly unrelated ideas to one another.

It's the perfect cocktail for human performance.

The question is, how do we tap into it when it matters the most? The good news is that it's possible to tap into your flow state on demand. But, there's a few costs to finding flow.

I'll lay out the how and the costs in the following - it's up to you to measure whether or not it's worth the effort.


Flow Triggers

Kotler claims that adventure sport athletes (surfers, skiers, base jumpers, kayakers etc) are the best at hacking flow than anyone else.

The reason?

They orient their lives and careers around the flow state.

Consequentially, they are the perfect test subjects to highlight what triggers flow - essentially giving people who don't shred, paddle, or whip around city buildings under 4 G's of pressure the ability to leverage flow into their creative lives and businesses.

The following triggers showcase how you and I can hack into flow state and enter an optimal state of consciousness when it matters the most.


Environmental Triggers 

High Risk

In adventure sport, this is easy to spot. The athletes life is almost always on the line during action.

When high consequences are at stake, we don't need to consciously wrestle ourselves into laser focus - it happens automatically.

For example, if a someone like Dean Potter isn't focused when he scales Mount Fitz Roy, the tallest mountain in Patagonia, the already high chances of death are further increased.

But, to re-create high risk environment, you needn't to adopt free soloing as a hobby. According to Kotler, the brain can't tell the difference between physical risk and emotional risk.

That's good news for people who don't do adventure sports - me included.

Taking social risks like speaking up at meeting, pitching an investor, publishing a blog post that is poised for some serious pushback, asking the beautiful women for a date are all examples. 

In a sentence, duplicating a high risk environment is placing yourself in a situation where failure is possible. Move fast. Experiment. Do the things that give you the butterflies in your stomach.

Surely, the lay person can find areas in their work, life and relationships that have some untapped risk waiting to be unlocked.

The normative route is to avoid these social risks. However, you might want to run straight towards these risks in order to find flow.


Rich Environment

For adventure sports athletes, this is again, obvious. Their environment is embedded with novelty, complexity and unpredictability.

Jackson Hole, Jaws, The Maze, Stikine. All these places provide a rich environment for flow to birth.

If you don't have the desire or time to put yourself in these environments, seek novelty, complexity and unpredictability locally. State parks, IMAX movies, beaches, lakes, stand-up comedy, museums, live music meet ups, trail runs.

In creative work, habits and routines are the building blocks to long-term output. Establishing yourself to do deep work consistently comes first. But after a while, things can stagnate.

What once was a good habit or routine isn't worth continuing if it doesn't stimulate you any longer. You must change the environment to hack flow.

A great example is Bob Goff. He holds office hours at Disneyland. 


Internal Triggers

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified three main areas for internal triggers as a gateway to flow: Clear goals, immediate feedback, and the challenge/skills ratio.

Clear Goals

As obvious as this sounds, it imperative that you absorb this first criteria. When goals are crystal clear, your mind is hardly distracted about what to do next or all of the other possibilities. A clear goal boosts motivation, heightens focus and eliminates the non-essential.

It's something like a filtration system for your mind.

Realize, however, that clear goals aren't aimed at the outcome. Rather, the clarity illuminates what must be done in the moment, by the moment.


Immediate Feedback

Clear goals instruct us on what we're doing - immediate feedback identifies how we can do it better. The faster the feedback, the better. This allows us to stay in flow without letting the mind drift - we can assimilate feedback while staying in the zone.

This is easy to spot with adventure sports athletes. Rivers, oceans, and mountains provide potent, and immediate feedback allowing the athletes to adjust in real-time while staying in flow.

If you're not an adventure sport athlete, the fix is simple. Employ frequent feedback loops more often. Hourly deadlines, daily reviews and weekly round-ups are all ways we can harness immediate feedback into our creative lives and careers.

Kotler mentions that surgeons are a great example:

Studies have found that in professions with less direct feedback loops—stock analysis, psychiatry, medicine—even the best get worse over time. Surgeons, by contrast, are the only class of physician that improve the longer they’re out of medical school. Why? Mess up on the table and someone dies. That’s immediate feedback. 


The Challenge Skills/Ratio

When it comes to finding flow there's a relationship between the difficulty of the challenge and the skills you posses to achieve the challenge.

Researchers call this the "flow channel" - the spot where the task is difficult enough to make us stretch, but not hard enough to make us give up.

It's somewhere between boredom (like watching grass grow) and anxiety (taking a statistics with a horrible teacher).

The squirt of uncertainty allows you to stay locked into the present moment, while your skill set gives you enough resolve to keep going. 


Preparing The Mind & Body For Flow

The most creative people in the world all have their nuances when it comes to the creative process. However, the connective-tissue is that they all want to hijack their ability to find flow - the place where magic happens.

In my research, I've combed through a number of strategies leveraged by creatives, artists, freelancers and entrepreneurs. Here are three usable strategies to spark the mind into flow state.


Pulse Your Way To Flow

With adventure sport athletes, rest and disengagement is embedded into their process. Meaning, there are seasons to snow board, certain times to catch big surf, and periods when rapids are roaring.

In between these states, they aren't in flow. They rest. They disengage. Arguably only because they must, not by choice.

When we transfer this concept to creatives, freelancers, sales people and corporate athletes, we run at a a pace that assumes we must be in flow every hour of the day. We act like we there is big surf, roaring rapids, and fresh powder to shred at every turn - and we must bite at every opportunity.

This is how we burn out. We manufacture emergencies.

Our posture needs to be that of the adventure sports athlete - dense, concentrated doses of flow with intermittent recovery built in.

Think of it this way: Orgasms are great. But imagine if you were in that state 24 hours a day?

There needs to be room between peak states of performance.

Time for recovery.

Blocks of space for rejuvenation.

Rest and disengagement is what actually allows flow to blossom. The contrary - ceaselessly trying to find flow at all costs with no rest - moves you further away from the exact thing you want.

Embed intermittent recovery on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. Here a few practical ideas:

  • Research shows that we work best in 90 minute intervals followed by short breaks. These breaks don't need to be fancy: Take a short walk, have a glass of water outside, breathing exercises, listening to a song, or watching clips of Michael Scott will do the job.
  • Tuesday's and Wednesday's are reported as the day's when high complex tasks are completed with the most efficiency and effectiveness. By Thursday afternoon, energy begins to ebb, making the end of the week suited for long-term planning, team building and wondering-based brainstorming.
  • Take an electronic sabbath one day a week.
  • Reserve at least four days of rest each month. These days aren't graffitied with work, emails or creative mode. 


Limitations Set You Free

In his book, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield wrote this:

Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. “I write only when inspiration strikes,” he replied. “Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

The creative process isn't as romantic as outsiders view it. Most of everyone who considers themselves an artist, freelancer or creative, have normal lives.

We have bills to pay. We have the same fears. We drive mid-sized sedans.  We shop at the same grocery stores. We live next to the soccer mom who whips around in the mini-van. We binge on Netflix. 

But for some reason people think that we live in a cabin where we light up cigars by the campfire and wait for creative ideas to hit us. Or, we are part of the bohemian sub-culture and magically turn up ideas that sprout into opportunities by sending positive vibes into the world.

Rarely does this cinematic perception hold true. 

Instead, it's more like what you see in a golfer - who shows up to hit 300 balls everyday at 6 a.m.

The point is that to find flow, constraints on the creative process allow you to tap into your inner muse. The discipline sets the stage for flow to happen. Having constrains around your creative process sends the brain into problem-solving mode, and thus heightening focus.


Exercise &  Sleep

More and more anecdotal cases of physical preparation and recovery points toward heightened consciousness and creative output.

Some of the greatest minds today harness the power of exercise and sleep to find their flow states more often.

Haruki Murakami, a novelist, is also a long-distance runner and has written a memoir about his obsessions - writing and running. Photographer William Wegman rides his bike up to twenty miles a day.

In Manage Your Day-To-Day, Scott McDowell points out the importance of exercise and sleep :

Exercise sharpens brain activity, reports Newsweek: "Almost every dimension of cognition improves from thirty minutes of aerobic exercise, and creativity is no exception. The type of exercise doesn't matter, and the boost lasts for at least two hours afterward.

Regular sleep doesn't' hurt either. According to a Harvard study, with proper sleep and incubation, "People are 33 percent more likely to infer connections among distantly related ideas."

It's safe to say that exercise and sleep assist in finding flow. This can be the tipping point for a lot of people - especially those who don't care to be Mr. Everything or a figure model.

Attaching the cognitive benefits to exercise and sleep directly to your ability to do great work consistently might be a far more powerful motivator then achieving six-pack abs.

If you want learn more about setting fitness goals and establishing routines that stick, click here and here


The Part About Flow Few Talk About

"No question about it," says Flow Genome Project executive director Jamie Wheal, "there's a dark night of the flow. In Christian mystical traditions, once you've experienced the grace of God, the dark night of the soul describes the incredible pain of its absence."

The flow state makes you feel in control of the world right up until the point you don't. For obvious reasons, this can be addicting.

It's why some people, like adventure sport atheltes literally put their lives on the line to find it. But that's how flow works - it demands full immersion on your part if you want to play.

When we find it, it's euphoria - nobody is arguing that.

However, what doesn't get much attention is the state we enter after flow passes by. We float back to reality. This is where flow can make you or break you.

If you expect to be in flow at every turn in your life, you're poised for frustration - maybe even depression. Chris Malloy, a professional big-wave surfer turned film maker, cattle rancher and Patagonia Ocean Ambassador says this about the dark side of flow:

I hope you (writing to Steven Kotler in an email) talk about how utterly fucked up we can become when we get too old or broken or smart to keep it up. Not all of us experience a happy life after doing this shit for a couple of decades.

I bet there is some PTSD similarities. It's funny, I read Sebastian Junger's War and I learned something: The guys coming home are all screwed up, not because they saw people die as much as they missed the rush.

I would never put myself in the same category as those fighting men, but it can be hard to get excited again. Ever. And that feeling sucks.

This realization isn't meant to be a downer - but a dose of reality. Maybe even a protection mechanism for you and me.

If we choose to pursue flow in any medium, we must accept the full cost on the backside.

That at some point, we will drip back to this thing called normal. Rather then resisting that, embrace it. Anticipate it. This way, it doesn't blindside you (and me).

Mindfulness training is a practical tool to manage these ebbs and flows between flow state and normative realities. With regular practice, we can manage the less then blockbuster feelings and emotions that proceed the flow state.

Moreover, it's also our own responsibility to entertain flow with different mediums.

As an example, I no longer play basketball. For almost two decades, this is where I experienced flow. The last decade of my life, I've wrestled with many vehicles to harness flow - writing and men's physique competitions are now my outlets to tap into flow.


Wrapping Up

If you're hungry to find the highest version of yourself, you need to find flow. Then, you need to figure out how to tap into the state when it matters the most.

Whether you're an athlete, musician, CEO, salesperson, mid-level accountant, writer, non-profit leader, a nurse or military professional, flow is the sweet spot where you, the ordinary human being, perform extraordinary things.

Like most things with value, it requires work and a appreciable amount of emotional cost. It's up to you whether you want to pursue it or not.

If you lean towards the former, you've got a playbook to do it.



End notes:

Thanks to Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi and Steven Kotler for helping me prompt this piece. 

The Rise Of Superman

Manage Your Day-to-Day

IBM 2010 Global CEO Study: Creativity Selected as Most Crucial Factor for Future Success