We all want to get into the ultra-high performance zone. But sometimes it seems so elusive. We sit down at our desk to work on that big task, or you walk through the gym doors and see everyone working out, but there often seems to be a big motivation or energy barrier. You just can’t bring yourself to start. In this aticle, I am going to tell you the science-based method for breaking through the low motivation that keeps your brain from wanting to engage and prevents you from getting into that high-performance zone.
In my article The #1 Strategy to Reach Ultra-High Performance , I introduced the most powerful way to get into the zone of high performance. That zone is called Flow and is a concept formulated by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the mid-1970s and 80s and then introduced to the world in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience in 1990. Csikszentmihalyi explains that flow is a mental state characterized by complete absorption in an activity. It is a cognitive state of feeling and functioning at your best. It’s often described as feeling “in the zone” or “in the flow.” Flow researcher Steven Kotler describes flow as an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.”
This optimal state of consciousness is characterized by intense deep focus, concentration, total absorption into the activity, loss of time perception, a feeling of euphoria, and cognitive clarity. Numerous studies show the impact of the flow state on a person’s thoughts, behaviors, feelings, and performance. Most notable are Electroncephlagraph (EEG) and fMRI studies revealing the changes that occur in brain function leading to optimized brain chemistry.
Check out my video on the number one science-based strategy to reach ultra-high performance to learn more about the flow cycle that involves working through four phases that are both functional and chemical in nature. The Struggle phase, release phase, the flow phase, and finally the recovery phase. Each is important for getting into your zone of genius and training yourself to get there consistently and staying there longer.
Now, the struggle phase is the big barrier. It’s the beginning point that seems to be the most difficult to endure. Why? Because is uncomfortable and sometimes even painful.
Think about when you are jogging for exercise. After about 30 to 60 seconds, your brain tells you to stop because it thinks you are about to die. Yet, if you keep going, you adapt and break through the struggle phase, and your biology changes. Your neurochemistry adapts, and jogging becomes easier. This is what happens anytime you want to engage deeply in a task or project that takes mental effort and focus.
Your brain tells you to avoid the work required to focus entirely on the task. Your brain wants to burn the least amount of calories possible. Biologically speaking, your brain wants to be lazy. The struggle phase is the place flow begins by overriding your brain’s primitive desires.
This phase can take a few seconds to a few minutes, but when you embrace the struggle, you gain momentum to break through this phase to the next one.
The process of struggling is hard. Our brain doesn’t want to experience the discomfort that struggling produces. Our confidence is lower than we want, our focus is weak, and we can become distracted easily distracted.
Our brain is looking for an easy out. If the struggle phase isn’t managed properly, the flow state can become elusive or at the very best can take more time than necessary to achieve.
If you are like me, I’m always looking for ways to be able to reduce the struggle phase. Make it shorter and less painful so that I can more quickly move into the zone. Neuroscience studies show that when we move from the struggle to release, nitric oxide is released and clears out the stress hormone cortisol and adrenaline paving the way for dopamine, oxytocin, anandamide, and endorphins to flood our brain, ushering in the flow feeling, total concentration, and total absorption.
So here are a few of the methods I use that you can also use to help you to reduce your avoidance of the struggle and shorten the phase, catapulting you into flow. To put these methods into good use I first need to share with you the cognitive needs that must be achieved to reach the flow zone.
COGNITIVE COMFORT. You achieve this only when you have completed the necessary process of breaking through the discomfort that is associated with cognitive effort. Biologically speaking, the mechanism of thinking deeply, maintaining attention take energy and effort that the brain would naturally choose not to expend. The brain’s primary function is to keep you alive and its’ default is to use as little energy as possible. The good news is that the brain has a great capacity to think and engage when it understand that there is a good reason use its’ energy.
One way to fulfil the cognitive comfort need is through brute. Brute force is when a person understands the barrier of cognitive discomfort and chooses to engage and give effort to create a breakthrough. This is a process of “pushing through” until the brain adapts to the cognitive requirements a person chooses to give. When this happens “effort momentum” begins and cognitive effort becomes increasingly easier.
The main two methods I use to achieve cognitive comfort are:
Mindset: I Invite the struggle as the pathway to flow. I embrace the discomfort knowing it will get me to where I want to go. I then use my mindset along with brute force because I know I will breakthrough quickly.
Rituals: Create actions, behaviors, or habits that reduce cognitive load. An example of this is getting your desk ready for your work before you sit down to start. Or grabbing a cup of coffee before you sit down so you are armed with it by your side. Rituals have to be used consistently. They prime the brain for readiness and signal to your brain that it’s time to get into flow.
FOCUS: Focus is your brain’s ability to engage deeply into a thought or action. While cognitive comfort eases the stress of mental work, focus further enhances the brain’s ability to reach flow by giving the majority of its’ energy to one set of thought or action. Fulfilling the need of focus requires one to overcome both distraction and fatigue to mitigate cognitive division in the brain.
A base-line for achieving the focus need, is getting enough rest and recovery prior to entering the struggle phase. Then, you want to eliminate distraction from your environment fanatically.
Here are the two methods I use to achieve complete cognitive focus.
Radical distraction elimination. Put yourself in an environment with no distractions whatsoever. If you start the struggle process and get distracted you have to go back to square one and start again. This is why most people never achieve flow during their day.
Reduce time constraints. Time block more than enough time to get the task done. Remove any doubt or distraction that you won’t have the time to go deep into flow.
CLARITY. Struggle is prolonged by confusion and overwhelm. The brain will experience cognitive discomfort and distraction when it does not have a clear understanding of the value of the activity, a clear understanding of the goal or outcome, and doesn’t know how it will get there. Not only will the brain give less effort and engage less, it will often subconsciously self-sabotage. This occurs because the brain will refuse to function at it’s highest level and give maximum energy to thinking and action that isn’t purposeful.
The two methods I use most often to achieve clarity are:
Determine a clear purpose and goal. To fulfill the clarity need it is important to reduce confusion and overwhelm by creating a clear vision, goal, and pathway to a valued outcome.
Envision the outcome. I like to take a minute before starting the struggle phase to visualize the outcome and pretend to feel the emotions of task success. This provides me with some motivation to move into the struggle and I can easily recall it during the struggle process.
CONFIDENCE. The final cognitive need is confidence. If you don’t feel you have the ability or skill to complete a task or reach a goal you will avoid the task. Numerous research studies show that when confidence is low, it results in lower motivation. This is often because a person fears failure and embarrassment. Nobody wants to fail, so a way to bypass failure is to avoid the task. But, if you can achieve confidence during the struggle phase it will accelerate you into the flow state.
My go-to method for achieving confidence and flow momentum is tracking my progress.
Progress with small wins. Studies achieving smaller goals and having a feeling of progress leads to greater confidence. This is supported by the work of Harvard’s Teresa Amabile, who found in her research that experiencing small wins and progress boosts work motivation, engagement, work satisfaction, and performance.
Before getting started in the flow stage, determine a few smaller goals that are progress markers to your larger goal. Then, track your progress along the way. When you experience progress, your confidence level increases, and the high-performance zone isn’t far away.
Well one thing is certain, it’s not easy to get to the ultra-high performance zone of flow and many people never get there at all because they don’t know how to navigate and break through the struggle phase. Quite honestly, most people fear the struggle phase. But, you are now armed with the knowledge and science-based secret to know how to leverage the struggle and break through it more quickly than ever before. If you put these methods into practice and continually get better at them, you will find that you can shorten the struggle phase and more consistently and quickly move into the flow zone.