Do these frustrations sound familiar?
- You struggle to get going in the morning.
- You often avoid that big task that takes a lot of mental effort.
- You find yourself starting on a task and then getting distracted.
- You feel bad that you didn’t accomplish more at the end of the workday.
- You can give maximum effort for only a few hours each day before tiring out.
If they do, then you aren’t alone. The majority of people report these daily performance frustrations.
Now, imagine not having these frustrations and performing at your highest level for 6-8 hours a day.
Well, you don’t have to imagine. You can achieve this.
There are many theories and methods for reaching a state of high or peak performance. Just search the internet, and you will find everything from the morning routines of billionaires to the meditations of monks. You can easily find methods for using herbal supplements or making your coffee bullet-proof style.
All of these methods seek a kind of holy grail for getting into a peak state of mind.
Some of these methods are helpful for some people. I’m not discounting them. But there is one method that stands out in the science.
What science, you ask? This method has scientific studies along with peer-reviewed studies in behavioral psychology, sports psychology, organizational psychology, and positive psychology. It is further evidenced by neuroscience studies, including EEG and fMRI research. The body of research support for this method comprises several hundred studies over the past 40 years.
The method is called FLOW.
Flow 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.”
When you get into flow, you experience the following:
- Intense deep focus
- Total absorption into the activity
- Loss of time perception
- Loss of self-consciousness or perception
- A full connection between actions and awareness
- A feeling of euphoria
- Cognitive clarity
You have been in the state before. When you are so engaged in a task that you forget about your external environment, time flies, enjoyment peaks, and your productivity skyrockets. Flow is a power tool for success, achievement, well-being, and fulfillment.
A study by McKinsey & Company over ten years found that top executive leaders reported being 500% more productive while in flow.
Another study found that military snipers improved their target acquisition skills by 230%. Another similar study found that training time to bring novice snipers to expert level can be cut by 50% when in flow.
I imagine at this point, you are sold and want to know how to implement more flow into your work and life.
To increase the flow in your life, you must start by understanding Csikszentmihalyi’s four flow phases. It’s often referred to as the flow cycle.
Struggle: This is the initial phase where a person is engaged in an activity that is challenging but not overwhelming. 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 that starts 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.
Release: In this phase, the struggle transitions into a flow state. The sense of self and the outside world recedes, and you experience a deep sense of control and intrinsic motivation. This phase is often marked by a feeling of “letting go” of conscious thought and simply allowing the task to unfold. Your brain releases a burst of nitric oxide that flushes out the stress hormone cortisol released during the struggle phase. Your brain waves shift from Beta to theta and alpha waves and create a state of calm and creativity.
To make this happen, take your mind off the problem you are focused on for a few minutes. This allows the more creative part of your brain to take over, and you pass information-processing responsibilities from the conscious to the unconscious. To do this, you can take a few minutes to breathe deeply, take a short walk, stand and stretch, and do other activities that are low calm and don’t stimulate deep thinking.
Flow: This is the central phase of flow where your skills and the challenge of the task are perfectly matched. You experience a sense of effortless action, complete focus, and a merging of action and awareness. You lose track of time, and you may even feel a sense of ecstasy or deep satisfaction. This is the ultimate state of productivity, creativity, thinking, and feeling. Your brain and body are basking in a high-performance cocktail of neurochemicals and hormones, including dopamine, serotonin, anandamide (a neurotransmitter similar to THC found in cannabis), endorphins, norepinephrine, and oxytocin. This is where the work is getting done. You are in a state of effortless high performance. You can stay in the phase anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours.
Recovery: After experiencing the flow phase, there is a period of recovery where you support the reduction and regeneration of these performance chemicals in your body. A human body can only create and sustain high levels of these chemicals for a limited time. Allowing your body to rest and rejuvenate establishes a state of preparation for reentering the flow cycle again by embracing the struggle phase. In this phase, we want to focus on active recovery methods like meditation, exercise, mindfulness, breathing work, and quiet time in nature, among many other ways that help your brain and body reset. This phase is crucial for learning and personal growth. Use this phase to monitor your progress, set new goals, and build on your skills for future flow experiences.
I’m confident that, at this point, you have already begun to think of ways to implement the flow cycle into your work and life. But here are a few suggestions that will help you to get into flow and stay there as long as possible.
Study flow. Learn more about the concept and explore ways to integrate methods into your work.
Study Yourself. Try different ways to work through the flow cylce and determine what works best for you. What works for one person may not work another. Find out what your brain and body responds to and keep doing it.
Embrace the struggle. Build a mindset to embrace the struggle phase. Remind yourself that flow is on the other side of the struggle.
Recover like a pro. If you want to perform like a high-performance pro, you have to recover and rejuvenate like one. Give yourself permission and time to rest and relax so you can perform even higher. Just like a high-performance race car, you need a pitstop to refuel and repair so you don’t breakdown or underperform at a critical time.
If you want to uplevel your focus, productivity, and performance, then start implementing a flow routine. Plan to get into flow each day by working through the flow cycle. If you keep growing your knowledge of flow and practicing the flow cycle, I know you will quickly become an even higher performer than you already are.
Here is a list of my favorite books on the subject flow: