The DNA of Accessing Flow State: Increase Your Productivity, Learn Faster & Skyrocket Creativity
He was two days away from killing himself. He’d already written the suicide letter and had planned out his death when his friend called him up asking if he would like to go surfing.
You see, Steven Kotler had been suffering from Lyme disease and was very sick, depressed and felt like he was being a burden to those around him. He felt terrible and almost laughed at the request, but decided to go anyway.
He thought, “I’ve got nothing to lose. I might as well have fun on my last day…”
Out in Sunset Beach, California, he caught one wave after another, after another. He noticed something very interesting happen. He felt an increased sense of wellbeing, a new elevated state of energy as he entered into a totally new dimension. He felt great for the first time in three years. It was his “a-ha moment”; he later found out that he was accessing flow state all afternoon, and it changed his life forever. It helped to boost his immune system, and later helped him overcome his auto-immune disease.
Over the course of 6–8 months, he accessed flow as much as he could and went from 10 percent functionality to 80 percent!
Now he’s making waves in the entrepreneurial and executive world. Why? Because of what happens to entrepreneurs and executives when they access flow state.
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could effortlessly increase your productivity by 500 percent, learn 230 percent faster and skyrocket your creativity by 700 percent?
Imagine what would be possible for you in your business, relationships, finances and life? Imagine. You problem-solve faster, you crush your most audacious goals, and you fluidly think of creative solutions to problems that help to transform the very future that lies ahead of you.
Entrepreneurs get an unfair competitive advantage when they access flow state. This article will reveal how the entrepreneur, executive or CEO can access this flow state more effective and efficiently.
Since having his life transformed through experiencing flow, my friend Steven is on the cutting edge of hacking the DNA of “flow state.” Steven is now the director of research at the Flow Genome Project and a New York Times best-selling author of the book Becoming Superman. I interviewed him for the High Performance Summit where in a one-hour in-depth interview he revealed the details of breaking this flow code for yourself.
Although I won’t be able to get into all that we covered in the interview, I’m going to break down some essential elements of accessing flow so you can benefit from them immediately.
How Entrepreneurs Can Use Flow State to Skyrocket Their Productivity by 500%
Flow state is the word scientists use for what runners call “runners high,” what athletes call “being in the zone,” what jazz musicians call “being in the pocket,” and what comedians call “being on the forever box.”
Flow can be characterized by total absorption in an activity where everything else disappears, time dilates, and all aspects of performance, mental and physical, go through the roof. You can see why it’s so valuable for the entrepreneur.
Do you remember the car crash scene in The Matrix? Everything was in slow motion as he absorbed higher levels of data than ever before. Likewise, in flow state, your brain processes information much faster and more efficiently.
The father of flow state is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD. (pronounced me high chick sent me high), who did most of his research into flow state at the University of Chicago. This is what he said about flow state:
“There are moments that stand out from the chaos of the everyday as shining beacons. In many ways, one might say that the whole effort of humankind through millennia of history has been to capture these fleeting moments of fulfillment and make them a part of everyday existence.”
Mihaly says that accessing flow state is ubiquitous, and that anyone anywhere, provided certain conditions are met, can access it. I want to reveal these flow state triggers in this article.
Flow state is a full-spectrum experience in which your focus and concentration goes through the roof. Physically you are stronger, more agile and dexterous, but so is your brain. In flow you process information more quickly as it jacks up pattern recognition, which means neuronal connections are made much faster. You can access a micro-flow state when you experience a few of the flow triggers below, but when several triggers show up you can access a macro-flow state.
Flow feels “flowy,” and is underneath all gold-medal performances. Research shows that when entrepreneurs and executives access flow state, they are five times more productive! Any entrepreneur, CEO or executive I work with would do close to anything to get a 500 percent increase in their productivity! That means you get done on Monday what you usually get done throughout the entire week.
So let’s break down some of the basic genomics of flow state.
Breaking Down the DNA of Flow: How to Get the Benefits of Speed, Marijuana and Heroin, to Increase Learning Speed by 230 percent & Transform Creativity by 700 percent Without Even Taking Them
Under the hood in flow, we are going to look a little into neuroscience, neuro-anatomy and neuro-electrity. If all you care about is how to trigger flow state, then skip to the next section.
You’ve heard that we only use 10 percent of our brains, right? Well, it turns out, that’s not the case at all.
The new idea is that the brain is very efficient and that less is more. In flow state they call this transient hypo-frontality, where your brain quiets down and your prefrontal cortex shuts down.
Your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is your “inner critic,” and that also turns off. This is why your sense of self goes away, creativity goes up and you free yourself from yourself. Essentially, you get out of your own way.
Flow is also a product of complicated neurochemistry.
A cascade of chemistry in the form of norepinephrine, dopamine and endorphins play a big role in accessing flow state.
Norepinephrine is an internal form of speed, dopamine is your internal source of marijuana, and endorphins are 100 times more powerful than morphine. This is why flow state is the most addictive state on earth.
Flow state is how computer coders stay up to finish a project for three days straight, and how many entrepreneurs hit major deadlines for projects that seem impossible.
I believe that flow state is why I’m indirectly alive today. My grandfather served in WWII. His plane ended up getting shot down by the Germans off the coast of France. For the next three years he was in the prisoner of war (POW) camp, dropping from 180lbs to 105lbs of skin and bone as he watched his POW friends pass away around him each week that passed.
I asked him, “How did you survive?” He replied, “Every day I got into this mental zone of excellence where I knew we were going to win. I had hope, and I stayed focused on that end goal. My friends would lose hope, and without hope they died.”
As you will learn below, my grandfather (God bless his soul), was under conditions that most likely forced him into flow state each day. If he didn’t stay focused, he may have passed away like hundreds of his mates,, and I wouldn’t be typing this to you right now.
Under the tough circumstances, my grandfather stayed engaged each day.
Gallup recently did a study showing that 71 percent of the workforce is “actively disengaged”. Steven calls this his favorite euphemism as it’s essentially saying, “I’m going out of my way to sabotage the company.”
When you and your team access flow, it massively accelerates motivation and focus.
Do you know what’s considered the most desirable quality that CEOs and entrepreneurs want?
According to a global survey conducted by IBM of 1500 top executives in 60 countries, creativity is the answer. Entrepreneurs want to access higher levels of creativity!
The neurochemistry of flow state does something else that’s spectacular. It boosts creativity like nobody’s business.
The neurochemicals that show up in flow surround this process. Norepinephrine, epinephrine and dopamine tighten focus on the front end of flow. They also lower signal-to-noise ratios in the brain, which means don’t easily get off-task.
Anandamide boosts lateral thinking, which means it creates more neurological connections in the brain. This is why creativity increases by up to 700 percent!
When analyzing the brain tissue of Einstein, scientists realized that he didn’t have any more brain cells then the average human; rather, he had more neurological connections between the cells.
Furthermore, Harvard research shows that heightened creativity shows up for two days after experiencing flow state.
Flow boosts motivation and massively jacks up creativity and learning.
It’s not mastery made easy, but it’s definitely mastery made easier. DARPA, for example, found that military snipers trained in a state of flow learned 230 percent faster than normal!
The more neurochemicals that show up during these experiences, the more your memories will be placed into long-term storage.
This flips Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours to mastery” idea on its head.
Not only does it help you learn faster, but it boosts your immune system, which helped Steven overcome his auto-immune condition.
Additionally, at the end of flow state you get a rush of serotonin that brings a state of happiness and euphoria to the experience.
Okay, so let’s get into the seventeen flow triggers!
The 17 Flow Triggers You Can Use to Quickly Access Flow State
It sounds a little ridiculous, but the best example of what will help you understand the genome of flow state in the real world is revealed when studying action and adventure athletes.
Why? Because we have seen exponential growth in ultimate human performance in this group of athletes. Where in other sports you see incremental breakthroughs, there has been exponential breakthroughs in action and adventure sports because of all the triggers present to activate flow.
Ultimate human performance is when your human life is on the line. Sports performance and accomplishment is usually for show, but adventure sports are often life or death.
But remember, Mihaly says that accessing flow state is ubiquitous, and that anyone anywhere, provided certain conditions are met, can access it. It’s all a matter of understanding what those flow triggers are.
For instance, people serving in non-profits can get into flow state, or what they call “helpers’ high,” through altruism.
Flow is defined as an optimal state of consciousness where we both feel our best and perform our best. It is one of the most desirable states to be in on Earth.
Flow state is available to anyone, anywhere, provided certain conditions are met.
If you want to hack your flow state, then you need to learn the 17 flow triggers, which are broken down into four internal triggers, three external triggers, one creative trigger and nine social triggers. You can see a slideshow on them that Steven put together at the bottom, or you can read about them in more depth below.
Environmental or External Flow Triggers
Environmental flow triggers are qualities in the environment that drive people deeper into the zone.
The three external or environmental triggers are as follows:
- High consequences – Flow follows focus, and high consequences catch your attention. With action and adventure sports this happens all the time. But it doesn’t have to be life or death: You can initiate this trigger through social risk, creative risk, professional risk and financial risk. Adventure sport athletes pull this trigger riding a 50-foot wave, while the same trigger is initiated in a shy women who raises her hand to ask a question. Silicon Valley’s “fail forward, fail fast” motto embraces failure to get advantages from what comes out of flow. If you aren’t risk-taking, you’re not making space for flow.
- Rich environment – Unpredictability, complexity and novelty are created within rich environments. Steven says, “If we don’t know what happens next, we pay more attention to the next.” Complexity can do the same thing with a ton of information coming at us at once. When I’m out in the Canadian wilderness at night, looking up at the stars, this can trigger flow for me. Other geographical flow triggers could be looking into the Grand Canyon or up at a magnificent mountain. For others, this can be initiated by going into a room full of people you need to interact with for the first time, or doing a presentation in front of the board members of your company.
- Deep embodiment – Paying attention to your five senses plus having vestibular awareness. Navy Seals call this the “yellow zone”. Adventure athletes can experience this through rotating around the XYZ axis. However, you DON’T have to be an adventure athlete. Montessori education produces tremendous amounts of flow in children as they have been shown to outperform kids on social and intellectual standardized tests. The type of learning the children receive is “embodiment learning”. Learning through doing, not from reading or listening initiates multiple senses that participate in accessing flow and getting advanced learning as a result.
By initiating these triggers, we are hacking evolutionary biology.
Psychological or Internal Flow Triggers
Psychological triggers are internal strategies that drive attention into the now.
The three psychological triggers are as follows:
- Focused attention – Producing flow can require long, uninterrupted deep focus. Solitude is in, deep focus is out.
- Clear goals – If you know what you need to do and why you’re doing it, your focus stays laser-targeted.
- Immediate feedback – Clear goals tell us what we are doing, while immediate feedback tells us what we can be doing better. If we have real-time feedback, our brain prioritizes the present and helps us get into flow much faster.
- Challenge-to-skill ratio – Flow exists near (but not on) the midline between boredom and anxiety. If the task is too dull, attention disengages and action and awareness can’t merge. If the task is too hard, fear starts to spike, pulling us out of flow. Steven says, “The challenge needs to be slightly greater than the skills we bring to the table.”
If one or all of these internal states are met, this will help to drive you deeper into flow state.
The 9 Social Flow Triggers
Social triggers are ways of altering social conditions to produce more group flow.
The nine social flow triggers are as follows:
- Serious concentration – You need to be aware of your teammates and opponents and not getting distracted thinking about other things.
- Shared, clear goals – Steven says, “Groups need to be clear about what their collective is in order for flow to happen”. The key to group flow is to provide a goal that creates enough focus that everyone knows what the “win” is, but also allows for creativity to exist.
- Good communication – Constant communication is necessary for group flow. This provides consistent feedback and allows for you to increase your momentum and move into flow state. Nothing blocks flow more than ignoring or negating a group member.
- Familiarity – The group has a common language, a shared knowledge base and a communication style based on unspoken understandings. It means everybody is always on the same page and, when novel insights arise, momentum is not lost.
- Equal participation (and skill level) – Flow is more likely to happen in a group setting when all participants have an equal role in the project. For this reason, all members should have similar skill levels. Think of professional athletes playing with amateurs. The professionals will be bored and the amateurs will be frustrated.
- Risk – The potential for failure. Innovation and frequent failure go hand in hand. There’s no creativity without failure, and there’s no group flow without the risk of failure. Mental, physical, creative, whatever – the group has to have some skin in the game to produce group flow.
- Sense of control – Combines autonomy (being free to do what you want) and competence (being good at what you do). It’s about getting to choose your own challenges and having the necessary skills to surmount them.
- Close listening – We’re fully engaged in the here and now. In conversation, this isn’t about thinking about what witty thing to say next, or what cutting sarcasm came last. Rather, it’s generating real-time, unplanned responses to the dialogue as it unfolds. Innovation is blocked when one or more participants already has a preconceived idea of what the person is going to say, or how to get to a goal. Doing so keeps them from listening to what is really said and working from there.
- Always say yes – This means interactions should be additive more than argumentative. The goal is momentum, togetherness, and innovation that come from amplifying each other’s ideas and actions. Steven says, “It’s a trigger based on the first rule of improv comedy. If open a sketch with, ‘Hey, there’s a blue elephant in the bathroom,’ then, ‘No, there’s not,’ is the wrong response. With the denial, the scene goes nowhere. But if the reply is affirmative instead – ‘Yeah, sorry, there was no more space in the cereal cupboard’ – well, then that story goes someplace interesting.”
Creativity Flow Trigger
If you look under the hood of creativity, what you see is pattern recognition and risk-taking.
The one creativity flow trigger is as follows:
- Creativity – Pattern recognition is the brain’s ability to link new ideas together, and risk-taking is the courage to bring those new ideas into the world. Both are flow triggers. Creativity triggers flow and then flow enhances creativity. Engage in challenges that push you a little past your skill set. For people that are unmotivated, it’s the moment that you’re moving out of your comfort zone. You go slow to go fast. You push slightly harder.
The goal that Steven Kotler has is to create a flow genome matrix that pinpoints the neuro-biological correlates of flow so we can reverse-engineer the experience for anyone, anywhere.
The 4 Essential Stages of Flow (three of them feel anti-flow)
You need emotional fortitude to grit through the certain phases that are essential in order to get into flow state.
Most people don’t experience flow because they don’t initiate any of the previously discussed triggers, and don’t have the strength or understanding to get through the different phases in order to access flow state.
The four stages of flow state are as follows:
- Struggle – This is when you have an emotional, intellectual, or physical challenge that is before you that is pushing you to the edge or slightly over the edge of your skill level. Your brain experiences the fast-moving, low-amplitude, high-frequency beta brainwaves at this stage of flow (cortisol/norepinephrine).
- Release – This is where you trade conscious processing for unconscious processing. The benefit is that you process information much faster, you burn less energy and we truly can’t find the limit of the RAM of subconscious processing. To make this transition, you have to get your mind off the problem. You can think about it all day, but then you need to do something else such as gardening, going for walks, or what the CEO of Intel does, which is move rocks in his backyard with a tractor. Albert Einstein would take a rowboat out onto the water. Television alters brainwaves and can block flow state, as over-exhaustion and chronic stress also do. Once your mind can get ahold of the problem and transition into unconscious processing, you go to stage three. In this transitional phase you are accessing alpha brainwaves. (nitric oxide)
- Flow State – As you now know, flow is defined as an optimal state of consciousness where we both feel our best and perform our best. It is one of the most desirable states to be in on Earth. As an entrepreneur and executive, you want to access this state in order to get the benefits of flow. Who wouldn’t want to increase their productivity by 500 percent, learn 230 percent faster and skyrocket creativity by 700 percent? In this state, the frequency slows down and amplitude increases into theta and gamma brainwaves (dopamine/endorphins/anadamide). NOTE: Flow state is a very expensive neurochemical state to be in.
- Recovery – This is your flow hangover. This is where you really need to grit your teeth. There is a low to flow in this stage, but if you’re aware of it, you should easily be able to get over any negative thoughts. You can’t stress out for not feeling flow. If you start to produce too much cortisol from worrying about getting out of flow, you’re not going to get the long-term effects of flow because it blocks the cycle. You need to get your body back to struggle (it’s difficult to do). One of the reasons why adventure and sports get back into flow is because it’s weather-oriented. In this phase you typically experience delta brainwaves (serotonin/oxytocin).
As entrepreneurs, we aren’t given enough time to recover. The reward can get crushed while you’re off creating another challenge that’s too big (one of the biggest mistakes organizations make in blocking flow).
We are at the very front end of this research and I’m excited to be able to bring more exciting new discoveries to you in the future.
The Human Genome Project’s mission is to reverse-engineer the peak performance state known as flow and share it with the world by 2020. They essentially want to get the heat map of flow created.
They want to advance flow science and train individuals to harness flow in their lives and work.
The reason why I’m focusing much of my efforts into studying flow state is because I want help you gain an unfair competitive advantage in life so you can do more and be more!
If you already have a beautiful heart, then accessing flow state is going to help you become superhuman and be the hero that the world is crying out for!
In America we lose $200 billion dollars yearly in lost workplace productivity and spend close to three trillion dollars on disease care. Do you helping the world access flow more often would help make this world a better place? I think so!
Check out what Steven Kotler is doing by clicking here!
His slideshows on flow state and on the flow triggers are below: