Do you want to achieve more in your business, or get more out of your career, relationships — out of your life?
What does it take to get incredible results and transformational outcomes on a consistent basis?
Without working yourself down to the bone, sacrificing your health and relationships, and burning out?
These are some of the key questions that human performance expert, Steven Kotler, has been researching for over three decades.
Steven Kotler is an award-winning journalist, a New York Times best-selling author widely regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on the topic. His Forbes blog, “Far Frontiers,” explores the cutting-edge of innovation and entrepreneurship.
As a director of the Flow Research Collective, he has been exploring human potential and digging deep into the neurobiology that underpins peak performance. He often draws on insights from studies of top athletes and performers across disciplines.
Read on to learn Kotler’s insights when it comes to flow states, and how you can experience peak performance for yourself.
What is a “flow state”?
Whilst it may seem like a new discovery, flow has been researched since the 1980s. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was one of the first to bring into it the popular domain and explained it as:
His early research revealed that far from a woolly, nebulous concept, flow was scientifically definable through several core characteristics.
- Uninterrupted concentration in the present moment.
- Effacing of the self into the task being performed.
- Time dilation (the perception that time expands).
- Sense of serenity and control over one’s actions.
- Intrinsic motivation (being driven by the activity at hand for its own sake, rather than obsessing about the future outcomes from it).
- The right ratio of challenge to skills (sometimes called “stretch”).
More recently, a 10-year global McKinsey study has shown that top executives in states of flow were 5 times more productive. Similar outcomes were observed across the arts, science, and many other areas of human endeavor.
In simple terms, flow is an alternate state of consciousness whereby individuals are so absorbed in the activity that everything around them — and every distraction in the pursuit of their goals — seem to vanish into thin air.
They will feel at their best and deeply focused on the task ahead of them. As a result of being in such a state, they can produce and sustain dramatically better results.
According to Kotler, a state of flow is a natural part of human evolution. One can easily see how a caveman might need to be hyper-focused on its prey to catch it, a matter of life or starving to death.
In today’s world, getting laser-focused and super-productive is required to excel at many pursuits, even when the stakes aren’t as high.
Flow is a universal gift that is available to all of us, so that we may perform at our absolute best.
When in flow, our perception of time is altered, and it seems to go by much slower than normal as we are deeply engaged in the moment. Sometimes, to the point of losing our attachment to the self, single-mindedly immersed in the work at hand.
Kotler describes flow as “a massive uptick in performance” which cuts across both physical and mental aspects of our lives.
In the world of sports, it is referred to as “runner’s high” or simply “the zone”. A jazz musician would call it “being in the pocket”, and a stand-up comedian might refer to it as “being in the forever box”.
All these terms link back to the state of flow.
How long can one stay in flow?
There seems to be no hard and fast rule. In situations where a group is working towards a common goal such as launching a startup, it is possible to experience “altruism-based flow”, as Kotler describes it. This version of flow is called “helper’s high” — and can be sustained over a day or two.
What is the science behind “flow”?
The science behind flow is fascinating.
Firstly, the brain engages in “transient hypofrontality” — it switches into a temporary mode where the part of the brain engaged in cognitive functions (the pre-frontal cortex) slows down (hence “hypo”-frontality).
The pre-frontal cortex happens to be linked to logical decision-making, planning, willpower, and our sense of morality, along with our perception of time. It puts us in what scientists have termed “the deep now”.
The sense of self tends to fade away, our inner critic silenced as we are immersed in the here and now, much more likely to let our creativity flourish and take more risks.
Secondly, five performance-boosting neuro-chemicals are being released in the brain when in the flow (norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, serotonin, and endorphins). These amplify our physical and mental abilities, through higher degrees of motivation, creativity, and learning. These three levers are the reason behind the stratospheric, 500% productivity improvements noticed by McKinsey. The neuro-chemicals are also pleasure-inducing, so being in the flow state can become an end in itself.
The heightened level of focus and concentrated attention has several effects that simultaneously impact creativity and learning, driven by “information salience” — the brain’s ability to tag new information as important versus not:
- Higher pattern recognition between new and existing sets of data.
- Greater lateral thinking (outside-the-box thinking).
- Enhanced ability to connect different ideas, information, and concepts.
- Increased storage of relevant information into long-term memory (resulting in higher retention and information recall)
Going by Malcolm Gladwell’s famous “10,000-hour rule” (from his best-selling book “Outliers”), it typically takes a tremendous amount of dedicated time for an individual to achieve mastery in any one field.
However, as Kotler describes it, those 10,000 hours could be as much as halved, when in a state of flow for continuous periods of time.
As Kotler wrote in The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance:
This is why flow is such a cornerstone of human performance. This is why flow matters.
How can you induce “flow”?
Flow is not something you can get into at the flick of a switch.
The average time it takes to attain the state tends to be around 90 minutes, and there are various ways you can induce it.
Whether for yourself or your company, a range of both individual and collective triggers can facilitate flow states.
Below are key triggers that apply when working in a team. Think what kind of environment would facilitate those, whether it’s adjusting your own home office or your company’s culture.
1. Shared Goals — the group is working towards a common, well-defined goal.
2. Active Listening — you’re paying close attention to what is being said.
3. “Yes And…” — conversations are additive, not combative, leaving doors open.
4. Total Concentration — laser-like focus in the here and now.
5. A Sense of Control — everyone in the group feels in control and you feel in charge of your actions.
6. Blending Egos — each individual can put the group’s priorities ahead of their ego’s needs.
7.Equal Participation — everyone is involved in the completion of the activity, with comparable skill levels and contributions across the group.
8. Familiarity — team members know one another well and understand what makes them tick.
9. Constant Communication — instant feedback is given to send constant signals to the individual or group as to whether they are on the right track.
10. Shared Group Risk — everyone involved has some skin in the game.
All of the above triggers eventually link back to being focused and deeply engaged in the present moment — the “deep now” — to produce outstanding outcomes.
Each of us has a right to thrive, not simply survive.
So why limit yourself?
Use the above insights to create the right conditions for you and your teams to experience flow states more often, and start achieving beyond your wildest expectations.
It’s time to flow!