Find Your ‘Flow’ to Optimize Your Workday

At some point, we’ve all experienced what feels like an ultimate state of consciousness — the feeling that, no matter what is happening around us, we’re totally in the zone, focused on the task at hand, our productivity off the charts.

This state of “flow” is something psychologists have studied for decades. In his 2014 book, “The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance,” journalist Steven Kotler further explores the science behind flow through the stories of action-sports athletes who have credited their ability to achieve seemingly unattainable human feats to the elevated state of consciousness.

Talent Management spoke more with Kotler on flow and how it can be achieved in business. Edited excerpts follow.

Steven Kotler

What is ‘flow’?

Flow is defined as an optimal state of consciousness — a state of consciousness where we feel our best and we perform our best. And specifically it refers to those moments of rapt attention and total absorption, where we get so focused on what we’re doing, so focused on the task at hand, that everything else disappears. So our sense of self, our sense of self-consciousness — they vanish. 

What’s the science behind flow?

Flow science research actually dates back 150 years. It’s some of the earliest experience ever run in experiential psychology and what has become cognitive neuroscience, so there’s a long history of this stuff. What’s happened in the past 25 years is biotechnology in general is now accelerating at five times the speed of Moore’s law, so that means biotechnology as a field doubles in power basically every four months.

As a result, we’ve gotten an entire new set of brain imaging tools that have allowed us to peer deeper into the brain than ever before. What this means for flow is we now have a pretty good sense of how this works, how this state changes neuron-chemical function, what it does to neuroelectricity, what it does to neurochemistry, how it changes our body. We also now have a deeper understanding of where it comes from, what causes it, so we’re learning to hack flow. We’re learning how to reliably reproduce the state and to maximize its affects.

17 Flow Triggers

  1. Intensely focused attention
  2. Clear goals
  3. Immediate feedback
  4. The challenge-skills ratio
  5. High consequences
  6. Rich environment
  7. Deep embodiment
  8. Serious concentration
  9. Shared, clear goals
  10. Good communication
  11. Familiarity
  12. Equal participation
  13. Risk
  14. Sense of control
  15. Close Listening
  16. Always say yes
  17. Creativity

What’s an example of how flow works?

There are myriad examples. But the reason we feature action-sport athletes in the book is if you look at action-adventure sports like a data set, what you see over the past 25 years is nearly exponential growth in ultimate human performance — that’s defined as performance when life or limb is on the line. It should be the slowest growth category; sports progression, sports performance, it’s slow, it’s steady, it’s governed by the law of evolution, so in no time in history does it quintuple in a decade. That’s exactly what’s been happening all over action and adventure sports.

Surfing, for instance, is a 1,000-year-old sport, and from 400 A.D. to 1996, the biggest wave anybody has been able to surf has been 25 feet. And above it, there was 1,000 years of anecdotal history, of science papers, physics papers written about how it’s impossible to surf a wave over 25 feet. Today, less than two decades later, surfers are pushing into waves that are 100 feet tall. The reason this is happening is these athletes have gotten better for a variety of reasons at utilizing the state of flow than anybody else in history, so what we’re doing in ‘Rise’ is we’re trying to backtrack to why. What did these guys and girls do that was so amazing, that allowed them to get such great access to this state?

Can flow be initiated?

Yes. The Flow Genome Project has a fundamentals course, a six-week online course digitally delivered like an hour and a half a week with homework. We do a lot of corporate training and work with a lot of Fortune500 companies and U.S. Special Forces. There was such demand after “Rise” that we created this for the public and about about 1,000 people have been through it.

On average, they report a fivefold increase in flow, a fivefold increase in creativity and a threefold increase in self-confidence. So it’s entirely trainable. We know that flow states have 17 triggers — these are preconditions that lead to more flow. We also know that flow is a cycle; it’s a process, a four-stage cycle and there’s very specific neurobiological changes beneath each part of the cycle, and if you understand the triggers, those are sort of your tools. You never will apply all 17 at once, but you’ll use some combination therein to help drive you into flow. And understanding this four-state process sort of lets you know where you are in the cycle and that knowledge of how the flow-cycle works allows you to have a map, and these two things together massively increase the amount of flow in your life.