Activate your "flow" to maximize performance
How to get into a euphoric, focused, high-performance state
I came across the idea of "flow" on modern day philosopher and TV personality, Jason Silva's "Shots of Awe" YouTube channel.
Since, I've been intrigued by the concept and have taken a deeper look — studying material from performance expert; Steven Kotler, self-help author; Tim Ferriss, and biohacker; Maximilian Gotzler.
I recently decided to pick up the book "Flow" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist behind the concept and originator who coined the term.
It was quite a long and complex read, so here’s a summary:
🤷♂️ What is “Flow?''
Flow is a state of consciousness that is activated when someone is immersed in an activity with complete focus, involvement, and enjoyment.
I define flow as "being in the zone".
When you're so fully absorbed in the activity that you lose track of time, and basic desires such as hunger.
Personally, I've activated these moments in both mental and physical activities.
Mentally — playing chess, or doing challenging puzzles.
Physically — during martial arts training, or working out in the gym.
For most of us, these moments are few and far between, and are usually the result of being involved in an activity that aligns our personal passions with an achievable target.
Being in the "flow state" or "in the zone" will often produce feelings of euphoria, accomplishment, or "ecstasy" — as Mikhaly puts it.
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile”.
— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Mihaly describes 10 factors necessary to enable flow:
Having clear goals about what you want to achieve
Concentration and focus
Participating in an intrinsically rewarding activity
Losing feelings of self-consciousness
Timelessness; losing track of time passing
Being able to immediately judge your own progress; instant feedback on your performance
Knowing that your skills align with the goals of the task
Feeling control over the situation and the outcome
Lack of awareness of physical needs
Complete focus on the activity itself
To simplify that, I've come up with THREE key principles:
Design clear goals that are challenging, yet achievable
Create an environment to facilitate focus, and eliminate distractions
Align your activities with your biological clock
🧗🏽♂️ Design clear goals that are challenging, yet achievable
It’s important to consider the balance between the challenge of a task verses one's ability and skill to perform that task.
Too challenging and one becomes anxious and stressed.
Too easy, and one becomes bored and apathetic.
This may be common sense, but in practice, deep reflection is required to create goals that are truly challenging and significant.
In bodybuilding, "progressive-overload" — the deliberate increase of resistance upon the muscular skeletal and nervous system — is required for muscle growth and hypertrophy.
Similarly, in chess — tactical and positional training at an increasing level of difficulty (defined by ELO rating system) is required to progress.
An increase in difficulty should be controlled and relevant; too challenging of progression may result in anxiousness and a decrease in productivity.
Goals should be: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time bound. (S.M.A.R.T)
Tools and apps that reinforce these concepts and are effective for setting, and tracking goals:
Coach.me is a simple goal and habit tracker with a clean interface and clever integrations
Do It Now is a goal tracker that gamifies the process and treats you like an RPG character
Strides can assist you in building the perfect routine to adopt your new goals with different tracker types
Way of Life takes a unique approach in tracking your time spent on different activities and provides interesting visualizations
🙇🏻♂️ Create an environment that facilitates focus, and eliminates distractions
It's tough to get an uninterrupted hour due to the constant distractions from social media notifications, work emails, and phone calls.
Thankfully, there are many tools and techniques out there that help minimize disturbances and re-align your focus when distracted.
The first step is to identify and be aware of the sources of your distractions. This can be social media, emails, phones calls, or even food.
The next step is to either clear your environment of these distractions, or to re-position yourself in an environment free of these sources.
Additionally, these tools may help block out the (digital) external distractions:
StayFocusd is a free chrome extension that lets you allocate a daily set amount of time on distracting websites. For example, you can limit your YouTube usage to 30 minutes daily. Once you reach your limit, you'll be kicked off and will be unable to extend your time. Another option is to create windows during the time for distraction free browsing (e.g. no social media from 9:00 am - 5:00 pm).
RescueTime is similar to StayFocusd, but runs on your desktop and will also track and log your time spent on browsing various websites.
AppBlock is the mobile equivalent to RescueTime / StayFocusd
🧘🏽♀️ Clear your head with meditation & mindfulness
You've probably had times where you're unable to focus or concentrate due to racing thoughts or subconscious brain processes running in the background. This is where the practice of meditation, and the concept of mindfulness may come in handy.
Buddhists define the concept of the unsettled, restless voices in our head as the "monkey mind", and recommend daily meditation as it is proven to calm the mind and even reduce activation in the areas of the brain associated with stress.
Tim Ferriss, author of the 4-Hour Body, recommends writing in a journal during mornings to capture all the thoughts in your head to "cage the monkey mind". This effectively provides a physical dimension to these thoughts, and allows you to move on with your day.
Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laureate psychologist, makes a similar distinction by identifying two systems of brain processes in his book, "Thinking, Fast and Slow":
System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.
— Daniel Kahneman
My interpretation is that System 2 is the logical, rational, and deliberate counterpart to System 1.
By using meditation to enable mindfulness, we can remove the counterproductive and distracting thoughts produced by our System 1.
Some of the best meditation apps I've come across:
Headspace has hundreds of guided meditations, mini-meditations, and other courses
Calm is another great alternative to Headspace
Insight Timer is completely free and also features a tracker to allow you to chart your progress
🕺🏻 Use the Pomodoro method of working; take breaks effectively
The Pomodero Technique is a time-interval working technique that involves working in four, thirty minute increments, before taking a longer break.
It works like this: you work for twenty five minutes straight without distraction, then take a five minute break. After four of these sessions (two hours), you would then take a longer, thirty minute break.
Some of the benefits of this technique are increased focus, concentration, and even motivation — it is proven that short breaks and diversions can cause a significant improvement in one's ability to keep focused on a task for long periods of time.
Personally, this works for me although your mileage may vary, as some may prefer longer sprints of work.
Some Pomodoro options:
🎶 Improve your concentration with music
Music that is repetitive, continuous, and trance-inducing may help you reach a state of flow easier. Wearing earbuds (or earphones) will also help block out external sounds. However, keep in mind to not flip back-and-forth between your music channel and work, as this will impair your focus,
Here are some of my top picks:
You can also loop your favourite songs and videos with these tools:
Something else to experiment with is Binaural music. Research suggests that these sounds have an impact on your beta and alpha brainwaves to promote both short, and long-term memory.
☕ Supplement your focus with Caffeine + L-Theanine
L-Theanine is an amino acid found in both green and black tea, and is said to promote relaxation and calmness, without drowsiness.
Many coffee drinkers find the side effects of too much caffeine undesirable; inducing anxiety, insomnia, and a general jittery sensation.
An alternative is switching to tea, or pairing L-Theanine, in supplement form, with coffee.
Personally, I've switched over from coffee to tea and haven't experienced the negative side effects in caffeine since doing so.
🌅 Align your activities with your biological clock
We're all familiar with the categorizations of "early birds" and "night owls".
In practice, these associations are supported by decades of neuroscience research.
Daniel Pink, author of "When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing", defines three chronotypes:
Majority of us are Third Birds, with the minority group being the Owls.
The chart below outlines the best times to work on various tasks — analytical and decision-making (e.g. logical reasoning), insight (e.g. creative), and making an impression on others.
Being a Third Bird — I reserve my mornings for my most difficult tasks and try to schedule most of my meetings prior to lunch. Late afternoons, and evenings are usually for reading, brainstorming, and reflecting.
For timing on physical activities — some argue that morning is best. Testosterone levels — associated with increased levels of growth hormone and anabolic activity — are usually highest in the morning.
But… another hormone — cortisol, which is associated with stress and cancels out testosterone — also peaks in the morning.
Afternoon, and evenings is when the testosterone/cortisol ratio is at its lowest, which makes the case for working out then.
Both mornings, afternoons, and evenings have their strong points. In this case, the answer of when to work out is simply when it most conveniently fits in your schedule.
Why you should flow
Being in the flow state is one of the most productive, high performing, and enjoyable states that we can be in.
If you find routine tasks — jogging, writing, or even making PowerPoint slides — boring, you should consider understanding the principles of flow and how you can activate them to improve your experience.
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