Can you recall the last time you worked on a project and one minute turned into 30 and then an hour? An experience where you weren’t conscious of putting forth extreme effort, but yet your very best work just seemed to seep out of somewhere in your brain? What you were experiencing was peak performance resulting from you being in a flow state. Whether you’re working on a home improvement project, flying down the side of a mountain on skis or a bike, or just crushing it at work, it’s possible to attain this elevated strata of the human psyche, which pioneering positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described as, “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.”
The trouble with finding flow is that in our helter-skelter world, everything seeks our attention and claims to be urgent. Whether it’s an endless, 24/7 stream of emails, constantly refreshing Slack messages sliding across your phone screen, or the hour and 53 minutes users of multiple social media platforms spend liking, clicking, and retweeting, distraction is the order of the day. Not to mention that filling each day with busy work has become a badge of courage, at the expense of doing what author and productivity expert Cal Newport calls “deep work” (more from Cal in a moment). This means that it’s getting harder than ever to find and stay in flow, to the detriment of our output and its quality.
Fortunately, there are several conditions – or, as the experts call them, triggers – that you can create to achieve flow faster and easier, and to stay in what athletes often call “the zone” for longer. As a result, you’ll not only do your best work more frequently but will also feel a greater sense of fulfillment in doing so.
1) Ditch Distractions
According to Adam Alter in his book Irresistible, the typical American adult looks at or touches their phone every six and a half minutes. This isn’t a problem if all you’re doing is checking and replying to messages or performing other quick, rudimentary tasks. But our culture’s phone fixation is a barrier to the kind of all-in, totally focused effort that is required to solve problems, create any form of art, and prioritize, synthesize, and apply information.
It’s not enough to simply put your phone down on your desk. In their first full-length collaboration, Peak Performance, Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness reveal that if your portable interruption device is even in the room, you’re more predisposed to being distracted. So put it away and out of sight. Next, shut down your email inbox, steer clear of your social feeds, and, unless you’re using it for research (no, checking the latest scores on ESPN’s website doesn’t count), close down your web browser entirely. If you simply cannot resist temptation on this front, employ an app like Freedom to put up guard rails for you.
2) Make it Hard to Make it Easy
A common misconception about flow is that you go on autopilot because the task is easy enough for you to complete without conscious thought. Yet according to leading researchers, nothing could be farther from the truth and to find true flow, you actually need to tackle a difficult task that stretches your ability to the breaking point. Co-writing with Csikszentmihalyi, Claremont Graduate University professor Jeanne Nakamura stated, “When in flow, the individual operates at full capacity. If challenges begin to exceed skills, one first becomes vigilant and then anxious; if skills begin to exceed challenges, one first relaxes and then becomes bored.”
The takeaway? You need to find a task that is difficult and challenges your abilities without you requiring to do something impossible, like completing Albert Einstein’s quest for a unified theory. Progressing in a flow-worthy project will probably require you to learn something new and, at the risk of lapsing into cliché, to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
3) Embrace Risk
Another flow trigger that New York Times bestselling author identifies in his brilliant book The Rise of Superman is doing something with high consequences. Many of the case studies that Kotler presents take this to the limit of human performance in wingsuit flying, BASE jumping, surfing, and other extreme sports. But you don’t have to attempt death-defying risks to tap into this particular flow state pre-condition. How often have you settled for low-risk, low-visibility projects at work that fly under your boss’s radar? They might be necessary, but the consequences of underperforming are virtually non-existent.
Such a risk mitigation strategy could pass for self-preservation at some level, but it might also mean that you’re not progressing on your career path or acquiring new skills because you’re too afraid to fail. In contrast, deliberately putting yourself in a high-risk situation “releases another big squirt of dopamine, further enhancing performance and increasing pattern recognition,” Kotler writes. “Once the pattern recognition system lights onto the proper response...even more dopamine is released and the cascade continues.” So next time there’s a tough project with an uncertain outcome, raise your hand and accept the challenge.
4) Tap into Group Flow
The previous three tips have focused more on finding individual flow. Yet from Simon and Garfunkel to Penn and Teller to Jordan and Pippen and beyond, we have plenty of examples of how groups can flow as a collective and achieve greater things together than they’d be capable of alone. The leading thinker in this space is UNC professor Keith Sawyer. After learning the principles of flow from his mentor Csikszentmihalyi, Sawyer started studying jazz ensembles, theater groups, and industry-leading companies to see what factors were common to finding group flow.
In his book Group Genius, Sawyer suggests that when a team wants to tap into the boundary-pushing power of flow, they need to pursue a common goal, listen proactively, conduct positive conversations that are additive rather than subtractive, and concentrate fully in the moment. It’s also vital that every member of the group feels a sense of ownership, is empowered to participate, gives grace for each other’s flaws, and subjugates individual egos for the greater good of the group.
So next time you’re managing a project, try to keep these factors in mind, whether you’re collaborating face to face or via Zoom meetings. In the end, if the whole group finds its flow, everyone will feel part of something bigger themselves, and the results will be like the London Philharmonic Orchestra or Golden State Warriors at the peak of their powers.