There's a lot in this post. It's my summary of both the neuroscience and the nitty gritty tricks of hacking flow. Unlike most things I write it's largely other people's ideas. This is because Stealing Fire, the book by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, has already covered Flow beautifully. I'm just condensing it all here for you. If it's overwhelming, don't worry! My next post will detail how to find micro-moments of flow in your day.
IN INTENSE FLOW….
We get so focused on the task everything else disappears.
Our information processing and decision making skills go through the roof.
Our pattern-recognition and connection-making go through the roof.
Action and self merge so we ‘become’ what we are doing.
Time dilates; hours can rush by or moments can last ages.
All aspects of physical performance can also go through the roof.
Fears and doubts wash away.
We release Dopamine - our primary ‘reward chemical.’ In some ways equivalent to Cocaine. Makes us feel great!
We release Norepinephrine - in some ways equivalent to Speed. Makes us go fast!
We release Anandamide - in some ways equivalent to Dope. Also called the bliss chemical. Creativity and mood, among other things.
We release Oxytocin - the ‘cuddle chemical,’ involved in social bonding.
We release Serotonin - a calming chemical. Akin to prozac. Also has overlaps with LSD and mushrooms, depending on the brain pathways it goes down.
We release Endorphins - in some ways equivalent to Morphine and Heroin. Pain-killers, anxiety-killers etc.
These chemicals impact motivation, learning and creativity. They’re all pleasure inducing. They’re also all pro-social. They make us like people more and bond more. They’re the 6 most pleasurable drugs we make inside ourselves, and Flow is the only known trigger for all 5-6.
This is why flow is one of the most addictive things on Earth.
Flow creates incredible intrinsic-motivation. Because it feels so amazing, any activity we create good flow in, will become an end in itself. We’ll just want to keep doing it. Think how much effort people will make to be able to ski, surf, make music, play games etc.
FLOW THROUGH HISTORY….
We’ve been seeking altered states for as long as we’ve lived on Earth. Mystics, shamans, artists and lunatics knew all about it. Even other animals seek altered states. Dolphins, cats, monkeys, deer, lizards, sloths and jaguars have all been found to seek out psychedelic substances. Non-ordinary states are the pathway evolution gave us to solve intractable problems. To get unstuck. They’re inseparable from our evolutionary history.
Some people say; pretty much every gold medal came from flow; most scientific paradigm shifts came from flow; most great works of art came from flow…and so on….
But historically, humanity’s seeking of altered states has gone wrong. At times people have abused both the substances and the altered states, and those in power have clamped down on the usage of both drugs and any activities which induce intense flow. We all know about the ‘War on Drugs’ but think of how often dancing and music have been banned. How festivals and carnivals and many forms of sports have been banned. Almost anything which gets people out of the box has been repressed at some point.
Irresponsible usage of state-changing substances and techniques can be incredibly destructive of course. The Nuremberg rally was deliberate mass state change. So are the mega churches of fundamentalists and terror recruiting schools. Riots, mobs and cults involve group flow.
But they use flow because it’s so powerful. And it’s so powerful because it’s a huge part of becoming our full potential, both in terms of love and bliss, and creative output. It feels so good extreme athletes die chasing it. It’s so powerful artists and scientists arrange their whole lives around chasing it.
William James called this ‘Ecstatic Bandwidth.’ He noticed there was an overlap between the altered states experienced by many different kinds of people. However, for a lot of (at least modern) history the connections between different state-seekers was not obvious.
For most of the 20th century there were separate categories. Flow was for athletes. Meditation was for mystics. Psychedelics for drug users. Rapture for the religious. Blood-Lust for soldiers, fighters and rioters. Increasingly, all these altered states are converging in our models. As more brains and states are mapped, we’re seeing the overlaps and differences in the ‘Ecstatic Bandwidth.’
One thing has become very clear - you don’t need to sign up for anything you don’t want. You don’t need to hold any spiritual beliefs. You don’t need to throw your body into crazy dangers. You don’t have to take any substances or join any mobs.
Everyone can hack flow. If you’re willing to make space, put in the effort, and ride through the resistance.
As research and interest in flow explodes, more and more people are seeking their edges. Right now flow seeking is ahead of the curve. It’s being adopted by big companies, governments and the military. Which is scary. It’s being adopted by spiritual-seekers, and conscious creatives like us, which is heartening.
Right now those who find flow regularly have a huge advantage. But Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, of the Flow Genome Project, say within five years flow will be so common it will required to keep up, if you're looking to be leader in any field.
Kotler and Wheal are calling for a giant open-source research project on Flow States and altered states. They say they want everyone to stretch out the edges of what is possible. Go to flowgenomeproject.com to know more.
FLOW IS EVERYWHERE…
The word ‘Flow’ is everywhere these days. In general it’s used in a vague and open way. People say ‘Flow’ to mean any kind of inspiration or creative excitement or ease.
For researchers and thinkers in the field it’s more specific. Flow is the cocktail of neuro-chemicals and altered brainwave patterns. It has a spectrum of intensity, from mildly increased confidence and creativity, to almost supernatural feeling altered states. The ‘mystery’ of inspiration and giftedness is slowly shifting into a clear picture.
Most importantly, flow states are being mapped. We have increasingly detailed information on how to access and amplify flow over time. We have increasingly detailed information on the plentiful benefits, from soaking in feel-great brain juices, to washing away fears, to accessing near-perfect split-second decision making in ridiculously complex and risky situations. This capacity can look like ‘magic’ from the outside. How can an athletes hurl themselves down mountains or into giant waves, and somehow dance with the chaos? How can freestyle rappers and jazz musicians pull fresh genius out of their sleeves in front of live audiences?
Part of the answer is they have huge pattern-recognition already fed into their unconscious decision making systems. Having danced with chaos countless times already, they have a huge resource to draw from. The other part of the answer is what happens to your brain in flow. They’re tapping into massively expanded capacities, which we all have. The following notes are not a detailed map, more of a sketch. If you want to dive deeper check out the sources I mention at the end.
FLOW IS A TINY SWEET SPOT…..
Flow is the midpoint between boredom and anxiety - between too easy and too hard. The sweet spot. Because if a challenge is too easy our full abilities never wake up, and we can kinda go through on auto-pilot. And if a challenge is too hard we shut down or burn out.
The sweet spot is a small stretch - some say just 4% beyond what we are comfortably capable of. I’m not so convinced of the number. I just focus on this question: where is my personal edge right now? What is just beyond what I’m comfortably capable of? What’s just beyond my control?
I sometimes visualise this as running out on thin air, like Road Runner in the cartoons. Or as dancing on shifting and tumbling rocks. But that’s just me.
The small stretch is always shifting. Every time we chase the sweet spot it stretches with us. Stuff becomes easy. But we’re already chasing the next edge. Skateboards and BMX trick-riders are always falling off, because they’re always practicing the trick they haven’t mastered yet. This is how I try to write, tell stories, teach and speak.
Your edge can take many forms. For physical skills it can be speed, intensity, risk or complexity you haven’t mastered yet.
How does that play out as a writer or storyteller?
A lot of the time, for a lot of people, just doing something at all is their edge. Just making the time to create, or stepping onto the ‘stage.’ Once you are doing things regularly, you need to keep bringing it fresh life:
Your edge could be more honesty. Your edge could be more vulnerability. Your edge could be more freedom, silliness, craziness, anger, or grief. It could be topics you feel less ‘expert’ on. It could be writing with more speed or more total output. It could be publishing or sharing more often. Telling live stories it could be doing more improv, being more physical, going for bigger emotions, telling more truths and saying scarier things, leaving bigger pauses and allowing the audience in more.
Good questions are: What feels a little difficult? What feels a little scary? What am I telling myself ‘I’m not ready for yet’?
If a challenge completely freaks you out, what’s the simplest, easiest version of it you can try out right now today? Can you give a three minute talk? Write for three minutes? Anything to take action.
Every time we chase the sweet spot, we grow and flow more, and then move towards the next stretch.
FLOW IS CYCLICAL….
“This is awesome; this is tricky; this is shit; I am shit; this might be okay; this is awesome.”
No one can be in flow all the time, and it’s not a good idea anyway. Flow’s life-cycle of brain-waves and neuro-chemicals includes stages that feel very unflowy and frustrating. It’s working through the frustration that leads to the magic.
Flow happens when we alternate intensely focused bursts of activity and complete rest. Regular sessions of giving it everything, and regular sessions of completely unwinding and soothing our nervous system. Neither works without the other.
Most people most of the time are caught in the horrible see-saw between these two. We never fully access our abilities, because we don’t know how to, and because we’re scared to. At the same time we never fully rest and relax either, because we’re always ‘tired and wired.’
Flow states comes in roughly 90-120 minute cycles. We can have several of these in a day. In time you could have two or three fairly easily. To feed this, you need to care for the larger daily energy cycle. Each 90-120 minute cycle involves warming up, then going through the struggle, followed by release of flow states, a peak, and then an ideal place to quit, before you use up all your dopamine. You need to quit while you still feel in flow, or it will be much harder to get into it the next day.
Best time for session is first thing in morning, pre internet, pre busy mind. You need to make this 90-120 minutes distraction free, in order to maximise the chances of flow. That means no phone, no social media, no tricky topics or conversations etc. Ideally, you’re in a place where no one will interrupt, and you have no access to distractions. Movement is great; standing, stretching, jumping on spot. But you do not engage with any other tasks, just the one you want flow on. For the full length of session. Even if nothing comes and it feels shit, you stick with it.
Do this regularly, and use the following flow triggers, and you’ll get the magic happening.
FLOW IS TRIGGERED BY….
Don’t get overwhelmed by this list. We don’t need all these flow-triggers every time, just a few to kickstart us. But make sure to mix and match and bring them all in over time.
HOW DO YOU DO ALL THIS?
Pick a few of the triggers you want to try out. Pick a clear goal. Go first thing in the morning. Stick with it, even if it feel shit. See what happens.
If it’s too much right now, go for 45 minutes, or even 30. But no distractions, and push yourself, seek that edge. See what happens. Don’t focus on results, focus on cultivating the flow.
If all that feels like way too much, then check out my post on finding Micro-Flow moments!