Have you ever lost an entire afternoon to an engaging conversation or become so involved in a work project that everything else was forgotten? Then you’ve experienced the “flow state” firsthand.
The best definition I’ve ever heard for this psychological event is this: “[Flow is] an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.”
When you are in this state, every action, every decision, leads effortlessly, fluidly, seamlessly to the next. It’s high-speed problem-solving; it’s being swept away by the river of ultimate performance.
Now, before you dismiss this as a new-age idea, consider the research. For nearly 50 years, flow has been studied, picked apart and analyzed. It sits at the heart of almost every athletic championship, underpins major scientific breakthroughs and accounts for significant progress in the arts.
As Richard Branson says, “In two hours [in flow], I can accomplish tremendous things… It’s like there’s no challenge I can’t meet.”
How can we achieve this highly focused, productive and satisfying state of mind? After pioneering flow researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first introduced the theory of flow in the 1970s, he dedicated decades to expanding upon his work—including identifying what he determined to be the eight characteristics of a flow state. Using a basis of Csikszentmihalyi’s work, Steven Kotler determined what prompted a state of flow, including these three critical “flow triggers”:
Trigger 1: Clear goals
Goals tell us where to put our attention, and what we focus on becomes our results.
The key to creating clear goals which trigger the flow state is breaking down larger overarching goals into smaller subgoals. Clarity is of the utmost importance for staying present in finding flow.
With clarity, the mind doesn’t have to expend energy thinking about what to do next. It already knows. This tightened concentration heightens motivation. Action and awareness start to merge, and it is at this point that we are pulled even deeper into the now, into the flow state.
As a focusing mechanism, immediate feedback is something of an extension of clear goals.
The better, more accurate the feedback, the more clarity we receive. Again, it is this clarity that allows our minds to relax and enter the “now state,” the trigger for flow.
Imagine for a moment if you implemented this in your work right now. What would happen if you were to tighten feedback loops? If you asked for and received more regular input from others? Imagine that instead of quarterly reviews, it became daily reviews?
Immediate feedback polishes clarity further. With the constant tweaking of your goals through feedback, you’ll quickly develop a habit response of dropping into the flow state.
Trigger 3: The challenge/skill ratio
Have you ever been tasked with a project that you felt was too challenging? Then you’ve experienced fear swamping your system. The most important psychological trigger for flow is being able to match the difficulty of the task with your ability to perform it.
While we all want to strive to push ourselves to bigger, better things, there is a danger in pushing too hard.
Flow appears near the emotional midpoint between boredom and anxiety. That means the most productive you will ever be is when you are engaged and confident in the tasks you have been assigned.
The good news about flow
Flow is already preprogrammed into your brain. It’s part of your evolutionary design, a built-in feature of being human.
Cultivating and practicing the triggers described above will allow you to spend more and more time each day in a flow state. And once you achieve regular flow, you’ll notice an immediate increase in your ability to accomplish your goals. How? Because you’ll be more engaged in your work. You’ll discover connections that you didn’t realize existed before. You’ll be feeling and performing at your best.
And that alone is worth giving these triggers a try.
This article was published in May 2016 and has been updated. Photo by Dragon Images/Shutterstock