I am sure that most people will have heard of the term flow and its links with peak performance. The godfather of flow is a researcher called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. His 1990 paper “Flow: The psychology of optimal experience” has been cited over 35,500 times in academic papers.
What is flow states?
“Flow states are defined as optimal states of consciousness. These are states where you feel your best, and you perform your best” – Flow Genome Project.
What is happening when we are in a flow state?
Improvements in brain imaging have allowed us to better understand what is happening in the brain when in a flow state. There has always been this idea that we only use a small percentage of our brain when performing activities. Research points to the opposite; there seems to be a reduction in the prefrontal cortex’s activity. In addition to this, there are several neurotransmitters released. Neurotransmitters are the body’s chemical messengers, used by the nervous system to transmit messages between neurons.
1. Dopamine – Enhances the ability to analyse and recognise patterns. Improves the speed & efficiency of problem-solving. Increases heart rate, muscle force and rate of contraction. It drives us to take risks and try new activities. It is talked about as the most addictive neurotransmitter.
2. Norepinephrine – Increases awareness and arousal. This is known as a focusing neurotransmitter, as it decreases the chance of us being distracted.
3. Endorphins – Increase the pleasure in the experience and also is a pain inhibitor.
4. Anandamide – increases positive mood and helps with problem-solving by improving lateral thinking.
5. Seratonin – increases the feeling of well-being and happiness at the end of the state and improves cognition, memory and learning.
Such a change in brain activity and levels of neurotransmitters can affect self-consciousness, understanding of time, feeling of effortlessness and richness in the environment around us.
How do you access flow states?
From Csikszentmihalyi’s work, there seem to be some clear pre-conditioning to get in a flow state:
1. Complete Concentration
When was the last time that you were 100% concentrated on one task, and for a time, you only focused on that task? Nowadays, this is nearly possible unless we set up the environment to help with this. I have a simple way to improve focus, check it out here.
2. Clear Goals
We all set goals, but we must make sure that they are clear and specific. Lack of understanding of what needs to be done is a sure way to lack of success. Check out my video on setting clear goals.
3. Challenge/skill balance
This is the hardest pre-conditioning in my mind. We need to find the task challenging enough to drive dopamine and motivations but not too much to become anxious.
4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding
This can be a difficult one to understand for many people. But think about the different activities that drive massive amounts of flow – skiing, surfing, playing a musical instrument – as based on intrinsical rewards. From a work standpoint, it’s the idea of purpose and whether the job is fulfilling.
5. Effortlessness and ease
Again, due to the mixture of neurochemicals, activities feel easier, different areas of the brain are being activated. Therefore complex problems become easier to solve.
6.Actions and awareness are merged
We feel and do; it’s that simple. Sometimes, it feels that we are already doing the activity before we have thought about it.
7.Feeling of control
There must have been a time in your life when you feel in total control and have confidence in what you could do.
Side note: there is a dark side to flow when people seek or push too hard to access this state, leading to many adverse outcomes. Check out the video below with Clare Sadler, a leading mental performance coach.
What we must understand is that there is a continuum of flow states, from micro to macro. Micro-moments can be day-to-day, short periods when we access the state to enable us to be more productive. And then we have macro moments, these fantastic experiences in our lives. However, it seems that the more flow we can have in our lives, the happier we become, and as a result, the more productive we are.
Ask you can see flow states offer huge potential in increasing performance and life. We must understand that these states come with a cost and that we need to recover once we have come out of the state.
Thanks for taking the time to read the article, I hope that you found it interesting and useful.
Happy to connect and speak more about the subject here.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. and Csikzentmihaly, M., 1990. Flow: The psychology of optimal experience (Vol. 1990). New York: Harper & Row.