Consciousness is Hackable: Flow States & Peak Performance
Steven Kotler is an author, journalist, and co-founder and director of research at the Flow Genome Project. He's interested in paradigm-shifting breakthroughs regarding ultimate human performance: What does it take to be your best when it matters most? What does it take to significantly level up your game? In short, what does it take to do the impossible?
- Action Sports & The Study of Peak Performance
- History Of Flow Science & The Godfather Of Flow Psychology
- 4 Key Elements Of Flow & What It Means For Sport, Business, Etc.
- How We Use Less Of Our Brain During Flow
- The Big Shift In Neurochemistry During Flow States
- Brainwaves During Flow & Achieving Creative Breakthroughs
- The Most Important Triggers For Flow States
- You Need 90-120 Minutes of Uninterrupted Concentration For Flow
- The Golden Rule of Flow: Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable
- Find A Feedback Buddy To Amp Up Your Flow
What Does It Take To Do The Impossible?
Steven Kotler walked through the door of journalism in the early 1990s, back when action sports such as surfing, skiing, rock-climbing & snowboarding were just starting to happen. He spent the better portion of 10 years chasing what were then called extreme athletes around mountains and across oceans. The progress he saw was astounding; tricks, feats & activities that were absolutely impossible just three or four months prior weren't just being done, they would be iterated upon. And this caught his attention for a couple of reasons.
First, back in the early 1990s action adventure sport athletes were a rowdy irreverent punk-rock bunch who had horrific childhoods, little education, almost no money & came from broken homes. However, here they were on a semi-regular basis reinventing what was possible for our species. Take surfing, for example. Surfing is a 1000 year old sport & its evolution was incredibly slow; from the fourth century AD until 1996 the biggest wave anybody had surfed was 25 feet. Above that was believed absolutely impossible & there are physics papers written about how it's impossible to paddle into waves over 25 feet tall. Today, surfers are routinely towing into waves well over 100 feet tall, and they're paddling into waves over 80 feet tall. This is nearly exponential growth and ultimate human performance in two decades, and it was happening all across the board in action sports.
Kotler wanted to understand why. He took this question, what does it take to do the impossible, into pretty much every domain imaginable and read books about them. The interesting thing is he found is that it doesn't actually matter what domain you look at or where you go; whenever you see the impossible become possible or whenever you're seeing peak performance, you're seeing a state of consciousness known to researchers as flow.
Flow Science & Optimal Performance
You may know it by other names: runner's high or being in the zone. Flow is technically defined as an optimal state of consciousness where we feel & perform our best.
Flow science is very old, dating back to the late 1870s where for the first time a geologist named Albert Heim noticed that altered states of consciousness seemed to have a huge impact on performance. This idea got carried forward & explored by William James, often called the godfather of American psychology. Real breakthroughs however took place in the 1960s & 70s by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, often called the Godfather of flow psychology. He did the largest global investigation of optimal performance anybody had undertaken & discovered four key things about flow:
- Flow state is definable. It has eight core characteristics such as the merger of action awareness, complete concentration in the present moment, the vanishing self, time dilation and so forth.
- Flow is measurable. Because it is definable, it is also measurable.
- Flow is universal. It shows up in everyone, anywhere, provided certain initial conditions are met. When asked, everyone said the same thing: while in this state, every action & decision flows seamlessly & effortlessly from the last.
- Flow is fundamental to overall well-being, life satisfaction and & meaning. people who scored off-the-charts for overall life satisfaction & most meaningful lives were the people with the most flow in their lives.
Flow is optimal performance, but how optimal? We now know that pretty much every gold medal or World Championship has a flow state at its heart. In business, we have compelling research done by McKinsey consultancy where they found that top executives in flow report being five times (500%) more productive. This means that you can spend Monday in a flow state, take Tuesday through Friday off, and get as much done as your steady-state peers. Two days a week in flow & you are 1,000% more productive. One of the things going on all across business is flow-training & it's going to be very difficult to keep up with the competition without doing this kind of work.
Under the Hood of Flow
The next question people asked is where is this coming from? Here, we've gotten a huge assist from neuroscience. Neuroscience is accelerating wildly & for the very first time in over 10-15 years we've been able to peer under-the-hood of flow & figure out where it's coming from and why it's coming.
The old idea about optimal performance is something you're probably familiar with: the 10% brain myth, or that at any one point we're only using a small portion of our brain & flow must be the full brain on overdrive. We had it completely backwards. Turns out in flow, we're not using more of the brain, we're using less of it. We experience what's known as transient hypo-frontality; transient meaning temporary, hypo (the opposite of hyper) means to slow down or deactivate, and frontality refers to your prefrontal cortex part of your brain that's a critical portion for long term planning, complex decision making & willpower. In flow, this portion of your brain gets really, really quiet which has a huge impact both on cognition & performance.
Most importantly, we see a big shift in neurochemistry when we're in flow. There's a lot more work to be done here & but five of the most potent neural chemicals show up in flow:
- Norepinephrine & dopamine: focusing chemicals
- Endorphins: pain blockers
- Anandamide: the pain blocker that amplifies lateral thinking
- Serotonin: a common feel-good prosocial chemical
All of these have huge impacts on physical performance & are the most potent pleasure drugs the brain can produce. Usually you don't get all five at once, but in flow you can which is a huge boost in motivation.
Simultaneous to these neurochemistry changes, we see brainwaves shift. Flow exists on the borderline between alpha and theta, a state of much heightened creativity. More interestingly, this state is the ready condition for a gamma spike, a very fast moving wave that shows up primarily during binding when the brain ties a whole bunch of new ideas together. It's the brainwave signature of the aha moment. What this means is flow puts us right on the edge of aha moments: when you're in flow, you are always on the edge of a creative breakthrough.
Consciousness is Hackable: 3 Essential Triggers
Flow shows up in anyone & anywhere provided certain conditions are met.
We now know there are 20 different flow triggers & they come in two varieties: individual & group triggers. What do all of these triggers have in common? Flow follows focus. It only shows up when all of our attention is in the right here & right now. In other words, all these triggers drive attention into the present moment. One of the things that the research shows is that there are 3 triggers that we need to maximize for peak performance:
Complete Concentration - F*ck Off, I'm Flowing
The first flow trigger is the most obvious: complete concentration. Steven Kotler works with organizations & the first thing he says is if you can't hang a sign on your door that says “f*ck off, I'm flowing”, you can't do this work. What the research shows is that if you want to maximize flow you need 90-120 minutes of uninterrupted concentration. That means no cell phone, email, instant messaging, Facebook, Twitter, none of that. If you run or work for an organization that has policies where messages must be returned in 15 minutes and emails in half an hour, it's a disaster for high performance.
Challenge-Skill Balance - Stretch, But Not Snap
The next flow trigger is what's known as the challenge skills balance. This is often called the golden rule of flow. Here's the idea: flow follows focus so we pay the most attention when the challenge of the task at hand slightly exceeds our skill set. You want to stretch, but not snap. In other words, you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable to do this work & learn how to suffer a little; there's just no way around it. If we were to put this emotionally, flow sits near the midpoint between boredom (not enough stimulation) and anxiety (too much stimulation). It's what's known as the flow-channel and this is where the challenge-skill sweetspot sits.
Immediate Feedback - Find a Feedback Buddy
The other thing that is phenomenal for flow is immediate feedback. This is tricky in today's corporate world because most of us get annual or quarterly reviews but the research shows for flow to go up we need much closer reviews. So if you really want to amp up your flow, find a feedback buddy or somebody on social media you can bounce ideas off much more frequently.