Flow states have flow triggers, certain preconditions that make it more likely to drop into flow. Understanding what flow triggers are and how they work for you is a powerful toolkit to amp up your performance and enjoy life more!
Flow is associated with accelerated learning, enhanced performance, and amplified creativity and pattern recognition. “From a quality-of-life perspective, psychologists have found that the people who have the most flow in their lives are the happiest people on earth.” – Steven Kotler.
FLOW TRIGGERS EXPLAINED:
Flow triggers work by some combination of releasing dopamine and/or norepinephrine into the system, and/or reducing cognitive load. Not all of them must be present to access flow, and their potency and effectiveness will vary by individual!
Known as intrinsic motivators, we fundamentally pay attention to the things that appeal to our curiosity, passion, and purpose. Especially when stacked, i.e. playing in the intersections of our curiosities, we get big hits of dopamine that drive focus and motivation for any activity aligned with our intrinsic motivators.
Doing what we want, or wanting what we’re doing, autonomy releases dopamine and reduces cognitive load essentially by eliminating any narrative of whether you do/don’t want to be doing the activity such that your focus can be dedicated to the actual doing of it!
Complete concentration is a classic method of reducing cognitive load. Remember, flow follows focus, and focusing all your attention to the task at hand will aid in accessing flow.
As risk goes up, flow becomes more useful – because action and awareness merge and performance increases substantially, we almost seamlessly react to whatever happens when we’re in flow. I say frequently, “consequences are a flow trigger,” generally shaking my head and laughing over having done something I “had” to. Remember, risk can be social, relational, physical, emotional, economic, etc.
When something is different and new, we pay more attention. aided considerably by a hit of dopamine. We can use novelty by doing things like working in a different environment than normal to drive yourself into flow.
Complexity refers to lots of information coming at us at once, which also drives focus as our brains sort through it all! The complexity of the activity should not drive your system into overwhelm. Yet, it should not be so simple that your brain decides that it’s not worth paying extra attention to.
When we don’t know what will happen next, we pay more attention to the next and are driven into the “deep now,” our present experience. Also, because anything can happen, our brains release a huge amount of dopamine into the system, heightening attention and pattern recognition to help deal with the unknown since our survival could be at stake (speaking evolutionarily). Remember, one tactic is to reframe the anxiety of uncertainty to excitement!
Being connected to our bodies, to our senses, is a manner of decreasing cognitive load. Pay attention to different senses than you’re used to. Focus on breathing and feeling the breath (in or out of a meditation practice!). Tune into what you hear when sitting around in your house. Bring attention to different senses than are automatic for you. Build a practice of pulling more information in.
Clear goals reduce cognitive load – our brains don’t have to wonder what we should be doing. Goals are also an external focus, so recruit dopamine – the motivation and focus chemical, and also one of the first chemicals to show up in flow. The “clear” is in many ways more important than the “goal” in this context – with clarity, we are driven into the deep now where focus tightens, motivation increases, and irrelevant information is filtered out. We know what to do and where to put our attention while doing it. Clarity also helps prevent multi-tasking – if your brain isn’t sure what to do, it might swap between multiple things. But clear goals drive focus. Lack of clarity can also drive procrastination as your brain will try to switch to something easier, or just get distracted.
Feedback reduces cognitive load because we don’t have to wonder how we are doing. If clear goals
provide focus on what to do, immediate feedback gives us the input on how we’re doing and drops us further into the deep now. Real-time course correction creates amplified possibility – constant tweaking/evolution of goals with feedback increases the likelihood you’ll regularly drop into flow.
The idea here is to be in the flow channel, the sweet spot between boredom and anxiety. Whatever challenge we’re working on is hard enough that we’re paying attention (not bored), though not so far exceeding our skills that it kicks us into anxiety. Some very smart people have identified this is when the challenge/skills ratio = 4% . . . the challenge is 4% higher than your skills, the activity is 4% higher than your ability.
Creativity refers to developing original ideas that have value. Creativity is both a flow trigger and an output of flow. Another manner of thinking about creativity is called pattern recognition. This is the idea that our brain can recognize connections between disparate things, and convert them into an original idea. Pattern recognition gives us a hit of dopamine in our brain as well, which is one of the first chemicals to show up in Flow! So this is how having a creative insight can be a pathway into flow.