Have you ever been so engaged in a conversation that your afternoon just seemed to fly by? Or been so absorbed in a work project that nothing else seemed to matter? Or been so immersed in playing a sport you love that time just disappeared?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, then you’ve most likely experienced a flow state.
Also known as being in “the zone,” flow represents an optimal state of consciousness. When Bradley Beal famously said, “The hoop was just like an ocean and I was just dropping rocks in it. That’s how big it felt. That’s how easy it felt, too,” he was most definitely describing a deep flow state. It’s a peak state where we both feel and perform our best. You don’t have to be a professional athlete to experience this either. Anyone, anywhere, can experience a flow state, provided certain initial conditions are met.
What is Flow?
The double backflip was once considered a thing of fantasy, but is now routinely seen on the ski slope. And people are now surfing waves up to 80-feet high. What was once thought athletically impossible has been proven achievable, further pushing the boundaries of human limits.
How are these incredible feats of human performance explained? Author and flow expert Steven Kotler argues, quite convincingly, that these extraordinary feats are accomplished by entering the flow state.
Steven Kotler has written about this state of peak performance for many years, most recently in a great book called The Rise of Superman (affiliate link).
Kotler explains, “Flow is a hyper-focused state. We are so focused on the task at hand that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Time flies. Self vanishes. Performance goes through the roof.”
In his book The Rise of Superman, Kotler expands on the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, diving deep into the nature of flow states to find what exactly makes for optimal human performance. His exploration leads him to adventure athletes – surfers, skiers, snowboarders, white water rafters, kayakers, skateboarders, and mountain bikers – who seem to have figured out a way to routinely achieve this coveted state of flow.
Kotler argues that the ability to consistently enter a flow state explains the exponential rate at which athletes have broken records in the last 20 years.
So you might be thinking – why does all this matter to me, sitting at my computer not one bit interested in doing a double backflip or surfing an 80-foot wave?
If you have any interest in performing better in the gym or having more fun playing your weekend sport, or being more creative, or just feeling more alive, then flow states definitely matter to you!
The bottom line is this – if you can access flow more often in your life, you can greatly enhance your overall life-quality. You become more present.
You truly can become superhuman.
Flow is Accessible to Everyone
The more we learn about human performance, the more apparent it becomes that no one is uniquely “superhuman” or has innate abilities of superhuman nature. Excellence is available to everyone. So even if you were blessed with “normal” genes, you too can perform at the highest levels.
Greatness is attainable for everyone, no matter where you are or what you do!
If you’re looking to achieve your own greatness and become superhuman, learning how to access a flow state more often will certainly help.
5 Ways to Hack Your Athletic Flow
According to his research, Kotler identified 17 different flow triggers. I’m going to dive deeper into the 5 most powerful. Meet at least one of the following conditions and you’ll find flow:
1) High Consequence / Risk Taking
Cus D’amato, former boxing trainer, said, “The hero and the coward both feel the same thing, but the hero uses his fear, projects it onto his opponent, while the coward runs. It’s the same thing, fear, but it’s what you do with it that matters.”
As risk increases, two important neurochemicals are released from the brain that helps you focus and perform better. For this to activate your flow state, you’ll need to enjoy risk, or at least be more comfortable with it.
The trick is to change how you perceive risk, by relating it to a challenge instead of danger. When risk is perceived as a challenge, you can use it to guide you and elevate you to a new level of performance. Fear will always be there – using it to your advantage is what’s really important.
It’s easy to conjure up physical examples of risk, like a big wave surfer who’s charging a 50-foot wave. But risks don’t just have to be physical – mental, emotional, and creative risks can induce a flow state too.
2) Deep, Intense, Singular Focus
Long, uninterrupted periods of focus are needed to trigger a flow state – like focusing on a single task for a set amount of time. This is why having a quiet and distraction-free workspace is so vital to producing good quality work. Flow takes time to build, and it only takes just one tiny distraction to snap you out of it, catapulting you into a multitasking frenzy of unproductivity.
Turn off notifications on your phone, block yourself from distraction-prone websites, and block out chunks of uninterrupted time on your schedule to help you get into a deep, focused space and achieve flow.
3) Rich Environment
Kotler describes rich environments as a combination of novelty, unpredictability, and complexity, all of which attract and hold our attention in much the same way as risk. Take surfing: each wave is unique, unpredictable and novel. Plus, the ocean is as complex an organism as you can get. It’s no accident that surfers often experience flow states.
Nature works really well for rich environments – think about the ocean or the mountains as great backdrops to access flow.
4) Accurate Skill / Challenge Ratio
If something is too difficult or scary, fear spikes and you’ll try to get the hell out of there. Alternatively, if the task is too boring, you’ll disengage. It’s all about locating the perfect balance that’s slightly above your skill level, yet still attainable.
Identifying the sweet spot is a little tricky, but it seems to hover around 4% above your natural skill levels. That may not be much, but this 4% challenge increase can require you to focus entirely on the task-at-hand and push your performance. A similar and widely studied theory is Yerkes-Dodson law, which finds that increased emotional arousal, such as anxiety, can sharpen performance, but peaks at a certain point. Too much, and you’ll experience a decline in performance.
5) Clear Goals
Clarifying the reason behind what you’re doing will keep your brain from wandering or getting distracted. When you’re fully present in the moment, you can stay laser-focused on the task at hand.
Ready to get into flow?
Try out one of these flow triggers and keep me posted on how it goes in the comments below.
I feel so strongly about flow states that we’ve created a whole coaching program around active passion over at Saltwater Fit, which is all about finding activities that get you into flow states. Read more about Active Passion here.
The bottom line is that greatness is available to everyone right now, and you truly can become superhuman. Find what gets you into your flow state!
Ideas worth implementing, well I am gonna go execute it.
Awesome article yet again, Nick. I think the photos thanks to Kristin also really help bring it to life.