By Brent Moore, CSCS
The concept of flow is a mental state originally described by a psychologist name Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. This state is the state of being completely immersed and focused in a given moment or task. Flow is the mental state that occurs when a perfect golf game is played, when a ski run is flawlessly executed, when a musical piece seems to play itself through the hands of the artist as if he is merely a conduit for the musical masterpiece. Flow is also achieved in business. You may have felt this when you sit down and things seem to just click every step of the way. Your work is effortless and you feel ecstatic and accomplished with every stroke of a key or every decision being made. Flow is the state of perfect concentration in a moment. Things just seem to “flow.”
The question that everybody wanting constant optimal performance seeks to answer is how flow can be achieved in daily life. Is there a way to make sure that whenever you need to get something done, can you tap into this state of flow and do it in the best possible way with the least amount of struggle? People chase flow to the point of taking drugs in an attempt to artificially induce the state. CEO’s and Wall Street execs have been known to pop the anti-narcolepsy pill Modafinil for its wakefulness effects and purported ability to increase concentration. A whole new class of supplements, known as nootropics, has grown out of the desire to achieve a higher state of awareness and optimal performance. The use of drugs like cocaine and ecstasy mimic some of the effects of being in a flow state, but the negative effects and the lack of synergy with the other neurochemicals associated with flow makes these a bad choice for anybody not wanting to go to prison or die prematurely (Kotler, 2014)
The answer in creating flow really comes down to creating the environment necessary for flow. One of the most cited conditions and often the most remembered condition for flow is high risk. Think of any daredevil, extreme athlete, or even the nervous public speaker that nails their performance. All of these people are in a high risk, or at least perceived high risk, environment and when things go well, they will often report the feelings closely associated with flow, such as out of body experience, euphoria, and sensation of being one with the task. Though flow state can often be seen in high risk environments, I would argue that the state is more often achieved in environments that are much lower risk. The writer is not in a high risk environment, neither is the musician, computer programmer, or painter. While it is true that a high risk environment may make it easier to enter the state of flow, it is not necessary.
High risk environment creates a flow state because it demands extreme concentration to ensure success. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi outlined several conditions necessary for a flow state to be achieved, one of which is complete concentration on a given task. The others include clarity of goals, knowing what needs to be accomplished; clear and immediate feedback for the task; and a sense of control about the task being accomplished (Boniwell, n.d.).
In order to create the necessary conditions for a flow state or at least a state where optimal performance can be achieved, there are several steps necessary.
- You have to know what you are doing and why.
- You have to ensure that clear and immediate feedback is given.
- You have to believe the task at hand is a challenge.
- You have to have a belief that your skill level for the task is high.
- You have to remove distractions.
All of these items sound easy enough, but can prove very difficult, so we are going to break them down one at a time. Knowing what you are doing and why is very important, and should be relatively easy. What is it that you are trying to accomplish? Why are you wanting to accomplish it? Create a plan before you begin the task. Know exactly what you are going to do and how you are going to do it.
Ensuring immediate feedback just means there has to be something telling you that you are doing a good job or not. This can be something as simple as actually typing words rather than just staring at a screen. This can get far more complicated depending on the task. In my experience, when completing firearms training, using reactive targets that both lay down and ring out when struck allow a much greater learning environment because of the immediate feedback. The sound and movement created one of the necessary conditions for flow, which is not present when shooting paper targets. In sales, the immediate feedback may be the physical or verbal response of customers. The body language cues given back when speaking to someone can provide the necessary feedback.
Believing the task at hand is a challenge is really just another way of saying that you need to challenge yourself. If you are doing something that is easy, you are not likely to enter a flow state. A master saxophonist is not likely going to enter a flow state when playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Try things that are hard for you. This is another way of looking at something as high risk, which we already know can help induce a flow state. At the same time, you should have the skill necessary to complete the task. In the same way a master saxophonist will not reach flow by not challenging himself, a person who has never touched a saxophone will not likely enter flow state trying to emulate Kenny G. This means that you have to practice the task that you are going to accomplish. Study it, read about it, become an expert at the task and then push yourself to the next level. Learn from the best, learn new techniques, and try them out over time.
The final thing is remove distractions. This is often easier said than done, especially in today’s society. Cell phones, computer screens, traffic, kids, work, chores, and countless other daily activities, stressors, and concerns beckon for our attention every second of the day. We often have to be able to switch focus very quickly between several things at once in order to accomplish anything because there are so many things necessary to accomplish. This will not ensure optimal performance. You have to remove distractions. This means turning off the phone or putting it out of sight. This may mean secluding yourself from others for the time it takes to accomplish a task. Music can sometimes actually help block out distractions, assuming the music itself is not distracting. Becoming present in the here and now is likely the most important condition necessary to create a state of flow. Learn to pay attention to everything you do and every interaction you have. If you are often told that you seem distracted, then that is the first place to start. Learn to let go of those distractions. There is nothing wrong with multi-tasking if you are actually completing those tasks at high levels, but a singular focus on each task in its given time will likely produce better results.
I know that you may be wondering what this has to do with health and fitness. The first and easiest answer is that when you are working at optimal levels, stress will decrease, enjoyment will increase, sleep will get better, appetites will improve, and your hormones will likely be more balanced. The next answer is that working out under the same conditions necessary for flow is going to provide you with the greatest results in the gym. Now, I do not expect people to be floating around the gym and effortlessly deadlifting 600 pounds, but I am sure you have had those workouts that just felt great. You knew what you were doing and why, you pushed your ability while staying within the parameters of your capability, you received immediate feedback in the lifting of heavier weights, and you were completely focused.
As a coach, I see people in the gym all the time distracted by their cell phones, the news on the television, discussions with fellow members, and situations outside of the gym. Fitness, health, and a great workout start with being present. Flow starts with being present. If something is worth doing, it is worth doing it right. That means putting the time in to learn the skill, pushing yourself to the next level of achievement in the skill, taking in and adjusting to feedback, and giving undivided attention to what you are doing. Achieving the state of flow may not always be as simple as creating the perfect conditions, but creating the right conditions will help ensure that performance is at or near optimal levels in anything we do.
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Boniwell, I. (n.d.). Positive Psychology UK. Retrieved May 16, 2016, from http://positivepsychology.org.uk/pp-theory/flow/30-living-in-flow.html
Kotler, S. (2014). Steven Kotler: The Rise of Superman – #109. Retrieved May 16, 2016, from https://www.bulletproofexec.com/109-steven-kotler-and-the-rise-of-superman-podcast/