5 Dead Simple Ways to Get Into Flow
The fundamentals you need to get in the Flow race
Action sports athletes have broken more records in the past decade than in all of history. Feats like surfing a 100-foot wave which was considered suicide a few years ago were now being performed regularly by every athlete. What seemed impossible then, has become a warm-up exercise now.
How is it possible?
Steven Kotler, the author of “Rise of Superman”, spent time chasing these athletes to understand the secret to their performance. Naturally, he broke a lot of bones. That’s what happens when a normal person does action sports without training. Soon his injuries forced him to take a few months off from work.
When he came back to the athletes, he was startled.
The challenges that were considered impossible when he went home, were now not only being tried but iterated upon. He realized that the growth was exponential, not incremental.
He then spent all his time asking the same question over and over — where the hell is this progress coming from?
The answer was Flow. Wherever he saw the impossible happening, there was flow.
Flow is an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best. It’s moments of wrapped attention and total absorption. The sense of self vanishes and time slows down.
A more logical reason for calling it flow is you accomplish your goals effortlessly. The actions and decisions just flow in a sequence. There’s no thinking, just flowing.
Steven has spent most of his life fascinated by this idea. He’s written books like “The Rise of Superman”, “Tomorrowland”, “Abundance”, “Bold”, and “Stealing Fire”, all of which look at how people are doing the impossible in numerous fields. These include the Navy SEALs, tech companies, athletes, scientists, and much more.
These books make me realize an important phenomenon. There exists a gap between all of us, probably as big as the rich-and-poor gap.
And that is the gap between those who can focus and those who can’t.
In a 10-year study conducted by McKinsey, top executives reported being five times more productive in flow. Think about that for a moment. This means, if you can spend Monday in flow, you’ll get as much done as your steady-state peers do in a week. In fact, according to these same McKinsey researchers, if we could increase the time we spend in flow by 15–20%, overall workplace productivity would almost double.
This creates a massive advantage for companies who understand the importance of flow and nurture it.
Make no mistake, it’s a race.
But the good news is that entry is free, albeit not easy. The flow state is available to everyone. And here are some practical ways to get your foot in the door.
“Fuck off I’m Flowing”
If you cannot put a sign on your door that says, “Fuck off, I’m flowing” then you’re out of the race.
The optimal amount of time to work per session is 90–120 minutes. And by the way, that means, no messages, cell phones, interruptions, calls or notifications.
If you cannot muster the mental strength to work at that level, you’ll be lost. That’s how important this is.
It’s a basic requirement that cannot be avoided. Every distraction that pulls your attention away from the present moment has to be taken away.
For instance, to write this piece, I got up at 5:30 a.m, before anyone else in my house. To add to that, I’m using the Cold Turkey Writer which blocks everything on my computer until I’m done. It converts a Macbook into a typewriter.
Flow can only happen when we live in the here and now.
The problem is, more than ever, we all are chronically stressed. Most people are living on the edge of the fight-or-flight response. Something nice happens, you get too excited. Something bad happens, you crash back down. Maybe you’ve had too much coffee. Maybe you’ve had a heavy lunch followed by a dessert.
The reason may be psychological or physiological. But your nervous system always takes the hit.
One of the best ways to calm the nervous system is to meditate. If you can’t meditate, you at least need to have a breathing practice in place.
First, it’s easier to focus on and reduce mind-wandering. Even if you’re concentration is not solid, you can easily knock out ten-fifteen minutes of breathing without noticing.
Second, the cadence of inhaling, holding, and exhaling alleviates the fight-or-flight response in your nervous system. It reduces your reactive response to the environment to make space for creativity and thinking.
Here are a few breathing exercises to get you started.
According to research, meditation combined with talk therapy cured PTSD amongst soldiers coming from Iraq and Afghanistan, victims of child abuse, and those of sexual abuse. Four weeks of mantra-based meditation for twenty minutes a day completely removed PTSD.
So if you’re a person with anxiety or depression issues, this is a clear on-ramp for you to enter the flow states and change your life.
Get Off Your Ass
Exercise or movement of any kind induces transient hypofrontality.
In simple terms, it downregulates the activity in your prefrontal cortex temporarily. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for most cognitive functions in the brain but it can drive your attention to the past or the future, thereby kicking you out of the flow.
The good news is you can get there with a 20-minute walk.
Sterling Partners built a walking track around their office to encourage employees to take calls as they walk. Why? They want more flow.
If going for a short walk can put you in a better state, there’s no reason to not do it.
Once you do achieve flow in your life, you need to recover from it. Since so much information is passing through your mind and so much output is being produced, it is exhausting. You cannot remain in flow all the time.
Prioritize rest like any other activity. The world’s most successful personalities, layer periods of intense work, and intense rest together.
Alex Pang in his book Rest, notes a common pattern amongst the luminaries of our time.
They structure their lives around their work, but not their days. They were hard-working, ambitious, and skilled. But they weren’t necessarily working all the time.
They’d call it a day after working for almost five hours. And since many would do this early in the morning, they completed their most important work by noon.
People who have long, sustainable careers have something outside of work to help them recharge. Without some sort of support or deliberate rest, it isn’t possible to continue the level of hard work it takes to become a master in any field.
Take Lisa Randall, a theoretical physicist and a part of Harvard University faculty, for example. She literally has climbs named after her in Colorado.
Winston Churchill wrote a book on painting called Painting as a Pastime. It had nothing to do with his work, yet it had everything to do with his work.
Many scientists, authors, and creative professionals have a hobby that provides similar satisfaction as their work does. This is the main reason they get out of the office as compared to their peers who harm their productivity in the long-run.
Feed Yourself Quality Information
One of the best triggers of flow is creativity. And creativity, in essence, is linking separate ideas together to give birth to a new one.
This can only happen when you’re feeding your brain the right information which can then cross-pollinate.
To get your creative engines running, read something outside your field of work every day. Whether it’s an article or a book. It will give you new information that you can manipulate and find unique connections in your field.
There are lessons to be learned everywhere. You have to be willing to find them.
One Final Caveat
I’ve written about how chasing flow states can be counterintuitive. People get too excited when they hear about flow states and how they can achieve their goals ‘effortlessly’.
But those who think it’s easy, are often the lazy ones.
Flow takes work. Flow follows focus. Flow requires being present in the moment. And these are not easy feats.
Before you go on and become a flow junkie, realize that it’s hard work. You have to work on your focus and concentration. You have to practice the tips mentioned above. You have to take care of yourself. You have to recover. You have to structure your life around flow.
Don’t think of it as a shortcut. Focus on doing the work. Practice deliberately and work deeply. These skills compound over time. Once you do this, you’ll find yourself getting more flow in life automatically.
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