The world needs a lot more creativity, both in coming up with ideas, as well as ensuring their execution. In Part 1 of this series, I outlined a deep dive into the science of the state of Flow derived from Steven Kotler’s book 'The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance'. Part 2 is a more practical examination of how to introduce flow into our everyday lives.
While there is a solid argument that flow is the secret sauce behind the rapid development of adventure sports, it also plays a huge part in normal mental activities. Writers, poets, painters, sculptors, dancers, musicians composers and film-makers all leverage peak performance in pursuit of their craft.
It also plays an important part in creative industries like marketing, advertising, and within startups. New campaign ideas are born from flow states. Developers writing code have heavy zone triggers. Flow is also thought to be secret ingredient in a lot of online ideas that stick - things like website stickiness, customer attraction, mitigation of price sensitivity, and influence on buying behaviors.
Below I have outlined some starters gleaned from a wide variety of sources that touch on techniques to maximize the potential for flow. A lot of these may sound new age or esoteric in nature; what’s required is an open mindset and the desire to experiment with the different applications to stick with what works for you.
A Flow Refresher
Before we jump into techniques, let’s do a quick refresher on flow - happiness defined by peak creative performance.
Flow is best expressed as a four part ‘flow cycle’. Note, interestingly a lot of this theory echoes the model ‘A Technique for Producing Ideas’ by James Webb Young.
Step 1: Struggle
Our first step is a loading phase. We need to overload the brain with information (novel stimuli) from our baseline state.
In the business world, this will kick start with the creative problem we need to solve, or an issue that has emerged. We begin to soak up inputs like research, analysis, analytics, briefings - in other words, fact finding.
As we focus on the task, we create tension, which often leads to frustration. The problem seems unsolvable, our efforts feel like they are unsustainable, and the destination cloudy - the little voice in your head might be telling you that the solution is impossible.
Our brains begin to engage in pattern recognition. We repeat our analysis over and over again until they become chunks. This process may feel quite awkward and uncomfortable. We must move through this struggle phase and have faith in our ability to deliver a creative outcome.
Step 2: Release
This step involves taking your mind off the problem, and severing prior thought and emotional patterns. Triggering flow can only come from relaxation, so maintaining high stress levels will not allow you to unleash creative outcomes. We need to let things percolate, and let the body and mind relax.
Step 3: Flow Action
Struggle gives way to release, which triggers our flow action state. We may start to experience some of the flow elements, spiking our high speed problem solving, deep insight and perfect decision making capabilities.
Step 4: Recovery
A final often overlooked stage. Flow requires a lot of exertion on the body, draining energy and playing with powerful neurochemistry. We need to rest, allowing the brain to consolidate new patterns and memories, and a ‘level up’ to a new and improved baseline state.
We want more flow in our lives. The following techniques provide some experiments to try and maximize our abilities to move into flow, divided into Personal, Environmental, and Social.
- Ensuring you are fit is a great start towards flow. Being fit means you can process and manage stress more readily, that you are more energized, and feel more positive. While any type of fitness is a bonus, high intensity training like sprints is great from a stress management perspective. Long walks are also good to leverage as they get the blood flowing, so try and leave the desk in favor of moving around (there is a reason why Steve Jobs practiced the walk and talk meeting).
- Go swimming. When your face comes into contact with cold water, you trigger the mammalian dive reflex and your heartbeat slows (great for stress relief). Take up surfing or kayaking. Both are packed with flow triggers.
- Practice more play in your life. Charlie Hoeh wrote a great book called ‘Play it Away: A Workaholics Cure for Anxiety’ which advocates having play time like children. Instead of a meeting in a board room, go outside and throw a ball around as you chat. Find a hobby to engage with at night. It may just help reduce stress and increase focus in your life.
- Seek out deep embodiment. Practice full body awareness. Check out Mindfulness Meditation, which builds concentration and presence through body scanning and breathing. Look at practices with more balance or agility focus like yoga, tai chi, Zen walking, or martial arts.
- Video Games are packed with flow triggers, due to their deep concentration and “leveling up” feedback loops. For an extra flow kick add games that leverage elements of body movement.
- Play an instrument. It requires concentration, and gives great feedback loops. Practicing alone is fine, but playing in a group will help with things like pattern recognition - think jazz musicians (but also remember that their spontaneity comes from years of focused practice).
- Practice humility. Arrogance and ego can cause you to shut out incoming information, and avoid complexity, novelty or unpredictability. Think a lot more in the grey, and always remember to question things and expand your mental models.
- Develop a stronger growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset. Accept that you will need to learn new things and expand your skills. Play around when you start something. Be free. But learn what is and isn’t working.
- Don’t let fear hold you back. Remember that when you do something, the first few steps don’t dictate the final product. A great example from Dan Carlin is to watch the first few episodes of Seinfeld - it isn’t the accepted Seinfeld yet because they are still finding their creative voice.
- From James Altucher, practice something physical, emotional, mental and spiritual every day. Try and get better at each by 1% each week.
- While the ability to multitask might seem like a need in our complex world, humans make terrible multitaskers. Ensure that you practice focusing on one key task instead of juggling many. Develop your focus.
- Remember that focus is a finite resource but it can be built up like a muscle. Practice the Pomodoro technique - set a timer for a 20 minute burst, and take a short break afterwards that is mentally disengaging (so avoid things like checking Facebook in favor of relaxed sitting). Increase the timer over time.
- Once you finish a break, don’t immediately jump into checking email or your phone - this is an input. Instead, focus on an output.
- Try and move from being reactive to maximizing your creative process through your daily architecture. Set periods of creative focus that are not interrupted by meetings or interruptions. Remove busy work in favor of deeper creative thinking.
- Try and avoid decision fatigue. Reduce the need for too many trivial choices that may derail your focus.
- Set clear goals. This is not just about just setting what we need to do, or understanding why we need to do something. It is more about narrowing down our focus on a task. The important inflection here is "clear" not "goals". Clarity gives us certainty, allowing us to apply ourselves in the moment and keep our self out of the picture.
- Chunk out goals into smaller, bite sized chunks. Think about writing - it is better to set a goal of penning three great pages at a time, instead of one great chapter. Work in the space of challenging but manageable.
- Immediate feedback means direct coupling between cause and effect. The smaller the gap between input and output, the more we know how we're doing and how to do it better. If we can't course correct in real time, we start looking for clues to better performance - things we did in the past, things we've seen other people do, and things that pull us out of the moment (in other words, not innovative). Having immediate feedback means our attention doesn't have to wander.
- Practice the Roger Bannister effect. Engage in positive visualization. This helps chunking and pattern recognition, shortening the struggle phase.
- Lateralization. Look outside your own domain for inspiration. This helps expose you to new inputs and new ways of thinking (overloading us with new information). When problems arise, it can be difficult or dangerous to move forward, so lateralization can help.
- Accept failure. Fail fast. Fail more often. And learn from your mistakes. When you recognize the patterns in the future, you deliver better output.
- Develop a single minded focus - a “fire in the belly”. You can teach someone something new, but it is much harder to teach someone to have fire in the belly so make it part of your daily practice.
- Do the things you hate. This is an exercize in teaching grit, which can help in maintaining focus and energy when things are down. Learn to see beauty in struggle and pain. Change your relationship to fear, anxiety, restlessness, and nerves - re-channel them into positive output.
- Don’t strive for dominance. This is self defeating, ego driven and toxic for the soul. Learn to live in the transition, the in-betweens. Remember that “music is the space between the notes”.
- Practice unlearning, or the beginners mind. Constant subtraction and reduction. Break down tough problems into their first principles - their most basic parts. This allows you to see how unromantic the problem is, which forces the object to lose its power.
- Understand and remove cognitive bias if they pop up. We can waste a huge amount of time having an assumption and coming up with new ways to justify that assumption. Learn to release thoughts and emotions as the variables change. Remove an addiction to past evaluation in favor of the reality right now. This requires presence, and a filter that is devoid of emotion.
- Practice creative output before input when you wake up. Don’t check your phone first thing, instead write down your thoughts and any ideas that have percolated throughout the night.
- Practice journaling. Keep a commonplace book. Write down your daily achievements, not the negatives. And then reflect on the previous day each new day (there are a lot of good online tools for this if you shun the old paper and pen method).
- Try the Hemingway technique. Don’t finish everything before bed. Relax your mind from the task and be comfortable in it’s non-completion. Wake up and apply your rested mind to the problem first thing. Work in bursts.
- End the day with quality. A good metaphor is skiing - make your last three runs of the day your best and most focused even if you are dead tired. This will go a long way to better internalize your habits.
- Allow yourself to recover every now and then. Take vacations. Go somewhere amazing. Recharge the batteries. This has the added benefit of discovering new ideas and world-views.
- Seek out rich environments. These are a combination of novelty (danger and opportunity), unpredictability (the unknown) and complexity (a lot of salient information coming in at once). The goal is to eliminate the wandering mind and focus.
- Seek out complexity in nature. Stare at the night sky, wander in the woods, surf your city on google earth. If you are stuck in the city, go see Interstellar at IMAX.
- Seek out novelty. Take a different route to work each day. Brush your teeth with your wrong hand. Try and break old habits and routines. Allow for serendipity. New patterns mean better chances for creative recombination.
- Technology means we now exist in a distracted present. Instead of having a stable foothold in the now, we end up reacting to the ever-present assault of simultaneous impulses and commands. Email and mobile alerts are terrible expressions of this - they keep our stress levels spiked as we wait for new alerts, and mess with dopamine production. Try limiting their influence to specific ‘check times’ in the day.
- Rethink the application of the traditional office cubicle farms. This creates a delicate balance between collaboration and stress. Open offices are packed with potential flow interruptions, so make sure they are balanced with spaces to ensure heads down uninterrupted work can take place, while not detracting from group flow.
- Set up a sacred work space. No one else is allowed in there, and no interruptions while you are chasing flow. If you work from home, set up a work specific space that is for this task only.
- Buzzword alert, but learn to embrace risk and failure. From Ned Hallowell, "To reach flow, one must be willing to take risks. The lover must lay bare his soul and risk rejection and humiliation to enter this state. The athlete must be willing to risk physical harm, even loss of life, to enter this state. The artist must be willing to be scorned and despised by critics and the public and still push on. And the average person - you and me - must be willing to fail, look foolish, and fall flat on our faces should we wish to enter this state." Risk is a reason that startups are currently such hot properties, so take note of this when thinking about traditional businesses.
- Create a culture of ownership in organizations. Set clear goals, empower teams, and then unleash them on the creative problems at hand. Don’t stifle or slow down creativity and innovation with unnecessary hierarchies and middle management.
- Group dynamics can create group flow. The most important feature of this is that group flow can often correlate to higher flow enjoyment due to the sharing of experiences (think team sports). Encouraging group flow can lead to greater spontaneity, cooperation, communication, creativity, productivity, and performance boosts.
- Group flow has ten triggers - use this as a guide when designing group flow situations. The triggers are serious concentration, shared clear goals, good communication, equal participation, elements of risk, familiarity (a common language, shared knowledge base, and everyone on the same page), blending egos (no one is holding the spotlight and everyone is involved), a sense of control (autonomy and a sense of control combined with competence or being good at what you do), close listening (full engagement in the here and now), always say yes (interactions should be additive more than argumentative, have momentum, and build on others ideas and actions. Think improv comedy, and building “yes and” statements and positive step ladders).
- Tighten feedback loops in organizations. Don't think quarterly reviews, think daily reviews. A great example is from medicine - the only doctors who tend to not get worse over time are surgeons. They have a direct and immediate feedback loop with their patients on their tables because they can die, so they stay focused on the task at hand. A great example of this are Google’s OKR’s.
- Beware the HIPPO (the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion). Ideas should be measured on their quality, not who suggests it (or their pay grade). Strive to create a meritocracy, not a “tenurocracy”. Allow dissent and the questioning of ideas - someone always needs to play devils advocate.
- Place managers at the bottom of the org chart - they work for the team. Customers come first, and then the people making things. Managers are necessary, but should be second fiddle to the development of a great product or service.
- More people doesn’t mean more flow. Practice the two pizza team rule.
- Establish a culture of ‘yes’. ‘No’ stifles innovation and creativity. Don’t build barriers to new ideas.
- Encourage chatting and interaction at work, which is a great step towards group flow. Something as simple as a weekly meet-up on Friday afternoons with the entire organization can do wonders.
- Join a cult. I don’t mean shave your head and then drink the Kool Aid, but join an online community, create videos on YouTube, write a blog, teach a class, sell something online, or make things. This will show group dynamics at play, and give insights to what energizes a group into action.
Understanding your own personal triggers for flow is an ongoing journey. I hope the above will give you a platform to experiment with different approaches to achieving more flow in your life, and the output of more creative ideas and better decisions.
Have you found anything specific that helps you get into the zone? Let me know what works for you in the comments below.
This post continues my series on Mental Models.