Published on March 3, 2014
17 FLOW TRIGGERS FOR OPTIMAL STATE OF CONSCIOUSNESS
WHAT IS FLOW ? FLOW is an optimal state of consciousness, a peak state where we both feel our best and perform our best. It is a transformation available to anyone, anywhere, provided that certain initial conditions are met.
WHAT IS FLOW ? “You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difﬁcult, and sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger.” — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
WHAT IS FLOW ? FLOW might be the most desirable state on earth; it’s also the most elusive. Seekers have spent centuries trying, yet no one has found a reliable way to reproduce the experience... (let alone with enough consistency to radically accelerate performance).
WHAT IS FLOW ? ...Except action and adventure sports athletes. Quite simply, THE ZONE is the only reason these athletes are surviving the big mountains, big waves, and big rivers.
When you’re pushing the limits of ultimate human performance, the choice is stark: it’s FLOW or DIE
ADVANCEMENTS in brain-imaging technologies like fMRI and consumer “quantiﬁed self” devices allow us to apply serious metrics where once was merely subjective experience.
FINALLY, we can ﬁgure out exactly what these athletes are doing to reliably reproduce this state, and apply this knowledge across the additional domains of self and society.
17 FLOW TRIGGERS
FLOW TRIGGERS are circumstances that speed entrance into the state and come in four varieties: 4 Psychological 3 Evironmental 9 Social 1 Creative
PSYCHOLOGICAL TRIGGERS Psychological Triggers are internal strategies that drive attention into the now.
PSYCHOLOGICAL TRIGGER #1 Intensely Focused Attention Producing flow requires long periods of uninterrupted concentration. Deep focus. This means multi-tasking is out. Open ofﬁce plans as well. Flow demands singular tasks and it demands solitude.
PSYCHOLOGICAL TRIGGER #2 Clear Goals Know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it—that’s the point. When goals are clear, the mind doesn’t wonder what it has to do next, it already knows. Our focus can stay pinned to the present moment and the present action.
PSYCHOLOGICAL TRIGGER #3 Immediate Feedback As a focusing mechanism, immediate feedback is something of an extension of clear goals. Clear goals tell us what we’re doing; immediate feedback tells us how to do it better. If we know how to improve performance in real time, the mind doesn’t go off in search of clues for betterment, we can keep ourselves fully present and fully focused and thus much more likely to be in flow.
PSYCHOLOGICAL TRIGGER #4 The Challenge/Skills Ratio Flow exists near (but not on) the midline between boredom and anxiety. If the task is too dull, attention disengages and action and awareness cannot merge. If the task is too hard, fear starts to spike, and we begin looking for ways to extricate ourselves from the situation. In other words, the challenge needs to be slightly greater than the skills we bring to the table. If you can keep yourself in this sweet spot, then you can drive attention into the now and maximize the amount of flow in your life.
ENVIRONMENTAL TRIGGERS Environmental triggers are qualities in the environment that drive people deeper into the ZONE.
ENVIRONMENTAL TRIGGER #1 High Consequences When there’s danger lurking in the environment, we don’t need to concentrate extra hard to drive focus, the elevated risk levels do the job for us. Since survival is fundamental to any organism, our brain’s ﬁrst priority is to scour all incoming information for any sign of a threat and focus intently upon it. A big wave surfer may need to ride Jaws to pull this trigger, but an ordinary shy guy needs only to cross a room to talk to a pretty gal to do the same.
ENVIRONMENTAL TRIGGER #2 Rich Environment A rich environment means an environment with lots of novelty, unpredictability and complexity—three things that catch and focus our attention much like risk. If we don’t know what happens next, we pay more attention to the next. Complexity, meanwhile, when there’s lots of information coming at us at once, does more of the same.
ENVIRONMENTAL TRIGGER #3 Deep Embodiment A rich environment means an environment with lots of novelty, unpredictability and complexity— three things that catch and focus our attention much like risk. If we don’t know what happens next, we pay more attention to the next. Complexity, meanwhile, when there’s lots of information coming at us at once, does more of the same.
SOCIAL TRIGGERS Social trigger are ways to alter social conditions to produce more group flow.
SOCIAL TRIGGER #1 Serious Concentration In sports, complete concentration is required because games move past. You need to be aware of your teammates and opponents. If they lose focus and start thinking about what is for dinner, or other things, they’ll quickly be overrun. To create similar flow in social settings, it can help to ensure everyone has their maximum attention to the here and now and blocked off from other distractions.
SOCIAL TRIGGER #2 Shared, Clear Goals Groups need to be clear about what their collective goal is in order for flow to happen. The key to group flow is a balancing act: creating a goal that provides enough focus so the team members can tell when they are close to a solution, but one that is open enough for creativity to exist.
SOCIAL TRIGGER #3 Good Communication Constant communication is necessary for group flow. Even while deep listening, the conversation must move forward. This follows the most important rule of improv: “Yes, and…” Listen closely on what is being said, accept it, and build upon it. Nothing blocks flow more than ignoring or negating a group member.
SOCIAL TRIGGER #4 Familiarity The group has a common language, a shared knowledge base and a communication style based on unspoken understandings. It means everybody is always on the same page, and, when novel insights arise, momentum is not lost due to the need for lengthy explanation.
SOCIAL TRIGGER #5 Equal Participation (and Skill Level) Flow is most likely to happen in a group setting when all participants have an equal role in the project. For this reason, all members should have similar skill levels. Think of professional athletes playing with amateurs. The professionals will be bored and the amateurs frustrated.
SOCIAL TRIGGER #6 Risk The potential for failure. Innovation and frequent failure go hand in hand. There’s no creativity without failure, and there’s no group flow without the risk of failure. Mental, physical, creative, whatever—the group has to have some skin in the game to produce group flow.
SOCIAL TRIGGER #7 Sense Of Control Combines autonomy (being free to do what you want) and competence (being good at what you do). It’s about getting to choose your own challenges and having the necessary skills to surmount them.
SOCIAL TRIGGER #8 Close Listening We’re fully engaged in the here and now. In conversation, this isn’t about thinking about what witty thing to say next, or what cutting sarcasm came last. Rather, it’s generating real time, unplanned responses to the dialogue as it unfolds. Innovation is blocked when one or more participants already has a preconceived idea of what the person is going to say, or how to get to a goal. Doing so keeps them from listening to what is really said and working from there.
SOCIAL TRIGGER #9 Always Say Yes This means interactions should be additive more than argumentative. The goal is the momentum, togetherness, and innovation that comes from amplifying each other’s ideas and actions. It’s a trigger based on the ﬁrst rule of improv comedy. If I open a sketch with, “Hey, there’s a blue elephant in the bathroom;” then, “No, there’s not,” is the wrong response. With the denial, the scene goes nowhere. But if the reply is afﬁrmative instead: “Yeah, sorry, there was no more space in the cereal cupboard”—well then that story goes someplace interesting.
CREATIVE TRIGGER #1 Creativity If you look under the hood of creativity, what you see is: Pattern recognition—the brain's ability to link new ideas together, and Risk-taking—the courage to bring those new ideas into the world. Both are flow triggers. Creativity triggers flow; then flow enhances creativity.
17 FLOW TRIGGERS Intensely Focused Attention Good Communication Clear Goals Familiarity Equal Participation (and Skill Level) Immediate Feedback The Challenge/Skills Ratio High Consequences Rich Environment Deep Embodiment Serious Concentration Shared, Clear Goals Risk Sense of Control Close Listening Always Say Yes Creativity
STEVEN KOTLER is a New York Times bestselling author, and award-winning journalist. His articles have appeared in over 70 publications, including: New York Times Magazine, Wired, Discover, Popular Science, Outside, GQ, and National Geographic. Kotler is also the co-founder and director of research for the Flow Genome Project, an organization dedicated to decoding ultimate human performance.
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