How to Enter a ‘Flow State’ on Command: Peak Performance Mind Hack Explained in 7 Minutes

You can be for­giv­en for think­ing the con­cept of “flow” was cooked up and pop­u­lar­ized by yoga teach­ers. That word gets a lot of play when one is mov­ing from Down­ward-Fac­ing Dog on through War­rior One and Two.

Actu­al­ly, flow — the state of  “effort­less effort” — was coined by Goethe, from the Ger­man “rausch”, a dizzy­ing sort of ecsta­sy.

Friedrich Niet­zsche and psy­chol­o­gist William James both con­sid­ered the flow state in depth, but social the­o­rist Mihaly Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi, author of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Flow and the Psy­chol­o­gy of Dis­cov­ery and Inven­tion, is the true giant in the field. Here’s one of his def­i­n­i­tions of flow:

Being com­plete­ly involved in an activ­i­ty for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, move­ment, and thought fol­lows inevitably from the pre­vi­ous one, like play­ing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.

Author Steven Kotler, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the Flow Research Col­lec­tive, not only seems to spend a lot of time think­ing about flow, as a lead­ing expert on human per­for­mance, he inhab­its the state on a fair­ly reg­u­lar basis, too.

Chalk it up to good luck?

Good genes? (Some researchers, includ­ing retired NIH geneti­cist Dean Hamer and psy­chol­o­gist C. Robert Cloninger, think genet­ics play a part…)

As Kotler points out above, any­one can hedge their bets by clear­ing away dis­trac­tions — all the usu­al bad­dies that inter­fere with sleep, per­for­mance, or pro­duc­tiv­i­ty.

It’s also impor­tant to know thy­self. Kotler’s an ear­ly bird, who gets crackin’ well before sun­rise:

I don’t just open my eyes at 4:00 AM, I try to go from bed to desk before my brain even kicks out of its Alpha wave state. I don’t check any emails. I turn every­thing off at the end of the day includ­ing unplug­ging my phones and all that stuff so that the next morn­ing there’s nobody jump­ing into my inbox or assault­ing me emo­tion­al­ly with some­thing, you know what I mean?… I real­ly pro­tect that ear­ly morn­ing time.

By con­trast, his night owl wife doesn’t start clear­ing the cob­webs ’til ear­ly evening.

In the above video for Big Think, Kotler notes that 22 flow trig­gers have been dis­cov­ered, pre-con­di­tions that keep atten­tion focused in the present moment.

His web­site lists many of those trig­gers:

  • Com­plete Con­cen­tra­tion in the Present Moment
  • Imme­di­ate Feed­back
  • Clear Goals
  • The Chal­lenge-Skills Ratio (ie: the chal­lenge should seem slight­ly out of reach
  • High con­se­quences 
  • Deep Embod­i­ment 
  • Rich Envi­ron­ment 
  • Cre­ativ­i­ty (specif­i­cal­ly, pat­tern recog­ni­tion, or the link­ing togeth­er of new ideas)

Kotler also shares Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na psy­chol­o­gist Kei­th Sawyer’s trig­ger list for groups hop­ing to flow like a well-oiled machine:

  • Shared Goals
  • Close Lis­ten­ing 
  • “Yes And” (addi­tive, rather than com­bat­ive con­ver­sa­tions)
  • Com­plete Con­cen­tra­tion (total focus in the right here, right now)
  • A sense of con­trol (each mem­ber of the group feels in con­trol, but still
  • Blend­ing Egos (each per­son can sub­merge their ego needs into the group’s)
  • Equal Par­tic­i­pa­tion (skills lev­els are rough­ly equal every­one is involved)
  • Famil­iar­i­ty (peo­ple know one anoth­er and under­stand their tics and ten­den­cies)
  • Con­stant Com­mu­ni­ca­tion (a group ver­sion of imme­di­ate feed­back)
  • Shared, Group Risk

One might think peo­ple in the flow state would be float­ing around with an expres­sion of ecsta­t­ic bliss on their faces. Not so, accord­ing to Kotler. Rather, they tend to frown slight­ly. Good news for any­one with rest­ing bitch face!

(We’ll thank you to refer to it as rest­ing flow state face from here on out.)

Relat­ed Con­tent

Cre­ativ­i­ty, Not Mon­ey, is the Key to Hap­pi­ness: Dis­cov­er Psy­chol­o­gist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s The­o­ry of “Flow”

David Lynch Explains How Sim­ple Dai­ly Habits Enhance His Cre­ativ­i­ty

“The Phi­los­o­phy of “Flow”: A Brief Intro­duc­tion to Tao­ism

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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Comments (7)
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  • Francois says:

    Been using flow state for close to 40 years when doing soft­ware devel­op­ment and can iden­ti­fy with most of the points. I have heard of groups of peo­ple going into flow state (i.e. sport teams) but I have nev­er expe­ri­enced it myself.

    There are many sim­i­lar­i­ties between flow state and the state just before falling asleep. My the­o­ry is that flow state taps into a part of the uncon­scious mind to enhance men­tal per­for­mance. The com­plete dis­con­nect with time and the envi­ron­ment is some­thing very sim­i­lar to REM sleep.

  • SZ says:

    I’ve expe­ri­enced flow state while skate­board­ing or wrestling and I can say that it’s an incred­i­ble feel­ing. I think it takes a lot of hard work to reach

  • Igor Zbitnoff says:

    I’d appre­ci­ate some research on the effects of such drugs as caf­feine, nico­tine, cannabis and oth­er psy­che­delics, and alco­hol on flow.

  • Scotty Chambley says:

    I wres­tled for six years state cham­pi­on three of those nev­er reached flow state. Not know­ing until this moment, I have been in a state of move­ment that I can’t explain I don’t remem­ber real­ly. Onlook­ers had to fill me in. It was in; I hate to admit; phys­i­cal fights. My mind took con­trol of my body. I guess that’s what hap­pened each time I can remem­ber up to a cer­tain point then there is a time I remem­ber noth­ing until a when the fight has end­ed. Each time the per­son is server­ly injured and left in a ambu­lance. I don’t like talk­ing about this I’m a dif­fer­ent per­son now. This flow state is the only expla­na­tion I have. I did not get angry and black out it’s the oppo­site accord­ing to eye­wit­ness­es. Most say it’s like I stopped then just moved in that I knew what was going to hap­pen before it did. I don’t real­ly know. I still have no idea how I got there what trig­gered it.

  • gTime says:

    Bro, mind alter­ing sub­stance is flow back­door but we are not our best.

  • Dan Mccann says:

    I engage at flow state lev­el almost every­day, climb­ing and ski­ing. It is a pow­er­ful elix­er. The only prob­lem for me being human and a recov­er­ing junkie is, when im in mea­nial chore, respon­s­abil­i­ty mode for a cou­ple weeks. Life can feel rather com­pramised and mon­dane oth­er­wise. Before FLOW STATE was a term i used to use the im the puz­zle expla­na­tion. In dai­ly life im a puz­zle with a bunch of the peices miss­ing. When im on the hill, climb­ing or ski­ing or both, im a puz­zle with all the peices in, and the pic­ture is clear. Ow, its a real thing and those who live there a lot can be full blown junkies for it. With­out it for a while, grumpy, out of bal­ance, less than a joy to be around sort of thing.
    Praise be full flow expres­sion. We can recog­nise each oth­er by that sat­is­fied twin­kle in they eye !!

  • Norman Rabinovitz says:

    Intrigu­ing amaz­ing cov­er­age I would
    Like to take advan­tage of your

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