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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