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Expert’s top triggers for you to work more in flow

Masterclass on flow with performance expert Steven Kotler


Most of us know that delicious feeling of being in flow. We're completely concentrating, time means nothing, and we feel mastery - it's almost effortless. Turns out, it's great for achieving peak performance. Flow expert Steven Kotler says flow could be called the source code of ultimate human performance.

Look at the stats. Top executives report they are 500% more productive when in flow. (McKinsey) Other studies show flow improves learning and memory (+ 240%), creativity and innovation (+400%), a sense of meaning and purpose (+100%), and more.

From his live and virtual masterclass for Growth Faculty: The Art of Impossible: The Blueprint for Peak Performance with Steven Kotler we learned what flow is, what flow does to the brain, what gets you into flow, and how you can get more team into flow. Here’s a brief summary.

What is flow?

Flow, known also by terms such as ‘being in the zone’ and ‘peak experience’, is when we feel or perform at our best in the act of paying rapt attention to something.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi named the core characteristics of flow as:

·      Complete concentration

·      Merger of action and awareness

·      Loss of self (self-consciousness)

·      Time dilation (time speeds up or slows down)

·      A sense of control

·      Autotelic (euphoric) experience. It feels effortless

Our masterclass delegates said these things got them into a state of flow:

Working with team on a project, training for a hike, ocean swimming, reading, doing something they love, speaking with someone they connect with on a shared idea or thought, surfing, boxing, teaching, client meetings.

Growth Faculty global headliner Patrick Lencioni would say it’s when you’re in your area of working genius.

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What flow does to the brain

Flow helps with ‘overwhelm’ and improves your sense of enjoyment and meaning. Both are excellent for retention and creating a positive workplace culture.

In flow your brain shuts down non-critical functions so you can pay more attention to the area in flow. This called localised transient hypofrantality – your brain performs an efficiency exchange.

As a result, you’re plunged into deep effort and things like the concept of time, stress levels, and the ego slip to the background.

Studies show flow combines five of the chemicals associated with love, reward, and pleasure: norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin.

On this performance high, we see a lift in motivation, learning, and creativity. Importantly, our inner-critic gets quiet so we feel freer to be creative, take risks, and innovate.

How do you get more flow?

Flow is actually a high-energy state, so it needs:

·      Sleep – 7 to 8 hours a night

·      Nutrition and hydration

·      Social support - In challenging situations, your brain will assess if you are solo (requiring more energy) or with friends (energy can be freed up).

It also works best when you’re de-stressed, so try these:

·      Gratitude (5 mins) – write down what you’re grateful for

·      Mindfulness (11-20 mins)

·      Exercise (20-40 mins, or until your brain is ‘quiet’)

Triggers for flow and high performance

There are more than 20 flow triggers. Steven calls these the high performance toolkit:

·      Curiosity/passion/purpose

·      Autonomy

·      Complete concentration

·      Risk

·      Novelty

·      Complexity

·      Unpredictability

·      Deep embodiment

·      Immediate feedback (such as ‘Agile’ software development)

·      Clear goals

·      Challenge/skills ratio (ideally you want to be performing at 4% above your skill set – think of it as ‘stretch not snap’)

·      Creativity/Pattern recognition

·      Complete concentration

·      Shared goals

·      Shared risk

·      Yes, and…..(when those around you encourage you on, rather than saying an automatic ‘no’ to conversation or ideas)

·      Close listening

·      Autonomy/A sense of control

·      Blending egos

·      Familiarity

·      Equal participation

·      Open communication

For example, Toyota famously employed the triggers of ‘autonomy’ and ‘challenge/skills’ in its Kaizen model of incremental improvements as in the equation below:

CC (complete concentration) + C/S (challenge/skills balance) + IF (immediate feedback) = A formula for innovation

Complete concentration is improved with:

·      90-120 minutes of time (but start by starting)

·      Task orientation, not ego orientation

·      Autonomy matters (if you don’t have control over your tasks try to reframe the task so you feel more control – i.e. pull out parts of it with meaning or benefits to you)

·      Distraction management – turn off the phone or notifications.

The four state cycle of flow

Flow has to cycle through four stages to be sustained. They are:

·      Struggle – the ‘post-it note’ stage where frustration is high.

·      Release – taking our mind off our task with a walk or gardening

·      Flow - for around 90 to 120 minutes

·      Recovery – at the tail end of the flow state, when you’re still excited, that’s when to stop and ‘leave a little in the tank.’

How to encourage your team into flow

First up, flow is contagious. Leaders who are in flow drive their teams into flow.

To motivate your team, come up with goals that can lead to collective ambition – rather than individual ambition.

Ensure that your team leaders are multiplier leaders and not shutting down the team. The brain normally takes in nine negative pieces of information to every one positive so invest in leadership development, and try the ‘flow trigger’ of saying ‘Yes! And…..”

And finally, encourage team members to do their primary flow activity for about four hours per week, whether it’s salsa dancing, hiking, coding, or reading.

As Steven says, the flow on effect is great for high performance, and even achieving the impossible.


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