We have already covered how to attain a state of ‘peak flow’ many times elsewhere on this website –now it’s time to look at well established flow state triggers.
The Flow You Know
As previously covered, “flow state” is a term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced ‘Mee-high-ee Chick-sent-mee-high-ee’) which refers to being in an optimal mental state where one is fully immersed in performing an activity with a feeling of positive, energetic focus with full involvement and enjoyment in the process of said activity.
You feel your best, and you perform your best –provided personal conditions are met, and that’s what this article is all about.
As Mihaly put it himself when speaking with Wired, “every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.”
But What Triggers the Flow State?
We’ve adapted pieces from two different sources penned by Steven Kotler where he discusses Mihaly’s thought process to assemble this list of 17 flow state triggers.
Sources include “The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Human Performance”, as well as a Slideshare he created on the subject which you can find below.
Steven’s 17 flow state triggers can be disseminated into 4 groups; psychological, environmental, social, and creative.
Psychological Flow State Triggers
Psychological flow triggers are ones you have some control over, as in, they’re in your head and require some will power. They are internal strategies that drive attention to the now.
1. Acute Attention Focus
Allowing yourself to focus only on the single task at hand is in large part a choice that you can make, and it is critical to achieving your peak flow state.
At this point, it’s important to put aside mental distractions, put on those mental blinders, and stop thinking about other related tasks, past, present, or future.
2. Clearly-Defined Goals
In order to make every action work in your favour, it’s important to have a clearly defined goal established before you begin. Breaking up your goals into smaller goals are key.
Even when one has a thousand goals lined up, taking them on one at a time makes bigger challenges always come down to you vs a single goal.
3. Agile, Immediate Feedback
Breaking tasks up into smaller goals allows one to receive immediate feedback as they move along which can help them pivot as needed.
Determine what works and what doesn’t, in the moment.
4. Stay in Your “Weight Class” –the Challenge/Skill Ratio
Ensure that goals and challenges you take on are in line with your abilities –try not to overextend yourself.
Before you increase the stakes and challenge yourself more –whether it be in weight lifting or how long it takes you to write that report; make sure you’ve mastered your existing challenges first. Never bite off more than you can chew comfortably.
“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
Environmental Flow State Triggers
Environmental flow state triggers are those all around you that can affect what’s going on inside you. Environmental flow state triggers are qualities in your local environment that will drive you deeper and deeper into the zone.
5. Big Consequences
Raising the stakes and having readily-available consequences to your actions are a big help –like a panic mode, a sense of urgency, to make your mind think more clearly.
Students in college or university will often know this feeling, a result of serious procrastination and then massive application before a deadline or a mid-term.
You’ve heard of this before, in sentences like “oh, I work better under pressure”. It’s a thing.
6. Rich Environment
Andy Warhol used to paint in a room full of people, with a record playing, a television on, and countless other complexities.
An environment rich of novelty and complexity can help one focus in ways that a boring, predictable environment can’t.
When you’re in a predictable environment, you start to see icons, so to speak. You may not see the details on the Bentley next to you on the highway, instead you just see a mental indicator for “car”.
7. Deep Embodiment
Building on the last point; unpredictability within your environment breaks down those “mental icons” and makes them highly visible to you once again, as if everything is new.
Our bodies are much more attuned to adapt in unpredictable environments.
Social or Group Flow State Triggers
Social flow state, also known as group flow triggers can be implemented to help a group reach a peak state of flow as one ‘living organism’ –as one hand washes the other.
8. Serious Concentration
Going back to the beginning –concentration being a choice– as a group it’s important to emphasize concentration. As soon as one person loses focus, a pass gets missed, and the group flow begins to fall apart.
9. Shared Goals
You’ve got goals, he’s got goals, she’s got goals –it’s important to align them in a group scenario so everyone is on board.
It’s a tightrope walk, because shared goals still need to leave room for individual improvisation.
10. Constant Communication
Hand signals in baseball, open dialogue during surgery, this style of constant communication in “group think” is nothing new.
Open communication from all present is important, and will not work if any one member’s input is negated.
Every successful group has its own language, style of the way they communicate, and unspoken understandings –just as all of Western society once had the Bible to collectively draw from.
From football to complicated acronyms only marketers or cubicle dwellers would understand (TPS reports, anyone?) –everyone is always on the same page through familiarity.
If this unspoken language doesn’t exist, it’s important to import one that works from elsewhere.
12. Equal Participation and Skill Sets
Ensuring that everyone in your group scenario is on the same page in terms of what they can do, and how much they participate is also important.
Flow state as a group is more likely to be achieved when all members have an equal skill set and experience.
When skills sets aren’t equal, amateurs get frustrated more easily and professionals get bored.
Much like above with single flow state, risk is also beneficial to a group achieving flow for the same reasons.
14. Sense of Control
A sense of control in flow state is due to the combination of autonomy and competence. You’re free to do as you want to a point, and you’re good at what you do.
15. Close Listening
Close listening is when everyone is engaged in the “here and now” –and no one is thinking of spitting out witty comments or remarks, but instead, they speak only about the task itself and leave out superfluous dialogue.
Preconceived notions are the enemy, everyone should listen to the information being presented to them with an open mind.
16. Say Yes
Instead of debating, just say yes.
The goal in saying yes where possible is to maintain momentum, promote togetherness, and amplifying one another’s ideas or actions.
Combining earlier flow triggers like pattern recognition and risk-taking will help to create flow as a group. And together, they in turn trigger creativity.
Once you know the lines to ride in, it’s easy to dance between them.
Mihaly has a lot of ideas, and many of them aren’t all that new. They’re simply repackaged from other ideologies.
Can you identify where some of these triggers appear in other schools of thought? Let us know in the comments.