The Art and Science of Flow

The ability to find focus and clarity around your work is a critical skill. We examine the art and science of flow - the ideal state of productivity.

In the age of COVID-19, many have found that working remotely is a more enjoyable and flexible way to do business. But while working from home has many benefits, sometimes it can be challenging to find and keep focus. We examine the art and science of getting into “flow” – the state of mind where optimal performance happens.

What is flow?

In The Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler defines flow as as a mental state where you are completely focused and absorbed in the task at hand, and time seems to slow down. In a state of flow, your work seems to come effortlessly and seamlessly. It is commonly referred to as being “in the zone.”

What’s the scientific basis for flow?

When one reaches a state of flow, your brain experiences something called hypofrontality. which means the parts of your brain that are responsible for rational thought and fear are somewhat subdued, leaving more cognitive room for you to immerse yourself in your work.

In this state, five chemicals are released in your brain that provide an ideal mental state for highly productive work:

  • Dopamine: Gets you excited about new ideas, helps you focus, and lets you sharpen the signal-to-noise ratio of your attention.
  • Norepinephrine: Increases your heartbeat, breath rate, and your energy level.
  • Anandamide: Enhances your creativity and imagination.
  • Endorphins: Gives you a sense of well-being and reduces pain.
  • Serotonin: Provides you with a sense of joy and happiness.

How do you get Into flow?

There are four key elements to summoning the state of flow:

  1. A clear goal: Decide on a task that you would like to focus on for the next 1-2 hours.
  2. Mid-range challenge: Aim for the “goldilocks zone” of challenge: Initially, tackle the aspects of this task that aren’t so easy that they are boring, but not so difficult that they cause anxiety.
  3. Immediate feedback: Determine a metric that can give you feedback about your progress in realtime. If your task at hand is a workout, immediate feedback might be your heart rate. For a work task, it might be the number of words you’ve typed or lines of code you’ve written.
  4. Eliminate distractions: This will vary for each person and each task, but the idea is to try to eliminate as many distractions from the task at hand as possible. Put your phone on Do Not Disturb mode, put on some headphones, and play music that helps you focus.

What are the benefits of flow?

When you’re in a state of flow, you’ll experience optimal performance, minimal stress, and a zenlike harmony between action and awareness. Your current action and your next action as they relate to the task at hand should come with little to no thought, it should feel natural.

People find that being in a state of flow gives them the best shot at producing high-quality work and rewarding outcomes. Whether it’s a new PR on a run, a slam dunk presentation, or a killer feature you are excited to launch, flow provides you with the best mindset for ensuring you achieve your goal effortlessly.

For more information, check out Steven Kotler’s excellent series of talks on flow.

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