From my book How to Be Cross Eyed: Thriving Despite Your Physical Imperfection — a mémoire and lifehacking manifesto
Those of us who want to be as happy, healthy and productive as possible should strive to habituate flowstate. Flow is a peak state of consciousness which is increasingly rare in modern life for two reasons…
- Lack of focus — In the past people could literally focus on just one thing for many hours or even days with the exception of taking breaks for sustenance and sleep. They weren’t distracted constantly by cell phones, computers, television and 4,000 advertisements a day. Focused attention is crucial to flow. No focus. No flow.
- Disinterest in religion — Historically, the way that even the most common of people reached flow, was practice of religion. Religious worship in its myriad forms is conducive flow state. Modern folks are increasingly secular or marginally religious.
I’d urge you to rediscover flow, it’s a powerful tool at our disposal but there is an art and science to yielding it.
Among extremely successful men (mostly) there seems to be penchant for arbitrary recreational risk taking. Think Richard Branson doing crazy things in hot air balloons or celebrities racing fast cars. This is because risk taking is a veritable gateway to flow states, the page turner The Rise of Superman explains:
extreme athletes use risk as a “flow hack” because flow follows focus and consequences catch our attention. But consequences do more than catch our attention: they also drive neurochemistry. As risk increases, so do norepinephrine and dopamine, the feel-good chemicals the brain uses to amplify focus and enhance performance. Because norepinephrine and dopamine feel really good, playing with this trigger often produces long-lasting effects: risk takers are transformed into risk seekers. (p. 101)
This is a shortcut to mastery, something that the US military and elite firms recognize and take advantage of…
flow doesn’t just provide a joyful, self-directed path toward mastery — it literally shortens the path. (p. 87)
The US military trained snipers in flow twice as fast as normal. McKinsey established that executives in flow are five times more effective than their steady-state peers. (p. 193)
So you could pick up a new hobby doing some extreme sport to habituate these kinds of flow states but you should really get your last will and testament prepared and probably purchase a large life insurance policy! You’re of course wondering…
Are there some more benign risk taking options? Yes.
Social Risk Taking
Social rejection particularly taps deeply into our evolutionary psychology because for the past 200,000 years social rejection by one’s tribe often meant gene death. This is why something like public speaking can be so terrifying yet exhilarating. So figure out how to take social risks and take them with some regularity.
Interestingly, hardcore pickup artists frequently report that cold approaching attractive women stimulates flow state. It’s something that feels high risk but isn’t actually. It combines the three classic flow triggers skill, challenge and immediate feedback. If you don’t want to spend a lot of time in nightclubs you could try doing daygame — approaching attractive women during the daytime in public. A similar fun activity that’s not exclusive to single, straight males would be salsa or latin dancing which entails skill, challenge, immediate feedback and some social risk taking.
Improv — Theatrical improv is a flowstate prone activity that entails social risk, immediate social feedback, focus, skill/challenge and a clear goal.
A Flow Cocktail
Ideally we’d all like to reach flowstate with some regularity. How much more productive and happy would that make us? If you’re not lucky enough to live in a tiki hut next to a beach where you can go surfing daily I’ll suggest spending a little bit of time doing a daily flow practice.
Work can be counter-intuitive to flow; work often involves rote, repeated tasks that are more monotonous than challenging and often with work we don’t get immediate (or instantaneous) feedback on our performance. It takes weeks, months or years. Thus I would suggest doing this in the middle of your work day to get yourself into a peak state…
Mindfulness (15–20 minutes)
Focused attention is a really crucial component of flow. Thus you’ll want to spend 15–20 minutes doing meditation, brain training or something like HRV training with Heartmath’s emWave Devices — I’ve reached some very sublime flowstates with cannabis (you probably don’t want to get high on weed in the middle of the workday, so maybe try some small doses of CBD oil) and HRV training, as have others and the Heartmath Institute’s website has some interesting published research on HRV and flow.
Is perhaps the original flowstate trigger. You want to listen to focus promoting music while trying to reach flow. I find that Brain.FM is great for this but really any holosync style tunes would work. What you probably wouldn’t want to listen to is hip hop or rock music with a lot of lyrics that take a bit of your attention away from what is in front of you. Although, some authors would disagree with me, in Tim Ferriss’s excellent Tools of Titans he interviewed some prolific writers who find that listening to the same song (or album) on repeat for hours powerfully stimulates creative flow.
Skill-Challenge/Clear Goals/Immediate Feedback (10–15 minutes)
Immediately before or after (you’ll have to experiment to see what works best for you) the mindfulness practice you want to spend a little bit of time doing something that takes some skill but is challenging, where you have a clear goal and you receive immediate pass/fail feedback. Some ideas for this…
Video games — Especially fast paced video games where you are racing or shooting are conducive to focus; you have a clear goal like winning a race or killing bad guys and you get immediate feedback. Obviously you’d want to pick a video game with levels that only last about 10–15 minutes, you don’t want to get sucked into a game that you’re going to want to play for hours. Gamers report that Quake III DeFRaG and Tetris Effect in VR consistently stimulate flowstate.
Gambling — There’s a ton of places on the internet where you can play all sorts of gambling games that require focus, there’s stakes (you don’t want to lose money!) and you get immediate feedback. You’d want to pick games of skill as opposed to games that entailed a lot of randomness.
Gravity — In the Rise of Superman, experiencing gravity is a consistent flow trigger among extreme athletes. You’re probably not going to go free running along the ledges of a skyscraper during your lunch break so you’d want to find a way to experience (or simulate) visceral gravity. You could do this from the safety of your office with a cheap VR headset that you slip your smartphone into.
Remove Distractions — Finally, to optimize flow you want to minimize distractions. Close browser tabs and windows. Turn off beeping, dinging or vibrating notifications. Place your smartphone outside of your field of vision and get stuff done!
The way I most frequently get into flowstate is simply by doing 15–20 minutes of meditation in the midday while listening to Brain.FM and doing profound breathing. It works quite consistently and really gets me in a creative mode to do some writing or vlogging.
If you’re looking for a shortcut to flow and you don’t want to take any weird drugs or spend a lot of money on going to ecstatic events there’s a few pieces of technology that are a good bet.
HRV for Flow
Perhaps you’ve heard of flowstate before and were anxious to actually experience it but frustratingly couldn’t. Does this mean that you should do some legally dubious drugs or risk your neck? Probably not, you should work on your autonomic stress response. The way to cut about 5 years off your learning curve in being able to consciously control your autonomic nervous system is HRV training with a Heartmath device that gives you almost instantaneous feedback on the state of coherence between your heart and nervous system. Research on the Heartmath Institute’s website further explains coherence:
Our study attempted to help students achieve sense of flow or peak performance by using HRV coherence biofeedback in conjunction with mental and emotional refocusing techniques that are compatible with the above cited research. well-researched method for learning to achieve optimal and positive states of functioning, such as flow, is through HRV training and more specifically, coherence training using HRV to achieve “psychophysiological coherence”(McCraty Tomasino, 2006).
Effects of Heart Rate Variability Coherence Biofeedback Training and Emotional Management…
Due to the prevalence of music performance anxiety and the emergence of new biofeedback technologies used to decrease…
This is biohacking tech that stimulates focus, creativity and motivation. This runs a very small electrical current across the front of your cranium with some little plastic suction pads. tDCS has been researched widely and has been the subject of an impressive +60 human, clinical trials and is demonstrated as effective in everything from improving reaction times and working memory to treating depression. TheBrainDriver is the top rated tDCS device on Amazon. The priority with this device is of course safety, its equipped with overload protection and safety shut off.
On the higher-tech end of the spectrum, state-changing treatments like transcranial magnetic stimulation are now outperforming antidepressants, and many Silicon Valley executives are going off-label, using the technology to ‘“defrag’” their mental hard drives and boost performance. (p. 176)
Drugs for Flowstate
Pick a random Joe Rogan podcast and you’ll probably hear a lot about some flowstate inducing plant medicines but there’s some lesser known pharmacological helpers that don’t require breaking the law or taking a flight to some exotic country to participate in a ceremony.
Nicotine — I find very copasetic to flow, meditating 10–15 minutes after dosing nicotine results in a very cool and slightly euphoric flow state for me. Which is a little counter intuitive to flow science because it stimulates the parts of the brain that are understood to shut off in flow but it works so consistently that Nicotine has become one of my favorite smart drugs for creativity.
Harmala alkaloids — That agonize the Dopamine D2 receptor are anecdotally reported as being flowstate inducing especially when combined with meditative breathing. You can consume them in herbs like Syrian Rue and tobacco leaves but stay very conservative with the dose, you don’t want to end up in the hospital.
The marketers of the product Alpha Brain, which contains a number popular Nootropic nutraceuticals frequently mention that it promotes peak alpha (or flowstate) but the clinical trial behind this claim demonstrated it only after 45 days of dosing and the uptick was rather small; an increase of just 6% from baseline. These Nootropic stacks, while certainly not useless, are pretty far from being a Limitless pill for flow.
The triggers mentioned above make a much bigger difference in the likelihood of entering flow state than more mundane lifestyle factors. As flow has become such a popular buzz phrase a number of companies have branded supplements and products more or less as flow state in a pill; this is mostly marketing hype.
- Biohacker Maximilian Gotzler explains here that raw chocolate and cinnamon are conducive to flow state.
- Many find that the keto diet is generally copasetic to flow because it’s optimal for cognitive function and a daily intermittent fast gives you more time to focus on work.
- The Nootropics L-Theanine and Bacopa increase alpha brainwave activity and Schisandra, increases circulating Nitric Oxide which has made it popular with joggers as it anecdotally potentiates runner’s high, the flowstate induced by extended endurance exercise.
Sitting in your bland office surrounded by the boring things of your everyday life is pretty far from the ideal of environment for flow. Cathedrals are ideal for flow because they are a striking visual environment of grand open spaces, light and art. The ideal setting for flow is a novel and visually striking environment, but you can’t go explore an exotic forest or landscape anytime you want to enter flowstate. Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler explains that psychedelic visuals have a real effect on our state of mind…
A 2012 study found that encounters with perceptual vastness, be it the endless spiral of galaxies in the night sky or Jones’s’ larger-than-life projections, triggers a self-negating, time-dilating sense of awe. And this happens automatically — which means an encounter with Jones’s projections could be enough to drive subjects into a deeply altered state, willingly or not. (p. 144)
You can harness the power of visual stimuli by watching videos like this while meditating or practicing your breathing…
Obviously this is another place where a VR headset might be a great investment in your regular flow practice. You could also just setup a second screen next to where you’re working and play some trippy videos on it.
A simple yet effective way of increasing focus is giving an arbitrary time limit to your tasks 30 minutes, 1 hour, 2 hours — give yourself slightly less time than you think it will actually take to put some pressure on yourself. To make this even more effective get a clock with a countdown time in front of you while you’re trying to focus. The Brain.FM app works great for this!
Turn off Notifications
Your smart phone and all the apps on it are tremendously effective distraction technology. You can reach a great flowstate using the methods and tools detailed here but it will go out the window as soon as you receive a dinging, buzzing or vibrating notification. If you want to focus turn off your phone and place it outside of your field of vision OR go into your notifications settings and turn off everything. There’s a couple good apps that you can install that offer customization of notifications so that you can snooze all notifications for 30 minutes or whatever.
Close Windows, Clear Your Workspace
You’ll find flow very elusive if you have 25 different browser tabs, 5 different software programs open, 10 different app icons beckoning your attention on your glowing smartphone screen and a stack of paperwork on your desk. Get all this stuff as far out of sight as possible. Close browser tabs and apps as you finish digital micro-tasks.
Fail to Plan, Fail to Flow
Don’t hope to enter flowstate just because you’re working on something important to you. Devote time to flowstate, schedule a 2 hour block of time to focus on something important. Stack triggers, take Nootropics and give yourself some reward for staying focused and getting stuff done.
One of the most well understood triggers is visceral physical sensation and experience — this is why surfing and sex are so conducive to flow. Unfortunately, working on a laptop on a project is about as far away from this as you can get.
- Use a standing desk while you work so you body has a little more to do.
- Do profound breathing deep into your belly as you’re working.
- Do kegels every time you’re waiting for something to load.
- Practice the 20–20–20 rule; every 20 minutes, look up at something 20 feet away from you for 20 seconds.
- Take very short breaks to get up from what you’re doing, do some body weight exercises like pushups.
Flow vs Passion
Flow state is how you enhance your strengths into super strengths! Think about what you’re really good at, what makes you feel alive and what people consistently compliment you on. Maybe it’s writing, speaking, analyzing data or just coming up with big ideas.
Flow often results when you devote yourself to doing something you love, flow should be fun. But passion and fun is not a prerequisite for flow, you can enter flow doing something you don’t particularly like if you have the proper triggers and devote time to focus.
Skill vs Challenge
There’s a sweet spot on the competence spectrum for a given task where you’ll find flow. If you’re totally incompetent surfing you’ll mostly just be frustrated by the experience of trying to ride waves, if you’re a veteran surfer you’ll be bored with riding 3 foot swells. You want to aim for something moderately challenging but not impossible for you. If you’re an experienced writer, for example you won’t find it all that challenging to write a new article or whatever. You’ll need to add something to make it more challenging like giving yourself a time limit.
Risk vs Flow
In the past when my risk tolerance was higher, I would partake of gateways to flow like…
- Social risk taking (nightgame or daygame)
- Dancing all night long at raves, clubs or festivals (and sometimes using the party drugs on offer)
- Even doing a psychedelic ceremony in the Andes mountains
As my risk tolerance shifts, I’m going to explore new domains of flow…
- Ohming or Orgasmic meditation with my wife
- Biohacking tech — HRV training and tDCS
- Religion — I was a very passionate evangelical when I was younger, I remember entering very vivid flowstates during worship services — I may try this again.
- We fail to flow because we lack focus thanks to all the amazing distraction technology that pervades almost every part of life.
- Flow and risk go hand in hand. Soberly evaluate your risk tolerance and use risk as a tool. Social risk is less risky than it seems.
- Flow state, while many use it recreationally, is a serious lifehack for your productivity, creativity and learning.
- A more pedestrian but effective gateway to flow is a mindfulness practice in the middle of the workday.