4 Stages Of A Flow State – The Science Behind High Performance
How do you get in the zone?
Perhaps you switch off notifications and hide your phone or maybe you make a cup of tea before sitting down at your desk. What if we said that there was a scientific method for triggering deep focus? It’s called flow and it’s not as mythical as it sounds.
According to Steven Kotler, a leading expert on peak human performance, a flow state is an ideal state of consciousness, where we feel great and perform our best. Whilst name is about as unscientific as you could get, it was a word that Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi kept hearing from his research subjects during the 1970s when seeking to understand how people feel when they perform their best.
When we enter a flow state, we feel energised and super focused. Dedicated to the task at hand, we can create ideas at phenomenal speed and execute them with laser accuracy. Moreover, we thoroughly enjoy doing it and with engagement levels so high, our sense of time can even become warped.
Now before you write this off as a false wellness trend, you should know that these behaviours have been observed in diverse high achievers from Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and business executives to professional athletes and chess champions.
Learning to find your flow could help improve your everyday productivity and work performance, as well as boost creativity, fitness and learning ability. Essentially, it’s a useful skill that can help us push through challenges and achieve our goals.
THE FOUR STAGES OF A FLOW STATE
STAGE 1: STRUGGLE
It’s time to get uncomfortable. Hey, we didn’t say this would be easy! There’s a painful truth in the expression “starting is the hardest part of the journey”. We start new tasks feeling anxious, stressed and useless which quickly leads to crushed motivation and enthusiasm screeches to a halt.
Getting through this stage requires focus, concentration and effort. It might feel like an uphill battle, but we need to keep pushing towards our goal. The greatest change is made in the most uncomfortable moments and we must learn to adapt to fear.
What’s happening in our brains during this time? It’s releasing the stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine. These curb nonessential functions in a fight-or-flight situation to increase our focus and attention.
As challenging as this stage will be, it’s important to remember that we will get better. Once our frustration peaks, it’s time for stage two.
STAGE 2: RELEASE
Pushing ourselves into unknown territory takes a heavy toll on our mind and body. Eventually, we’ll stop making progress and find ourselves staring blankly at the screen. This means we’ve hit a wall and it’s time to take a break.
When it comes to unlocking flow, it has to be a very specific break. Scrolling social media or watching an episode of our favourite Netflix show will keep our mind in an active state of tensions and provide no real relief. We need to switch our mindset from stressed to relaxed.
There are many ways to do this — go for a walk outside, do a short exercise routine, practice deep breathing exercise or do some yoga. Another way is to do something that we’re already good at. This takes us into a completely different state of mind.
The major benefit of taking a break is the release of nitric oxide in our brains, which flushes out the stress hormones. This has two benefits – it allows us to relax and primes us for the next neurochemical release.
The key to this stage is finding a break activity that’s relaxing, not simply distracting. Once our brain has decompressed the stress, it’s time for the exciting part – entering flow.
STAGE 3: FLOW
Now that we’ve started the task, pushed ourselves to the point of frustration and had a break to reset, it’s time to throw ourselves into it. As you settle back down, you should see the answers to problems that were once opaque become clear.
This new state of focus and brain performance is triggered by the release of dopamine, anandamide and endorphins. These mix up with the stress hormones built earlier, creating a cocktail of neurochemicals that trigger the focus and clarity associated with a flow state. This is why the first two stages are critical.
And once we get there? Oh boy, we’re in for a treat. Like a lucid dream of productivity, we’ll find ourselves able to come up with more new ideas than we thought possible, make decisions quicker without fear and can see a birds-eye view of the task. Time will become abstract, speeding up so we lose hours but simultaneous slowing down allowing us to perform massive amounts of work. We’re on cloud nine and there’s nothing that can stop us.
Unfortunately, our brains can’t sustain this euphoria forever. There is no set time frame for each state – some flow states can last for a couple of days – but generally, they last about 90 minutes. Afterwards, it becomes incredibly important for us to reset otherwise we risk not being able to enter the flow state again.
STAGE 4: RECOVERY
If the flow state is an ideal state of consciousness, coming out is can be described as a return to a normal state. We regain awareness of our surroundings, our focus loses its intensity and our productivity declines. Feeling flow slip aware can be frustrating but it takes a toll on our nervous system and recovery is essential.
Similarly to stage two, recovery is about easing tension and allowing our brain to relax. This recovery is known as non-time and it’s essential to health and productivity. Non-time is characterised by a quiet alone time where the demands of the day disappear. A great idea can often strike when we take a break and let our mind wander – Einstein was an avid sailor and had some of his best ideas floating around on his boat.
Sleep is the most effective mode of recovery but might not always be convenient at the time. Alternative active memory techniques include a solid workout, taking a bath, mediation or yoga.
Proper rest will allow your body and brain to replenish the neurochemical stores, making it easier to get back into a flow again and avoid burnout. With more practice, it becomes easier to get into a flow state and recovery times shorten. Eventually, your belief in yourself and what you can achieve will become stronger and it will be a powerful tool that helps you develop and achieve your goals.
FIND YOUR FLOW WITH BLACKINKK
A guiding principle at Blackinkk is to ‘Do Better’. We see the potential in every person and are dedicated to creating products that help you navigate obstacles, think creatively and smash goals. You’ll never just go through the motions again.
We align our brand and products around the principles of minimalism, sustainability and clever design and we want to help you discover what you’re capable of.