Get into Flow
Research into peak performance highlights the importance of the cognitive state of ‘flow’ to achieving performance excellence. What is flow and how do you know when you’re in it?
Almost three decades have passed since the publication of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal book Flow – the psychology of optimal experience. His research highlighted both the benefits to performance excellence of being in flow, as well as the conditions necessary to achieving that much-exalted state.
If you have ever lost yourself in a project or a passion such that it consumed all your conscious capacities, inspired and energised you, and allowed you to produce what you would deem to be some of your best work, you were in flow.
The writer, whose subject so enthrals him that the words just pour onto the page; the musician, whose attention is broken by the first light of dawn, having spent the entire night crafting a new melody; the athlete, harnessing her focus and concentration to smash her personal best track time. Flow.
When Csikszentmihalyi’s book was first published in 1990, we were on the doorstep of transformational leaps in our understanding about human motivation and behaviour, emerging from advances in neuroscience, attributable in great part to the advent of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques. Mainstream today, fMRI technology enabled researchers, scientists and the medical fraternity to see the living brain in action, at a level of detail and resolution unheard of before then.
We would discover, for example, that the flow state initiated a neurochemical sequence very different to that which predominates our regular brain activity. Accompanied by a spike in dopamine, anandomine, norepinephrine, serotonin and endorphins, this indigenous performance-enhancing neurochemical cocktail results in superior physical and cognitive capabilities. When these feel-good chemicals flood our brain circuitry, we experience a boost in motivation, heightened creativity and vastly improved learning outcomes.
4 Conditions, 4 Markers
Csikszentmihalyi determined that flow occurs when a number of factors coalesce. Further, achieving the flow state can be recognised by the presence of specific markers.
- Clear goals
Goals channel attention. In the absence of clear goals, the brain wanders, casually rambling from thought to thought. Enter a clear goal and subconscious brain mechanisms act like a radar searching for goal-relevant information. Ever had the experience of identifying a car you’d like to buy and suddenly seeing them everywhere?
The goal must stretch your skills and abilities, but also be achievable. Challenge highlights that the thrill is in the chase: whilst completing a goal is satisfying, it is goal pursuit that is actually energising.
Focused attention. Immersion in the activity. Free from disruptions and immune to distractions. Flow requires unhindered application to the task and absorption.
Feedback is the measure of progress toward achieving the goal. Receiving immediate and continuous feedback on this progress fuels ongoing motivation toward realising it.
Despite the challenge, pursuing the goal comes with considerable ease and fluency. It does not rely on pushing hard and taxing short term working memory. The activity flows smoothly.
Immersed in the task, you feel in full control. Your abilities are being tested, yet you are neither overwhelmed not bored.
Your inner critic is silenced. The perpetual internal dialogue of running commentary on you and everything around you, dulls and quietens, until you don’t hear it at all. Your full attention is on the task.
Where did the time go? Hours flash by. Wrapped in the moment, time seems to evaporate.
Most of us have or will experience flow. Perhaps through hobbies and leisure activities, perhaps through the work we pursue. When you are in flow, you know it.
Unfortunately, we spend much of our mental energy on flighty, unproductive and frequently self-sabotaging thinking. To achieve peak performance, harnessing the cognitive accelerator that is flow, is essential. Creating the conditions in which we can experience it is Step No.1.
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