Flow and the Psychology of Peak Performance

“If your company policy is you have to respond to any email in 15 minutes, you’re out of your mind.”

READ ON TO DISCOVER:

  • The unusual location where Einstein did some of his best thinking
  • How your diet affects your focus
  • The triggers that help you reach, and sustain, a highly-focused flow state

Steven Kotler is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author and the Director of Research at The Flow Genome Project, where he oversees the training of organizations in ultimate human performance. He recently joined Srinivas Rao on the Unmistakable Creative podcast to discuss the peak-performance psychological state of flow, and how we can leverage it to perform better in all areas of our lives.

Srini: It seems like flow is essential for peak performance, a precursor to achieving anything of great significance. So I want to talk about flow triggers, and how we bring them into our lives. Because a lot of people are like, “Oh, I found flow, but I don’t know how to reproduce it. It just kind of happened.”

Steven: I think that’s the core problem, and an ancient problem. But the good news is that over the past 25 years, neuroscience has been progressing so quickly that we have real answers to that question for the first time in history.

Flow follows focus. The state can only show up when all of our attention is focused in the right here, right now. Evolution shaped 20 triggers, things that drive attention into the present moment. And people who [experience] lots of flow have built their lives around these triggers.

The funny thing is that none of them are complicated. You know all of these things fundamentally, because your body is hardwired for flow, hardwired to move in the direction of peak performance, if you can hear the signals correctly.

So let’s talk about individual triggers, [which] drive focus into the now. The first and most obvious one is passion and purpose—paying more attention to the things that we believe in. Like [if you wanted to] be creative for a living, passion and purpose amplified to the nth degree—like there’s no other option, you have to [write, paint, be creative]—that’s an incredibly powerful focusing mechanism. It drives a lot of flow.

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Risk is really critical along these lines, and a great [flow] trigger. I spent a lot of time studying action and adventure sport athletes, and you see amazing amounts of physical risk. But it can also be intellectual risk, psychological risk, emotional risk, creative risk… Your risk threshold is not my risk threshold—all you’ve got to do is meet your own.

Novelty is a phenomenal trigger. Complexity and unpredictability [too]—all of them drive focus. And underneath that focus is neurobiological activity. A lot of these triggers drive norepinephrine and dopamine, two performance-enhancing, feel-good drugs that the brain produces, and they both massively enhance focus. With a lot of these triggers, these are things that are releasing the neural chemicals we need to drive focus.

One that people get wrong all the time—a clear goal is a flow trigger. When people hear that, they hear “goal” and they ignore “clear.” If you think about the end result, the goal, you’re going to pull your attention out of the present moment. “Clear goal” means, “I’ve got a list. I know what I’m doing right now, and I know what I’m doing immediately afterwards. I know where I’m at, and I know what comes next, so I don’t have to pull my attention out of the present moment and wonder.” The minute you pull your attention out of the present moment, your prefrontal cortex starts to kick back in. Your sense of self and [other] things that kick you out of flow start to resurface. You don’t want to give them that opportunity, so peak performers surround themselves in their activities with all of these triggers.

Srini: I have a couple of questions about distractions—technology, apps, all this other stuff that competes for our attention. I’m not usually on email until after 10 AM because it messes with my ability to stay in flow. Like if I go through a routine of [writing] a thousand words in the morning [plus] meditation and exercise, and then don’t log in to any social media services, I get this sustained creative state throughout the day. But the amazing thing is, the moment I [check social media], it breaks.

Cal Newport wrote a book called Deep Work where he talked extensively about how this actually does a lot of damage to our ability to get into flow. Based on your research, I’m curious to hear the role that technology and distractions play in all of this.

“If your company policy is you have to respond to any email in 15 minutes, you’re out of your mind.”

Steven: You are absolutely correct. I get up at 4 AM, and I write from 4 AM until 8 AM. No cell phone, no email, no Facebook, no Twitter, no phone calls, no anything. It’s absolute silence, and all I’m looking at is a page of words—there’s nothing else in my visual field. I put headphones in, and Ryan Holiday and I are the same on this—we tend to listen to the same soundtrack over and over. So I spend four hours a day immersed in that.

Way back in the 50’s, [psychologist Abraham] Maslow was looking at the most successful people he could find, and one of the things he discovered is they all used different techniques to shift their consciousness, bring on flow states, and use that to drive creativity. Albert Einstein used to famously rowboat into the middle of Lake Geneva and stare at the clouds. Most of them cut themselves off from the world to do it, and It’s no different today.

So we [at the Flow Genome Project] tell people that if your company policy is you have to respond to any email in 15 minutes, you’re out of your mind. You’re going to lose to companies that don’t do that. Top executives are about 500% more productive in flow than out of flow. So if they get two days a week in flow, they’re 1000% more productive than the competition. Those are big numbers.

Srini: Wow. So I’m curious about the role that neuroenhancers like Modafinil [play] in all of like this.

Steven: Some of those things—Modafinil, Ritalin, Adderall—are absolutely classified as cognitive-enhancing drugs. They boost norepinephrine, which will definitely make you more awake and alert, but it also increases anxiety levels, and can push you out of the sweet spot for flow. It may feel like flow to some people, but in terms of lateral thinking ability and those wild, creative insights, neurobiologically those are harder to come by. So I don’t think the cognitive enhancers are there yet. I think there are some technological solutions that are getting interesting along those lines, but I don’t think any of this stuff is really ready for primetime.

“Flow is a skill. It’s training your brain to do a bunch of strange things when confronted with a certain kind of challenge, and you need to know how to focus for that.”

Srini: You brought up technological solutions, [like how] you and Ryan Holiday listen to the same music over and over again. What technological tools are playing a role in all of this? And what about things like meditation and mindfulness—how do those [influence] our ability to create flow?

Steven: Flow is a skill. It’s training your brain to do a bunch of strange things when confronted with a certain kind of challenge, and you need to know how to focus for that. Meditation is phenomenal focus training. We like box breathing—Navy seals use it—because it’s an easy way anybody can learn to meditate. It’s got so many moving parts that it will keep even a mind that’s as chatty and busy as mine occupied enough to meditate.

It’s called “box breathing” because there are four sides to it, and one of the sides involves breathing all the air out of your lungs, and then holding your breath for five to seven seconds. That usually triggers a fight-or-flight response at around seven seconds. And so to perform this, you have to focus through that fear response and stay in flow.

Those are the kinds of things that kick you out of flow in normal life, right? You’re working, you’ll see an email come in, you’ll catch a fragment, and it’s something that triggers a fear reaction in you—a deadline you didn’t remember, [for example]. And suddenly you can’t focus anymore because you’ve had a panicky, “Oh God, is there something I’m forgetting?” response. You get knocked out of flow. But if you can learn to focus through that, you can bounce right back in.

And when you use EEG to analyze the brain waves of top performers, that’s what they’re doing. Most of us just get pulled out, but they’re able to get kicked out of their baseline state, and then immediately drop right back down into flow.

Srini: One other question I have is around deliberate practice, because it’s not just repetition. For me, I had always been in the habit of [writing] one thousand words a day, no matter what. And when I went back and looked through [your book] Rise of Superman, I was like, “Oh my God, I’m actually limiting myself because I’m not pushing it.” So I’ve been trying to push past a thousand words, because that’s my comfort zone. I can do that every day with no problem.

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Steven: If I’m not feeling a little uncomfortable about [what I’m doing] on a daily basis, I’m not pushing hard enough, and I’m not in my sweet spot for flow. Some of it is word count—when I’m first starting a book, a good day is 500 words. In the middle of a book, it’s 750, and then it’s 2,000. I live in the middle of nowhere, and I spend all my free time doing action sports, so I don’t have a ton of contact with the world, and it’s very easy for me to lose sight of where the mainstream is. Re-finding that and weaving it into my writing can push me out of my comfort zone.

Srini: I’m curious what you found [about] the role that diet and food play in the ability to find flow on a regular basis. Because I can tell you, having just [recently] had a so-called “cheat day,” I got to the end of the day and I was like, “Wow I had a lot of carbs today… I feel like complete shit.”

Steven: Fitness is huge. There are lots of ways to get in flow that really don’t require a lot of physical fitness, but if you want to do this for a lifetime or for a career, you’re going to need to get physical. There’s no way around that.

Diet is interesting. I kept a 10-year diet log based on skiing and flow states. I tried to ski 40 to 50 times a winter, and I would record what I ate. I get into flow pretty consistently when I ski, and I found absolutely no correlation [with my diet]. In fact, I found that more flow states showed up when I didn’t have time to make breakfast, [when] I was late and stopped at a truck stop to grab a burrito, you know?

So my answer is, I think it’s very, very individual. I, for example, find that alcohol will keep me out of flow for a while. Once I’ve gone past two drinks for two nights in a row, forget about it. Alcohol doesn’t work for me, [but] it works perfectly for other people—they’ve got some kind of relationship with alcohol that works. I couldn’t live without caffeine, but for a lot of people, it’s not a good drug. So I think diet is totally individual.

But there is no way around the fact that flow shows up when we’re pushing ourselves, and those are high-energy states. So if you’re not fueled up and the system isn’t running well, you’re screwed. So you [want to] have a baseline healthy diet.

 

This conversation has been edited and condensed.