If you’ve ever lost an afternoon to a great conversation or become so involved in a work project that all else was forgotten, then you’ve definitely tasted the experience of flow. In flow, we are so focused on the task at hand that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Time flies. Self vanishes. All aspects of performance -- mental and physical -- go through the roof.
Technically, flow is defined as an optimal state of consciousness where we feel and perform our best. We call this experience flow because that is the sensation it confers. In the state, every action and each decision leads effortlessly, fluidly and seamlessly to the next. It’s high-speed problem solving. It’s being swept away by the river of ultimate performance.
This last bit is no exaggeration. More than 150 years of research shows that flow sits at the heart of almost every athletic championship, underpins major scientific breakthroughs, and accounts for significant progress in the arts. In business, according to a 10-year McKinsey study, top executives reported being five times more productive in flow. This is a staggering statistic. Five times more productive is a 500 percent increase.
As Virgin CEO Richard Branson says, “In two hours [in flow], I can accomplish tremendous things ... It’s like there’s no challenge I can’t meet.”
How to find flow is a tricky question, yet it’s one I have spent the past 15 years trying to answer. To find it, I co-founded and am the current director of research for the Flow Genome Project, an organization dedicated to decoding the science of ultimate human performance.
One of the lessons to emerge from our work is that flow states have triggers -- that is, preconditions that lead to more flow. There are 17 flow triggers in total -- three environmental, three psychological, 10 social and one creative. While understanding what each of these triggers are and how they relate to flow is important, I want to place particular emphasis on the three psychological triggers by breaking them down in detail, focusing specifically on how they apply to entrepreneurs.
Psychological triggers are conditions in our inner environment that create more flow. They are psychological strategies for driving attention into the now.
Back in the 1970s, pioneering flow researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified clear goals, immediate feedback and the challenge/skills ratio as the three most critical. Let’s take a closer look.
1. Clear goals
Our first psychological trigger, clear goals, tell us where and when to put our attention. When goals are clear, the mind doesn’t have to wonder what to do or what to do next -- it already knows. Thus concentration tightens, motivation is heightened and extraneous information gets filtered out. As a result, action and awareness start to merge, and we’re pulled even deeper into now. Just as important, in the now, there’s no past or future and a lot less room for self -- which are the intruders most likely to yank us to the then.
This also tells us something about emphasis. When considering clear goals, most have a tendency to skip over the adjective clear to get to the noun goals. When told to set clear goals, we immediately visualize ourselves on the Olympic podium, the Academy Award stage or the Fortune 500 list, saying, “I’ve been picturing this moment since I was 15,” and think that’s the point.
But those podium moments can pull us out of the present. Even if success is seconds away, it’s still a future event subject to hopes, fears and all sorts of now-crushing distraction. Think of the long list of infamous sporting chokes: the dropped pass in the final seconds of the Super Bowl or the missed putt at the end of the Augusta Masters. In those moments, the gravity of the goal pulled the participants out of the now, when, ironically, the now was all they needed to win.
If creating more flow is the aim, then the emphasis falls on clear, not goals. Clarity gives us certainty. We know what to do and where to focus our attention while we are doing it. When goals are clear, meta-cognition is replaced by in-the-moment cognition, and the self stays out of the picture.
Applying this idea in our daily lives means breaking tasks into bite-size chunks and setting goals accordingly. A writer, for example, is better off trying to pen three great paragraphs at a time, rather than attempting one great chapter. Think challenging yet manageable -- just enough stimulation to shortcut attention into the now, not enough stress to pull you back out again.
2. Immediate feedback
Our next psychological trigger, immediate feedback, is another shortcut into the now. The term refers to a direct, in-the-moment coupling between cause and effect. As a focusing mechanism, immediate feedback is something of an extension of clear goals. Clear goals tell us what we’re doing, while immediate feedback tells us how to do it better. If we know how to improve performance in real time, the mind doesn’t go off in search of clues for betterment, we can keep ourselves fully present and fully focused and thus much more likely to be in flow.
Implementing this in business is fairy straightforward: tighten feedback loops, practice agile design, put mechanisms in place so attention doesn’t have to wander and ask for more input. How much input? Well, forget quarterly reviews. Think daily reviews. Studies have found that in professions with less direct feedback loops -- stock analysis, psychiatry, medicine -- even the best get worse over time. Surgeons, by contrast, are the only physicians that improve the longer they’re out of medical school. Why? Mess up on the table and someone dies. That’s immediate feedback.
3. The challenge/skills ratio
The last of our psychological flow triggers, the challenge/skills ratio, is arguably the most important. The idea behind this trigger is that attention is most engaged (essentially, in the now) when there’s a very specific relationship between the difficulty of a task and our ability to perform that task. If the challenge is too great, fear swamps the system. If the challenge is too easy, we stop paying attention. Flow appears near the emotional midpoint between boredom and anxiety, in what scientists call the flow channel -- the spot where the task is hard enough to make us stretch, but not hard enough to make us snap.
This sweet spot keeps attention locked in the present. When the challenge is firmly within the boundaries of known skills -- meaning I’ve done it before and am fairly certain I can do so again -- the outcome is predetermined. We’re interested, not riveted. But when we don’t know what’s going to happen next, we pay more attention to the next. Uncertainty is our rocket ride into the now.
One of the most well-established facts about flow is that the state is ubiquitous -- meaning it shows up anywhere in anyone, provided certain initial conditions are met.
I’ve just outlined three conditions in this piece, but the most important lesson to learn is that flow follows focus. It is a state of total absorption. Thus these triggers are ways of heightening and tightening focus, of driving attention into the now and thus driving flow.