How to Hack the Flow State
The ever-elusive state of Flow has been discussed in literature, research, and has been slowly seeping its way into pop culture. Creating Flow while we work is becoming a desired quality as positive job performance is becoming more closely linked with being in a state of Flow.
First off, I’m not here to tell you even more about Flow. I assume you’re reading this because you already know what Flow is and why it’s important. There’s only so much we can discuss and conceptualize when discussing Flow before we have to actually practice it.
My hope, here, is to give you a tool to help improve your ability to create a state of Flow in your own life and performance.
A description of Flow that I particularly enjoy is that of, “experiencing the calm in the eye of the storm.” While in a state of Flow, we feel the pressure and the stress of events that demand our attention but we are able to meet the demands of the moment in a state of relaxation, flexibility, and emotional balance.
But, at the end of the day, we need to experience it ourselves, directly. And, we need to know how to create that experience.
So, without further ado…what we actually need to get into a state of Flow…
- Research has shown that while in a flow state both our parasympathetic (PNS) and sympathetic (SNS), nervous systems are activated. Flow requires us to simultaneously be relaxed and stressed.
- It requires challenge so it must be supported by short-term stress. Introducing work in the form of short-term acute stress will help engage our process of action.
- Long-term stress impinges on Flow. Regulating the effect of chronic stress, or any type of distress, on our experience will improve our ability to get into Flow or diminish it entirely.
- A combination of action, skill, and challenge. This process is correlated directly with our performance. We need to be challenged enough that we are able to rise to the occasion without being demoralized. Some ideas suggest that learning is optimized at a 15% failure rate. Find your balance between learning and failure to improve your ability to enter into a Flow state.
When we desire to enter into a Flow state, the above requirements are necessary for creating the right conditions that will allow you to slip into the experience.
An interesting side note, SNS activation (activation of our fight, flight, freeze, system) while in a state of Flow gives us energy. This is one of the reasons why it can be easier to take action while in a flow state; we get both the benefits of the relaxation response (PNS) and the energy from our stress response (SNS) which mobilizes us for action.
How you can create Flow states
- Create the right environment — eliminate distractions and anything that competes for your attention.
- Create the right experience — get your body into a state that will easily create flow and seek to achieve PNS and SNS coherence. Being too relaxed or too stressed leads to suboptimal Flow.
- Create the right challenge — introduce challenge by finding your balance between being bored vs stressed — not too much stress that we shut down but, enough to create a challenge.
Follow these steps:
Create a work environment in which you can eliminate distractions
- Turn off your phone, put a sign on your door…do what you need to do to eliminate interruptions to your process.
Prepare your body to enter into a Flow state
- Since we want both our SNS and PNS active, we can start off with a breathing activity to activate our PNS then slowly introduce stress and challenge to activate our SNS. I’ve included a breathing activity below to elaborate on this.
Designate a workflow that allows you to introduce challenge gradually
- Introduce stress and strain gradually in order to find a balance of effort and relaxation
This is the formula for Flow.
Find ways to tailor it to your work process and you will no doubt find yourself gliding through your process in a state of relaxation while also maintaining productivity.
Once you find yourself able to create states of Flow then all you have to do is repeat that process over and over again. Once we learn how to create Flow, it’s really just a process of repetition to refine and adjust our process over time.
Breathing yourself into Flow
Since a core component of Flow rests on activating both the SNS and PNS then it follows that breathing can be an instrumental tool to help us achieve Flow since breathing is directly connected to our autonomic response.
Here is a breathing activity designed to get your body prepared for entering into a Flow state. If you are interested in learning more about breathwork, you can read my other articles How to Kill Stress to Death Part 1 and Part 2. These both dissect the process of breathing, provide some pointers, and include some activities to help you get started.
- Get into a comfortable sitting position. Straight back, head tilted down slightly, eyes closed, hands resting in your lap or on your legs.
- Start with belly breathing. Belly breathing will activate your PNS and work your body into a state of relaxation.
- Move into full-body breathing. Slowly incorporate your mid-chest then work in your upper chest. Breathing into your mid and upper chest will activate your SNS.
- Keep your breathing slow. Perform breath with 9 seconds in, 9 seconds out: roughly, 3 seconds belly, 3 seconds mid-chest, 3 seconds upper chest inhale and follow a similar exhale starting with the belly.
- Keep this breathing cycle going until you feel the state of your body relax. The key is to find a state of noticeable relaxation — PNS activation is a requirement for Flow so you need to be relaxed, then we are able to respond to challenge more effectively.
- Practice gratitude while breathing in and out. Gratitude is linked with coherence, this will improve PNS activation. On the in-breath, give gratitude and feels waves of gratitude fill your body. On the out-breath, visualize any tension and residual stress leaving your body through the breath.
Pro tip: On the out-breath, chant or hum a mantra, prayer, or other some other phrase, quote, or thing that resonates with you. The vagus nerve runs right through the larynx and it will directly improve your vagal tone and help create coherence if you stimulate the vocal cords.
I hope this was helpful for you and you find your work and creative process blessed with Flow so that you may be the badass that you are!
Let me know in the comments if you found this helpful.