Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow State Triggers and The Power of Habit

The first time I saw Laird Hamilton. I knew this guy was a badass. He was jacked, tall, had blond hair, and was a big wave surfer. Hamilton had calm confidence about him that came through even while watching him on TV.  

How could you not be impressed by the guy?

He was like a mutant king from another planet. The things he was doing were so beyond anything I could ever dream of doing. He was achieving the impossible and with ease. His laser like focus, calm demeanor, and ability to slow down time were like nothing I had ever seen. It was like he was able to see the codes of the Matrix and knew what was coming before anyone else.

In other words, he had abilities that I would never have.

At the time, I was really interested in big wave surfing, which was really weird considering I’m an engineer living in the midwest (AKA there are no waves nearby). I didn’t know it at the time, but my subconscious mind was focusing in on something unknown to me. My subconscious mind, was making connections that would be revealed to me later.

If you don’t know who Laird Hamilton is, watch the video below. I was already impressed with his freakish ability and general manliness; Then I saw this…. and was completely blown away. 

NOTE: Fast forward to 3:10 if you are impatient.

How is that possible? How did survive? 

While everyone else around him is panicking and running for the hills, he stays calm and does something no one else has ever done. 

That is really cool… But how is that relevant to anything in my life?

On the surface there appears to be no connection between mutants like Laird and normal people like you and me. But trust me there is.

 

Connecting the dots

About a two years ago, I was researching about positive psychology and the art of happiness. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s (me-HIGH chick-sent-me-HIGH-ee) work was some of the first research I saw regarding the positive psychology (not normal negative psychology)

Csikszentmihalyi had based a lot of his work around the concept of “Flow” or “Flow State”.  My understanding at the time, was that “Flow” was a way to generate constant happiness and nothing more. It seemed pretty cut and dry to me. Then I read Steven Kotler’s book The Rise of Superman and the connections started to become more clear.

 

The Mechanism of Action

Hamilton is in what is called a Peak Flow State when he is achieving the impossible. This is the reason why he can do the things he does. He is not cut from a different cloth.

 

If Laird Hamilton can get into a peak flow state, so can you….

 

Before we dive too deep into flow, let’s back up a minute and discuss what “it” is?

Have you ever seen a pretty girl and time literally stops? How about that time you were so deep into a project that you put your head down and were able to focus with laser like precision? Maybe you met someone special and got deeply involved in a conversation that lasted for hours yet felt like minutes? Insane performance in an athletic event?

Did it feel amazing and wouldn’t you give anything to feel that more frequently?

We all have had some experience like this. If you are reading this post, you probably want to know how to make it happen at will.

 

Flow?

Is the optimal state of consciousness a human can achieve. It is where we feel and perform at our best. Your brain filters out everything that is not necessary and focuses only on what is important at the time.

Flow has been the target of high performing athletes, CEO’s, entrepreneurs, professionals, artists and writers. It allows you to expand the possibilities of human performance and consciousness.

Many of the 20th centuries breakthroughs in science, athletics, business and spirituality have been directly related to Flow. The limits and boundaries that exist during our day-to-day activities vanish while in Flow. New possibilities emerge.

A peak flow state makes you feel like Superman, Neo from the Matrix or Jennifer Anniston (Fans of the show Friends only).

Flow State Symptoms

  • Time Dilation
  • Feeling “In The Zone” or on Fire
  • Laser focus
  • Insane Alertness
  • Everything happens effortlessly
  • Near perfect decision making
  • Sense of self decreases
  • Out of body experience

 

5 States of Flow:

NOTE: Most people rarely enter a flow state because they refuse to push themselves out of a comfortable situation. You must understand that this is your Ego getting in the way trying to preserve your self image and that the resistance you are feeling is not real. If you want to get into a state of peak performance you are going to have to get out of your comfort zone.

There is no exception.

  1. The Struggle phase. It is called struggle for a reason, it doesn’t feel good. Most people never push themselves through this phase because they are so uncomfortable with challenge. Think of a friend who will never get in the pool because every time they put their pinky toe in the water, they freak out. Stop being a Whining and get your ass in the water.
  2. The Release phase. The struggle subsides and we enter a gray area, where we are teetering on the cusp of a Flow state. This phase provides your brain space to shift from conscious to subconscious processing. This release triggers a flow state. Let’s go back to the cold pool example from above. This would be where the water is no longer cold and not quit warm yet. You know that if you stay in a few minutes longer it won’t be so bad. 
  3. Flow State. Depending on what you are doing, you can be in a low grade flow state or a peak flow state (see number 4). A low grade flow state would be something like a video game or creative writing session, where you have intense focus.
  4. Peak Flow State. A peak flow state could happen during an event, like surfing a 100ft wave or giving a 1 hour speech to an audience of 800 people. In a peak flow state, you are the man (or woman), in the zone, on fire, can do anything and are insanely productive.
  5. Brain Rewiring and Memory Consolidation Phase. This is the crash following the flow state, where your mind and body are rewiring to a higher processing speed. You see the new possibilities and remember every excruciating detail. Have you ever had a epic game or an amazing night out where you were on top of the world? Did you have trouble sleeping that night? Think of it like you are installing the new operating system on your computer. You have to have some down time before you can operate at the higher level. High quality sleep and Meditation are important here.

 

The OLD Flow State Chart

Source Wikepedia

Source Wikepedia

 

The Updated More BadAss Flow State Chart

What happens to your brain while in a flow state?

Your brain releases a series of neurochemicals that allow you to focus with laser like precision. Once you experience a peak flow state, It is probably the most addictive experience in the history of the world (Even more so than drugs, caffeine, nicotine etc.).

In Flow your brain releases a chemical cocktail of :

  • Norepinephrine-It is the hormone and neurotransmitter most responsible for concentration.
  • Dopamine – A neurotransmitter responsible for cognitive alertness.
  • Endorphin– Activates the opioid receptor. AKA it makes you feel really good.
  • Anandamide-The name is taken from the Sanskrit word ananda, which means “bliss, delight“. You can guess how this makes you feel.

The neuro-chemicals, are released in a way that would stun even your local pharmacist (or drug dealer). In fact, if we were to try and duplicate this cocktail in a lab and administer it to someone, it would probably kill them.

Yet in flow our brain creates these neuro-checmicals and releases them in a safe and controlled manner. 

 

All Flow Neuro Chemicals are Social bonding and Romanic chemicals:

These nuero chemicals are foundational for human interaction and experience. Think of the time when you had a really cool or novel experience with your best friend and how that bonded you.

For example, I went hiking with two of my best friends in the rocky mountains. It was a peak experience for me and there were moments of the trip that felt like they lasted for years. The bond we created will last us a lifetime.

  • Romantic chemicals-Noreperpherine and dopamine. (think of that time you saw the pretty girl and time stopped)
  • Social bonding-Endorphin and anandomide.

 

How to tap into the power of FLOW and become superhuman?

This subject is a bit tricky and the application becomes even more difficult. Most of us are not professional surfers but as Jonathan Haidt points out in the Happiness Hypothesis, creating more Flow directly relates to more happiness. 

 

Top 3 Elements to naturally Create flow:

  1. Focus. Any activity that requires lots of focus, will increase the chance of getting into a flow state. This can mean athletic, professional or artistic.
  2. Risk. The brain releases dopamine when we are at risk and out of our comfort zones.
  3. Rich Environment: Lots of novelty, complexity, beautiful scenery, many people, lights, contrast etc.

Get into PEAK FLOW (Amplifying Flow using Meditation and Nootropics)

NOTE: I have absolutely no evidence other than personal experience to back up these claims. What I talk about is based purely off of my own experience. I could write an entire post about this subject, but I will keep it simple.

I have never seen or heard of anyone researching this topic. It was a connection that I made and have been tinkering with for the past couple of years. 

What follows is my hypothesis for the actionable steps needed to increase the frequency, intensity and duration of flow in your life. If you want to kick more ass, learn anything, achieve greatness and expand your consciousness… Keep reading.

 

Step 1: Start a Focused Meditation Practice

This is going to be different than most meditation practices. Many meditation practices are guided or allow your mind to wander. A Focused meditation session is the exact opposite.

Do the following Exercise every day for two weeks. You’ll see a dramatic improvement in your ability to focus. If you weight train you’ll notice yourself getting stronger. If you are someone who is constantly distracted, you’ll see dramatic improvement in your ability to focus.

NOTE: I learned this exercise from Brooks Kubik during a mind power seminar. Check him out here.

Exercise #1:

  1. Find a dark quite place
  2. Sit in a comfortable chair or on the floor
  3. For 10 min focus on a candle, pen light Or take a piece of paper and draw a black dot on paper. I focus on a dark spot on my wall.
  4. Focus on that and nothing else. If your mind wanders, reel it back in. If you have to chant “black dot” in your head to stay focused. Do it.
  5. Do this 10 minutes a day, every day for 1 week. After the first week, add a minute every additional day until you reach 2o minutes total.

Important Notes:

  • The first time you do it, will be the most difficult.
  • It’s not fun and you will feel like a crazy person, so don’t do it in a coffee shop or at the local park.

Step 2: Do lots of Flow based activities

There are many ways to get into a flow state.

My favorites are: 

  • Creative: drawing, writing, and sculpture
  • Athletic: Playing sports, lifting weights, going for a run, hiking in the mountains, and canoeing.
  • Environmental: Pushing the your comfort zone and traveling to new places is often a great jumping off point for flow. 
  • Interpersonal: Getting deeply engaged in a conversation, meeting new people.
  • Project Based: Any project that involves deep focus, complexity and some risk.

The more you can push your boundaries in various fields, the more you grow and the easier it is to jump into a flow based activity. You need the activity you are engaging in to be slightly harder than your current skill set.

This means if you stay in your comfort zone you will never get there.

Get There Consistently...

Get There Consistently…

Step 3: Take Nootropics

In my experience nootropics and healthy fats (MCT oil) that improve your cognitive function also put you into a focused flow state much faster. Once again you need to be setting your edge just beyond your current capabilities in order to get there, but the supplements can help.

NOTE: This is not a “how to take nootropics post.” For more information please conduct your own research and decide what is best for you.

 

My Morning Breakfast/Supplement Stack

Bulletproof Coffee

Popularized by Dave Asprey at the Bulletproof Exec, this Coffee + unsalted Grass Fed Butter + MCT oil is the best cognitive increasing combination I have ever found. Period.

 

Nootropic Stack

I take one of the following depending on my needs for the day and what I have available. I’m not an expert on nootropics, so for more information check out Steve Fowkes and his research on Piracetam.

Nootropic

  • Piracetam + Citicoline: Improves memory I/O. Increases oxygen levels in the brain without decreasing circulation.  Early studies showed piracetam  could improve memory, but combining choline with piracetam was even more effective.
  • Aniracetam + Citicoline: Improves memory I/O. Aniracetam is a more potent analogue that absorbs quickly, but does not last long. It also increases oxygen levels in the brain without decreasing circulation
  • CILTEP: This is one that you can actually feel. It theoretically improves alertness, focus, and memory. The only bad thing about it, is I start to feel really drained after 2+ days of constant use. This is part of the reason, why I switch around between the 3 stacks.

 

 

Wrapping things up

Laird Hamilton, Csikszentmihalyi, Kotler and you all have one thing in common…..

We are all capable of performing at the highest level of human performance, while in a flow state.

If we train ourselves to reach this state, you will get there with much greater ease, frequency and intensity. And who doesn’t want that?

More flow = more Productivity + more Happiness + Peak Human Performance + more Ass Kicking.

Today I will leave you with the undisputed greatest practitioner of flow the world has ever seen….

More Resources Regarding Flow (read all of them):

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hi! I’m Ben.

My friends call me the illegitimate love child of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill Nye. I’m a physicist/athlete and the founder of Stop. Start. Do. My mission is to help top performing entrepreneurs master new habits in 6 days.

About Ben Austin

My friends call me the illegitimate love child of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill Nye. I’m a bodybuilding-yogi-science loving-foodie bringing an engineering approach to lifestyle design. Join me as I analyze the systems that go into optimal mental and physical performance and explore the stories and tactics of people who set the standard for the rest of us.
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  • I thought this was an amazing article. When i was looking for flow state information that was easily organized i kept coming back to this one. Well done man!

    • Thanks Kyle! I appreciate the compliment my friend.

      Have made getting into a flow state part of your daily practice/routine?

      • I try to do it every time i approach a workout. brief meditation before, coordinate my music, focus on the muscles, etc.. I believe that working out is an art form and a place to really connect the body and mind. Not just listen to heavy metal and lift angry (although who doesn’t like to do that from time to time :) ). As a lifter yourself, ill bet you can attest to those moments where every muscle felt perfectly in sync. Looking forward to reading more of your stuff!

        • Definitely! It’s sweet you are approaching your gym time with a high level of intention.

          Like you, I make flow part of my daily and weekly practice.

          Every day I find it through my work, at the gym (most of the time grunting like an ape), and at home.

          On a weekly basis I’ll spend a day (usually Saturday) unleashing my creativity on my new hobby — woodworking. This has turned into a reset button for my entire central nervous system and I’m able to come back to my work feeling refreshed and energized.