We now know that flow works not like an on-off switch but in a four-part cycle. Understanding these cycles can help you to more often access flow. The parts of the cycle are as follows: struggle, release, flow, and recovery. To hack flow, explains Kotler, you have to learn to struggle better and recover better.
Steven Kotler: Flow Genome Project – what we’ve discovered when people want more flow in their lives, the number one thing we can tell them is that there is a flow cycle. So the old idea about flow was that it was a binary. It was like a light switch. You were either in the zone or you were out of the zone. What we now know is that flow is a four part cycle and you have to move through all four parts of the cycle before you can return to the flow state itself. The neurobiology of the flow cycle and the actual research came out of Herb Benson’s work at Harvard. He kind of laid the foundation for it. But what we’ve discovered is at the front end of the flow state there’s a struggle phase. This is a loading phase. You are loading, then overloading the brain with information. For a baseball player this is learning to swing a bat at a ball. For a writer planning a new book. This is when you’re doing interviews. This is when you’re reading, it’s when you’re diagramming structure and things like that. It’s very unpleasant as a general rule. So even though flow may be the most desirable and pleasant state on earth, the actual flow cycle itself starts with a very unpleasant state known as struggle.
From struggle you move into release. This literally means you want to take your mind off the problem. So what happens in flow is we are trading conscious processing which is slow, has very limited RAM, right, the working memory can only hold about four items at once, and is very energy inefficient. For subconscious processing which his extremely fast and is very energy efficient and has pretty much endless RAM. So to do that you have to move from struggle, you have to let – stop thinking about what you were trying to think about basically. You take your mind off the problem, you go for long walks, gardening works very well, building models works very, very well. Albert Einstein famously used to row a boat into the middle of Lake Geneva and stare at the clouds, right. Once you can take your mind off the problem and, by the way, one of the only things that you can’t do to move through release is watch television. It actually changes your brainwaves in a way that it will block flow. But once you move from release there’s actually underneath the surface neurobiologically there’s a global release of nitric oxide which is a gas of signaling molecules found everywhere in the body. This flushes all the stress hormones out of your system and replaces them with kind of feel good performance enhancing neurochemicals like dopamine and anandamide and serotonin and endorphins which underpin the flow state as well. You’re in the flow state. This is the third stage in the struggle. And on the back end of the flow state there is actually a recovery phase. And this is really, really, really critical. So you go from this amazing high of flow to a very deep low that shows up in recovery. A lot of this is that all those feel good neurochemicals have drained out of your system.
It takes certain vitamins and minerals and sunlight and things like that to rebuild them. So the recovery phase on the back end of the flow state is actually very, very unpleasant as well. And if you really want to hack flow you need to learn how to struggle better and you need to learn how to recover better. And one of the most important things in recovery is you have to – you need some emotional fortitude, some grit. You have to basically hold on to your emotions, not get stressed out at the fact that you know longer feel like Superman. And the main reason – well two reasons for this is one, if you get too stressed out and feeling low you’re going to start producing cortisol. A little bit is fine, too much of it blocks the accelerated learning that comes with flow. So you will actually get the short term benefit of the flow state itself but you won’t get the long term benefit, the accelerated learning that you get in flow. The other problem is if you have to move from recovery back into struggle and you’re bummed out at no longer being in flow during the recovery phase, it’s very hard to get up for the difficult fight of struggle that follows.
Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton