Reverse Engineering Bliss: Hacking the Flow State

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:04KJER0243.jpg

High stake situations require complete and utmost concentration. Any distraction or lapse of judgement can shift your attention away from the present moment, hindering your efforts to achieve a state of effortless flow. This could make all the difference in the final moments of a championship game or dictate whether you are in peak performance mode when giving a big presentation at work. In the case of extreme sports, there is no room for error. For athletes such as free solo rock climbers, being in a flow state is a matter of life or death. Scaling a boulder thousands of feet above the ground demands one to be immersed in their climbing, and plunge into the here and ‘now’.

We do not need to perform dangerous or extraordinary feats to achieve a state of flow. Many of us at some point in our lives have achieved these states of consciousness in one form or another. We all have interests and passions that we pursue for there own sake, irrespective of any attention or other benefits we may gain from them. We engage in these activities in which we experience moments which distort our sense of time, optimize our performance, silence our ego and make our actions feel effortless.

For me as a musician, these flow states occur when I ‘let go’ of over analyzing what I am playing, forego the fear of failure and channel my emotions into my guitar. This is why I admire the late great guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix. His live performances and remarkable solos are an exemplar of what is means to be in flow. Describing his 1969 Woodstock performance, David Moskowitz in his book The Words and Music of Jimi Hendrix writes,

The guitar solo in the middle of the song illustrated how lost in the music Jimi could be. He played for several minutes with his eyes tightly shut and the solo reached a climax with Jimi returning to his old trick of playing with his teeth.

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jimi-Hendrix-1967-Helsinki.jpg

The question thus remains – are these just spontaneous fleeting moments that we experience at random? Moreover, can we attain these states in any sort of systematic way?

Building off the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Steven Kotler’s research identifies four triggers that can help you get in a state of flow.  

  1. Clear Goals:  In order to achieve a state of flow, one must have a concrete understanding of what they want to achieve. Having a clear set of tangible goals provides purpose and structure to your efforts and ambitions.  
  2. Immediate Feedback: Just as a musician knows if they have played the wrong note or the surgeon is constantly aware of status of their patient, immediate feedback is a significant requirement of flow. It enables us to continually alter our actions in response to the situation to achieve our desired result, and meet the necessities of the current situation.
  3. Concentration in the Present Moment: To be in peak performance mode, we must be immersed in the activity. High levels of concentration effectively narrow our attention on the task at hand. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi notes in his seminal  book Flow, during these states of consciousness:

Only a very select range of information can be allowed into our awareness. Therefore, all the troubling thoughts that ordinarily keep passing through the mind are temporarily kept out of abeyance. 

4. Challenge /Skill Ratio:  The flow state exists between boredom and anxiety. That is, it occurs when an individual is pursuing an activity that has the appropriate level of challenge for their skill level. For instance, a tennis match is most enjoyable to play when the two players are evenly matched. When a skilled player competes against  an amateur, they get bored as they lack the challenge and competition. They fail to utilize the full capacity of their skills. On the contrary, the amateur is filled with anxiety as they are stretched beyond their present level of competency.

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lucgaloppin/6324319992

We all strive to experience moments which send shivers down our spine. Moments which provide us with temporary respite from the daily grind – the rat race. Experiencing flow puts you in a meditative state, jolting you into the ‘now’, silencing the nagging thoughts and trivial problems that we ruminate on throughout our day-to-day existence.

We can get to these optimal experiences and experience flow through pushing our boundaries. By pursuing our unquenchable thirst for new challenges.  Through learning new skills, and continually seeking novelty and unique experiences.  

It all begins with finding what activities resonate with you. The sort of things that you pursue because they have intrinsic value to you – activities that you engage it not primarily for fame or fortune, but because you deeply love and admire them.

So, what gets you in the state of flow?

Till next time,

AA

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