How To Find The Flow State
On a recent episode of our podcast, we interviewed New York Times bestselling author and director of the Flow Research Collective, Steven Kotler. In the interview, Jim asked him to walk us through the four stages of the flow state. The flow state is an optimal state of consciousness, where we feel our best and perform our best. Essentially, it’s when we’re in the zone.
But being in the flow doesn’t restrict us to one type of activity. In fact, research shows we benefit from the flow state in the creative arts, athletics, teaching, and more. The flow state is an important part of skill acquisition and learning. It helps us push through obstacles and unlocks unlimited learning potential.
The Four Stages Of Flow
Stage 1: Struggle
Many of us are familiar with this phase. It’s when we feel frustrated and often like we’re in over our heads. We’re packing as much information into our brain as possible, and it’s normal for us to feel anxious and overwhelmed. This stage feels immovable, the opposite of flow, and many people get stuck here. However, this tension is actually priming our brain for learning by releasing norepinephrine. In this beginning struggle, Kotler reminds us, “you are bad until you are good.”
Stage 2: Release
The second stage is where we take a break. But it shouldn’t be just any break. Watching television or indulging in a distraction won’t release the tension the way our brain needs. Instead, we need to take a focused break, where we mindfully relax. We can take a walk, doing deep breathing exercises, engage in a short workout routine. We want our brain to relax, allowing our subconscious mind to digest the struggle of the first step. It’s important to remember distraction is not relaxation. If our brain remains active, it can’t release the necessary tension to move on to stage three, which means we will miss out on the benefits of achieving flow.
Stage 3: Flow
Stage three is flow. When we sit back down, our brain connects all the dots, solves the problem, comes up with the next steps, or sees the path forward. Kotler calls this, “the superman experience”. There is a release of the big five neurochemicals: norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, anandamide, and endorphins. These create an almost out-of-body experience, where not only are we doing our best work, but it happens almost effortlessly. We feel as if we are in complete control of our thoughts, our emotions, and our thinking. These neurochemicals pack a productive force, bringing our brain to the optimal peak for learning.
Stage 4: Recovery
While the flow state is neurochemically rewarding, we can only remain in that state for so long. As these neurochemicals slow, it’s easy to fall into a low state. We want to recreate the high we just experienced, but it’s important we relax and allow our brain to recover instead. As with stage two, how we rest and recover matters. We need our brain to take the progress we made in stage three and transfer it from short-term memory into long-term memory. We also need to rebuild our neurochemical stores, so we can repeat the flow cycle later. To do this, we need to engage in active recovery techniques such as an Epsom salt bath, meditation, exercise, or sleep.
Understanding the four stages of flow can help us increase not just our learning potential, but our productivity levels as well. If we practice four to five times a week, as Kotler does, we will unlock unlimited motivation. Practice also allows us to recognize which part of the cycle we struggle with so we can strategize how to improve. The flow state increases our performance while advancing our belief of what is possible, bringing us one step closer to becoming limitless.