Peak Performance Flow States
Peak Performance Flow States are those moments or, if we are lucky, prolonged periods where the world around us drifts away, where our focus stays laser sharp, and the volume of work or how we perform dramatically increases. But what is a flow state, and is it possible to get better at accessing flow?
The Origins Of Flow
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a pioneer of the positive psychology movement. That’s the branch of psychology involved with positive emotional states such as well-being, fulfilment and happiness.
In 1975, Csikszentmihalyi studied happiness and discovered that people are often happiest when thoroughly immersed in fulfilling tasks. We enter what he called ‘flow’ when in this state.
Csikszentmihalyi explains flow as:
“…completely involved in an activity for its own sake… Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one… Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
What is A Peak Performance Flow State?
Flow is a state of mind where you are completely focused and absorbed in an activity. Due to total immersion in what you are doing, time falls away, and all external distractions disappear. If you’re tired, you barely notice, and your performance remains consistently high.
Being In flow state could be described as:
In rhythm, In the zone, playing unconscious, in a groove or even the so-called runner’s high.
For an athlete, flow is performing at their best, seemingly, with no effort. However, flow requires effort and practice; it is a result of active participation. For musicians, they feel alert, calm, challenged, focused, confident, fully present and engaged in a task.
Csikszentmihalyi describes eight characteristics of flow as being:
- Complete concentration on the task;
- Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback;
- Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down);
- The experience is intrinsically rewarding;
- Effortlessness and ease;
- There is a balance between challenge and skills;
- Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination;
- There is a feeling of control over the task.
Work and Study – Flow States
- Flow at work or whilst studying is when you are immersed in a project or task that you lose track of time. You might not even realise how much time has passed as you complete an assignment or listen to a lecture. This is flow.
Sports – Flow States
- In sports, flow states feel like a clear head – when athletes have the ability to focus on athletic performance without being worried or self-conscious – In these moments, they are achieving athletic flow.
Art – Flow States
- Whether creating or experiencing art, flow states can be experienced – be that via music, movies, painting or writing. Whilst creating art, flow state happens when you are so involved in the creative process that it’s the only thing you’re focused on. While experiencing art, you may find yourself so immersed in the art piece or music you are listening to that time passes without you realising it. This is creative flow.
Productivity Benefits Of Peak Performance Flow States
Flow produces a cognitive state that allows you to solve difficult problems, quickly learn new skills, and produce at a high level. Studies have continued to confirm Csikszentmihalyi theory around the level of performance improvements possible during flow. Some studies show up to a 500% productivity improvement for executives when working in flow states. Additionally, it has been shown that flow can halve the time required to train target skills to an expert level.
Getting in the flow has a variety of benefits, including:
- Increased satisfaction – what you produce during flow state tends to be its own reward
- Feeling in control and in tune with your emotions
- Improved engagement in your work
- Increased creativity – you are less self-conscious during flow state
- Improved focus on what you are doing
- Confidence that what you’re working on is achievable
What Happens in the Brain During Flow?
In a flow state, EEG scans have shown that our brain changes. The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for cognitive functions such as self-reflective consciousness, working memory, self-criticism, and problem-solving, ‘switches off’. Hormones and neurotransmitters responsible for performance enhancement, like dopamine, endorphins, noradrenaline, anandamide and serotonin, are released.
This ‘switch off’, known as the ‘transient hypofrontality’ process, decreases activity in the brain’s frontal region and quietens down the negative voice that lives in your head, allowing you to excel mentally and physically.
At an individual level, the hormones and neurotransmitters released increase focus, improve mood, enhance creativity and speed up information processing. At the group level, they increase cooperation, emotional connection and communication; consequently, performance and productivity both skyrocket.
Mental and Physical Preparedness
Your physical and mental health can both impact your ability to master flow. So, before you start trying to master peak performance flow states, ensure both your mind and body are prepared.
The mental basics:
- Avoid stress – Too much life pressure will block flow
- Lower your tension levels by practising mindfulness, breathwork meditation, daily gratitude or doing 20-40 minutes of exercise. Do one a day to keep your nervous system in check.
The physical basics:
- Stay Hydrated
- Eat healthy, well-balanced meals
- Get enough sleep – 7-8 hours a night
- Have a solid social support network. Each time your brain faces a challenge, it completes a threat assessment. If it senses loneliness, it shuts down by producing the hormone cortisol.
How to Trigger And Enhance Peak Performance Flow States
There are several flow triggers that can be used to activate a release of ‘flow hormones’ into your body, tricking your brain into getting excited and helping it to focus better.
Flow pioneer and guru Csikszentmihalyi identified four triggers to help generate more flow.
- Complete concentration in the present moment
- Immediate feedback
- Clear goals
- The challenge-skills ratio (when the challenge pushes your skills to the maximum).
Reaching a flow state is about the balance between your ability and your perception of the challenge or task difficulty. Make things too easy, and you will become bored; too difficult, and anxiety will creep in as fear of failure takes over. Both extremes lead to negative experiences and poor performance.
This Csikszentmihalyi graph displays how different ability levels and challenge levels lead to distinct emotional outcomes.
The ideal balance in order to encourage flow is a high capability level paired with a high challenge level. This will lead to maximum performance and ultimate personal fulfilment.
Capabilities and perceptions of challenge change over time, so challenge levels should be increased to prevent boredom. If you have a growth mindset, you will automatically seek fresh challenges, expanding your abilities as you go.
If you are feeling overly challenged, you will need to seek support. This could be via training, resources, guidance, or tools and techniques.
Keith Sawyer, a North Carolina psychologist, added to this list when he identified triggers that create group flow.
- Shared goals
- Close listening
- Complete concentration
- A sense of control (but group contribution at the core)
- Blending egos (being a team of players)
- Equal participation
- Familiarity (know your team members, but not too much that you stop challenging each other)
- Constant communication
- Shared group risk
The following six key skills identified over the last 50 years help to enhance flow states. These are relaxation, imagery, goal setting, self-talk, concentration, and pre-performance routines.
- Anxiety inhibits peak performance, so keep anxiety levels in check before peak performance so flow can occur.
- Exercise can help manage all types of anxiety – so depending on the environment you are trying to create flow within, balance this with a little exertion prior to the main event.
- Daily meditation to help lower the resting heart rate and enhance brain plasticity. So introduce meditation to your daily routine to help keep anxiety levels at a minimum. You will most likely need a good eight weeks of daily meditation before impacts may be noticed.
- Engage in visualisation to mentally picture what peak performance should feel and look like.
- Visualise an important presentation or speech, the exam you are due to sit, the new skill you have just learnt, or the goal you are striving to achieve.
- Cardio imagery and rehearsal is a new method that combines mental rehearsal with moderate cardio (120-140 heart rate). This new technique primes learning and reinforces process goals.
- Mental rehearsal is as effective as physical rehearsal as, just like during physical practice, mirror neurons trigger various muscle groups through the peripheral nervous system.
- Use goal setting as a motivational tool for directing your focus and efforts.
- Goal setting supports an intentional practice that encourages us to concentrate our efforts on the most challenging aspects of the project, study, skill, and creation.
- Try exercising in the morning before you embark on work, practice or study while mentally focusing on what needs your focus that day. This process helps to identify goals and primes the brain for learning.
- Focus on positive self-talk – Research shows that positive thoughts and feelings promote creativity.
- Negative emotions stimulate critical thinking, which can lead to self-consciousness.
- A positive mental attitude is a key to reaching flow states.
- Enhancing our ability to pay attention and improving our mental discipline around focus is key to reaching flow states. The mind must be engaged fully in the moment, with zero distractions, and immersed in the task.
- Learning to ‘live in the moment’ is the best way to build focusing skills.
Flow states can exponentially enhance performance. Not only athletic performance but also your ability to perform whilst at work, whilst learning or in the creative field.
Try and arrange your week or days to allow for blocks of time where flow can be reached – try focusing with blocks of 90 mins. Get organised with this time, with a single, clear objective for each 90 min session: mute notifications, emails, and phone calls. At the end of each 90-minute flow burst, give yourself time to recover. Just like going to the gym, where we rest between sets or sessions, your brain is no different. Give it a chance to chill and recover.