Develop A Flow
We're now gonna talk about what is my absolute favorite thing in the world, and that is this feeling called flow. There's nothing in my mind that is more joyful, it's why I surf, it's why I snowboard, it's why I write every day, it's why I keep doing the work that I do, it's why people who become rich after starting companies keep starting companies. It's not because of the fact that they have enough money to sit around and do nothing, it's that this feeling is so addictive and so joyful it just keeps you coming back for more. So I wanna introduce it to you by introducing you to the words of a man who really kind of is the pioneer of this field, Steven Kotler.
Flow follows focus. The state can only show up when all of our attention is focused in the right here, right now. Evolution shaped what we now know of is 20, there are probably more, but we know of 20 triggers. These are things that drive attention into the present moment. And people who have extremely high flow lives, lots of ...
flow in their life, the first thing they've done is they've sort of built their lives around these triggers. And the funny thing about them is, and I'll walk you through a bunch of them, the funny thing about them is none of them are complicated, none of them are super sexy. They're all really unbelievably obvious and underwhelming on a certain level. And you know all of these things fundamentally, 'cause your body is actually hardwired for flow, it's hardwired to move in the direction of peak performance if you can learn to hear the signals correctly.
Great, so Steven talked about flow triggers and what I'm gonna tell you is what I consider the essential flow triggers. We're not gonna go through all 20, but we're gonna go through a few of them. Ones that in my own life I've found to be instrumental. Some of it we've actually talked about and been alluding to throughout our entire conversation. The first, of course, is singular focus. It's virtually impossible for you to get into a state of flow if your attention keeps shifting from one thing to another. But if you're able to focus on this singular thing you will actually find that you'll quickly get to flow. Another thing is clear goals. So most of us when we have a goal to do something, like follow through on a habit, we tend to have very vague goals. So, for example, you might say, oh I'm gonna write this morning. That's kind of a vague goal. What are you gonna write? You gonna write a sentence? You gonna write a status update? Are you gonna write a paragraph? Part of the reason that I use 1,000 words is because it amplifies the clarity of a goal. Simply putting a number in front of something makes it crystal clear, because there's no question as to whether you've hit the goal or not. It's no longer subjective, it's completely objective. You either met the number or you didn't. You either hit 1,000 words or you didn't. And because of the fact that the goal is so clear you basically tap into another flow trigger. Another one is immediate feedback. Now immediate feedback is an interesting one, particularly when it comes to creative work, because of the fact that often we're not doing our creative work in front of an audience. If you're a musician that becomes very clear, because of the fact that you can hear the sounds coming out of the instrument. If you're a surfer, you're a snowboarder, you're doing action sports, that also becomes obvious, because of the fact that environment itself provides immediate feedback. But when it comes to creative work we have to kind of decide what immediate feedback looks like. And in my experience what I try to think of is that, I view immediate feedback as something, the way I look at immediate feedback is to say, okay, does this internal expectation I have and do the external reality match each other? And if they don't then I know something is wrong or I've gotta change. So that's the way I look at immediate feedback when it comes to creative work. Now another thing is challenge. Flow occurs at what is known as the midpoint between boredom and anxiety. I wanna give you a couple of examples of this. So if you took somebody like me who has basically been snowboarding for about three or four years, I can do blues with no problem, if you put me at the top of a double black diamond I'm not gonna experience flow, I'm gonna experience anxiety, because I'm gonna look down and I'm gonna basically see certain death. And that basically means I'm gonna be paralyzed. But if you take me to a bunny slope nothing is gonna happen, because I'm gonna be bored out of my mind. It looks more like a sidewalk, it's not challenging enough. And when it comes to creative work, so for example, something like 1,000 words a day. If you've never written a word in your life then 1,000 words a day is gonna be so challenging that instead of challenge you're gonna experience anxiety. So the goal basically here when it comes to challenging yourself is to bend, but not break. To push yourself into a situation that's uncomfortable, but not life-threatening. Now nothing in terms of creative work is life-threatening ever, usually, I hope not, but you just wanna push yourself a little bit. And the funny thing is that as you keep challenging yourself what you'll notice is that you have to keep adjusting the flow triggers, because you have to keep making this challenging. So there is a point at which I knew that without question 1,000 words would get me into flow. At a certain point 1,000 words became completely normal, it's just what I did. So I had to keep upping the word count, because I couldn't get into flow, because it was no longer a challenge. And then finally, the other one is time. Time is one of the most critical factors when it comes to flow. Steven Kotler says you need about 90 minutes of uninterrupted creation time before you get into flow. And we talked a little bit about zero interruptions. Phone out of the room, nobody distracting you, doors closed, whatever it takes. I find that the more that you practice this, the more that you make it a regular habit you'll actually be able to get there faster than in 90 minutes. I can get there in about 45 minutes. And what you'll find once you get to this point of flow is that suddenly the work doesn't feel like work anymore. It's hard, it will feel like a struggle and it will be strenuous, but you'll be so deeply immersed in whatever you're doing that the world around you will fade. And most of you have experienced this in your life at one time or another. The thing is that what we wanna do here by using triggers is I wanna be able to give you the tools so that you can create this experience on demand whenever you need it. As apposed to oh, this happens every once in a while. Because I think that when we experience flow often we don't even know that it was flow, we just know when we get out of it we're like, wow, that's amazing, I wanna do that. You have these days at work sometimes where the day just flies by and you wonder how is it that what felt like one hour was actually four or five. Whereas you have the opposite of that where what is normally one hour feels like three. And time is a really critical factor in all of that. So if you give yourself anywhere between 60 to 90 minutes what you'll find is usually in that last 30 minutes you'll do more in the 30 minutes than you did the entire 60 minutes prior. This is why I can write 1,000 words in 45 minutes and I can write a 2,000 or 3,000 word article in the next 45 minutes, because of the fact that you go into flow. Steven Kotler said that top executives in flow experienced a 500% increase in productivity. So just think about how different your days would be if in one hour you had a 500% increase in productivity. That means in the first three hours of the day you would get more done than you would the rest of the day combined. That has been my experience consistently over the last 10 years. And then finally, well we have passion. So often we tend to look at something like writing or creating or recording a podcast, whatever it is, and because some authority figure or some thought leader or some guru says that everybody should go and do this thing, we believe that that is the thing that everybody should do. But if you hate doing that thing it doesn't matter how much you do it you're never going to get good at it, because you can't stand doing it, if you don't enjoy it at all. Now passion is really interesting, because we tend to put the cart before the horse when it comes to passion. There's this idea of follow your passion and it's kind of silly, because most people don't have enough data points to make an assessment on what they're passionate about. They expect that they're just gonna wake up one day with this all-compassing passion and say, I'm gonna follow my life's quest to do this one thing that I have no experience about. It would be ludicrous for somebody to say, you know what, I wanna become a doctor and I wanna go to medical school and I wanna spend the next 10 years of my life doing this thing if I've never taken a science class, I've never volunteered at a hospital. What do you know about that experience before you've experienced it? I wasn't passionate about conducting interviews. I experienced conducting interviews and I found the process engaging, so when it comes to passion what I tell people is to pay attention to the things that you find engaging, because those are the places where the seeds for your passion are likely to exist. So when you combine all of these things together and you repeat them on a regular basis what you will find is eventually you will get from focus to flow and you will experience all the things that we're talking about. And this is a practice, like anything else. One other thing that I wanna talk about is interruptions and distractions. We talked earlier about interruptions and distractions and this is very relevant to this idea of time and the role that time plays. If you say are 45 minutes into a session, you're on the edge of flow, you're about to get into the zone and then you decide to go and check email or go check Facebook or answer the phone, you've basically undone everything you just did for the last 45 minutes and the whole cycle starts all over again. So that is critical to this idea of flow. So I wanna turn it over to you guys for questions. This a pretty deep subject and a really kind of weird rabbit hole, but really the benefits of this are off the charts and I really would like to turn over to you guys and see what questions you have about this. Yeah?
Is there, I'm assuming there's probably a benefit to doing these flow activities at the beginning of the day versus the end?
So absolutely, that's a great question. So as we talked about when we were talking about willpower, your willpower generally tends to be highest at the beginning of the day, because you haven't made decisions. And because you haven't made all these decisions your cognitive bandwidth tends to be highest at the beginning of the day. There are some exceptions to this. There are people who are night owls, but for the most part I think if you look at it across the board, even my friend Mars Dorian, who you'll hear from later, has actually shifted to not being a night owl, even though he has been for a very long time. It's the rare group of people who are actually at their best later in the day. For the most part everybody is at their best earlier in the morning. Yeah?
I had a question on challenge. How do you, do you have any suggestions on how to get that medium point between boredom and anxiety, so you're actually pushing yourself, but not pushing yourself too hard?
So I think that the idea is that you want it to be slightly uncomfortable. You want it to be the kind of thing that you don't know you can definitely do, but not so difficult that you know you absolutely can't do it. Like I said, if you put me at the top of a double black diamond I would say, I'm gonna die, I'm not going down this thing, I'll just carry my snowboard down. So that's largely experimentation. You're gonna have to keep experimenting with that and looking at where you find something challenging and then where something no longer is challenging. Because I think that the more you do this the more you'll start to figure out where that midpoint is. I think the thing that most people don't realize is that midpoint keeps moving. The better you get at something, the more you have to challenge yourself with it to keep experiencing flow from it. Yeah?
Can you please give an example to describe how it is like for the immediate feedback?
Yeah, so if you're, so we'll use two examples for immediate feedback. The first, I think the obviously one for me is something like surfing or snowboarding. Since surfing in particular is really ideal for immediate feedback, because of the fact that the environment is incredibly dynamic. You're in an ocean and so it's constantly changing. The moment you drop into a wave you're seeing water move, you kind of know what, you're gonna fall or you're gonna keep going on the wave, so the feedback is built right into the nature of the activity. A musical instrument, for example, is another one. When you're playing a musical instrument you know what the immediate feedback is, 'cause you hear the sound coming out of the instrument. If it sounds awful you know you're not playing well. Whereas, if you're playing really well it sounds beautiful and you just kind of get lost and it's when you see those guitarists on stage that are just jamming and you can see they're lost and they're in their own world, that's people experiencing flow.
What about writing?
So writing is like I said, a bit more complicated, because of the fact that you're doing it in isolation, somebody else is not paying attention to it, but I think with writing where you start to realize that you're in flow or where you start to get that immediate feedback is when your internal expectation of what the writing is gonna be like and the external realities start to match up. Now what I find is that for 45 minutes everything I write sounds like just absolute nonsense. It doesn't make any sense, it's gibberish, and it's just words on the page, words on the page, and then suddenly you get to this point of clarity and you'll write one sentence and you think to yourself, wait a minute, that sounds really good, I can build on that. And suddenly the internal expectation you have and the external reality start to match. So you start to get feedback based on the fact that you get a lot more clarity. Does that help?
So I've started to find flow when I write, but there's that inevitable moment when I don't quite know the exact way I wanna say what comes next and I find that that's the moment I go for the distraction, so even in a mostly state of flow. So I'm interested in getting your thoughts on in that moment how do you respond?
Absolutely, great question. It's funny, 'cause we had Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist who's entire focus is on the subject of attention, and I asked him a similar question. One of the things that he said was that when you experience those moments where you're bored or you're kind of thinking and you're trying to get to that point of clarity, you don't know what you're gonna say, is to use what effectively he calls interval training. Where you take a break, but don't take a break to look at Facebook or give into a distraction, just take a break from the thing you're working on, look up for 20 seconds from the screen, or look up and stare off into space for 20 seconds, because then you have the opportunity to rest your eyes, or just walk away for a minute and come back to it, and often that usually will help that issue. But the key being that you don't use that minute to go and check Facebook or check email.