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Get Into Your Creative Flow

Lesson 14 of 32

Flow Triggers

Steven Kotler

Get Into Your Creative Flow

Steven Kotler

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Lesson Info

14. Flow Triggers

Lesson Info

Flow Triggers

What is under the hood of that flow profile? What is under the hood of that flow audit? Turns out flow states have triggers. These are preconditions that lead to more flow. This is a lot of the work the flow genome project has been involved in. For those of you who know anything about our history, we started out working with top action adventure sport athletes, people who need flow to perform at a high level, they need flow to survive. If you're a professional free skier you're not getting from the top of the mountain to the bottom without a flow state, right? So we had a real problem in the early days of flow research because how the hell do you know if your study subjects are really in flow? Sure, we had a psychometric questionnaire and it was well validated but it's still a questionnaire, right, a little squishy. With the action sport athletes, it was really simple. If they actually were alive at the bottom of the run, we knew they were in flow. Gave us a hard data set with to work.

We took that data set, we took all the neuroscience and we worked backwards. And what we now know is flow states have these triggers. Now we're going to spend a lot of time today walking through different triggers and how to apply them and when, but the one thing I want to tell you right now, place to start, flow follows focus. Only shows up when all of our attention is focused on the right here, right now. That is what these triggers do. They drive attention into the present moment. To put this differently, these are the 20 things that evolution shaped our brain to pay the most attention too. For example, passion and purpose, alright? Passion, purpose, these are words that get very mystified. Oh, find your passion, what's your purpose, and all that. Why does it matter? The only really passion and purpose matters is because it drives attention to the present moment. We pay more attention to those things we believe in. That's why it matters. Alright, it drives flow. Where are we going next? Ah, good. Alright. So this leads us to our very first mind hack. Firetruck off, I'm flowing. When we work with organizations, when FGP works with organizations, the very first thing we do is we walk in and we say if you cannot hang a sign on your door that says fuck off, I'm flowing, you cannot do this work. If you work for a company or run a company and you're making your employees message you back within 15 minutes of getting a message or email you back within an hour of getting an email, that's a fricking disaster, alright? Talk to your bosses if somebody is making you do that. If you're making your employees do that, change that. Flow requires moments of uninterrupted concentration. In fact, research, Csikszentmihalyi, a bunch of years ago teamed up with a guy named Kevin Rathunde. University of Utah education researcher. And they went looking for what are the highest flow environments in the world outside of action adventure sports. Monastery education was number one. The reason why, monastery education is built around 90 to 120 minute periods of uninterrupted concentration. It's what surrounds monastery education. There's a couple other things they do, and we'll talk about those things a little bit later, but what the research shows is really, really profound flow states, especially if we're doing creative things, requires 90 to 120 minutes of uninterrupted concentration. So when I talked about protecting your schedule, this is the first reason you're going to need to protect your schedule. You're going to need those blocks of time, especially as creatives. Now interestingly, Tim Ferriss says this and I think I agree with him. He says while the 90 to 120 minutes are important, if you're actually a creative, if you're really doing this for a living, you're gonna need a couple four to five hour blocks every week for just mind wandering, for rumination, right? So 90 to 120 minutes maximizes flow but there's gonna be a couple of times a week probably where you're gonna need longer chunks of concentration and you're gonna have to shut your door. My office is sort of at the back ends of my field. I am very, very, very isolated. I get up at four o'clock in the morning, why? Because nobody calls. My phone is unplugged, everything is turned off. It's dark outside, it's quiet. You really need those conditions. Alright. Let's talk about the most important of flows triggers. So this is often called the golden rule of flow. It's the most critical of flows triggers. It's what's known as the challenge skill balance. Flow follows focus. You pay the most attention to the task at hand when the challenge of the task slightly exceeds our skillset. So you want to stretch but not snap. Alright, if I were to say this emotionally, I would say flow exists not on but very near the midpoint between anxiety and boredom. Boredom, not enough stimulation, I'm not paying any attention. Anxiety, whoa, way too much stimulation, I'm paying way too much attention. In between is what's called the flow channel. If you are interested in physiology you may have heard of the Yerkes-Dodson curve. This is the idea that attention will get more and more and more focused up to a point and then there's too much of it, there's too much anxiety, and then it starts to fall off and performance declines with it. That's where the flow channel sits. Interestingly, Csikszentmihalyi teamed up with a Google mathematician a couple of years ago and they performed back at the envelope calculation. They were trying to figure out, well, what's the exact ratio between challenge and skills. And they came up with a 4% gradient difference meaning the challenge of the task at hand, to maximize flow, needs to be 4% harder than your skillset. Now that seems like a random number, we found a way to actually test it more rigorously at the flow genome project and we've conducted two or three years worth of studies on this number with people and what we've found is that it keeps people in sweet spot, it works consistently over time. Interestingly, so as an athlete, for example, a seasonal athlete, meaning like ski season shows up once it snows. Typically, before I had this information, what would happen is, I would find myself in a really powerful flow state, maybe the third or fourth day of the ski season, and then I wouldn't have another one maybe 'til the end of the ski season, right? Two major ones, one at the beginning, one at the end. Once I figured out that 4% was the sweet spot, each time I showed up to the hill I tried to push a little 4% harder, a tiny little bit harder than I did last time, I can now get into flow pretty much every time I go skiing by staying in the sweet spot. I've to say quadrupled this is an understatement. Massively maximized the amount of flow in my life. Now 4% is a tricky number, 4% for people who are a little more timid, a little more shy, a little more of an underachiever, this is outside your comfort zone. You are pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone. For really high performance, for anyone who's a hard charger in here, for type A types, the problem with 4% is you'll blow by without even noticing it. You'll take on challenges that are 10%, 20%, 30% greater and by doing that, you will lock yourself out of the very state you need to be in to actually achieve those challenges. So one of things we say a lot at the flow genome project, with this work, you want to go slow to go fast, right? It is a 500% boost in productivity, right? So you don't need to take on giant challenges. A little bit better today than I did yesterday, that's what we're looking for. A little bit, right? As a writer, by the way, as a creative, one of the things I know about writing, one of the things I've learned along the way, is tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth. Honesty works best in writing, right? No matter what you're writing. I want to be honest enough that I'm a little uncomfortable knowing what's coming, right, knowing that I'm going to publish this book and other people are going to see it, I want to be a little uncomfortable, I want to be a little uneasy with how much of myself I am putting into my creativity, right? If you are a little uncomfortable with how much you're showing the world as a creative, you're probably in the right sweet spot, right? You're nervous but you're not overwhelmed.

Class Description

Do you want to learn more about flow? Take the Free Flow Profile to find out if you are a Deep Thinker, Crowd Pleaser, Hard Charger, or Flow Goer.

If creativity is already core to your life, then this program is perfect for you. This could mean you’re a copywriter at an ad agency, a scientist hunting a breakthrough, a coder designing software, an entrepreneur dreaming up your next start-up, a writer aching to finish that novel or a landscape painter trapped in the life of an accountant — all that matters is that generating novel ideas (and putting those ideas out in the world in some form or another) is core to your life and purpose.

Why Does “Flow for Creatives” even matter?

  • You keep losing the battle to be innovative in the rush to be productive.

  • You have writer’s block or coder’s block or painter’s block and the thing you used to love most in your life has become a source of pain and frustration.

  • You have trouble managing your emotions and fear keeps getting in the way of your good ideas.

  • You have trouble sustaining momentum on projects and tend to quit early rather than to finish what you started.

  • You have no idea how to gain access to groundbreaking insights and ideas when you need them most.

  • You don’t actually believe creativity is trainable.

  • You’re numbing yourself with substances and placating yourself with distractions as a way to ignore the fact that you’re not living up to your creative potential.

  • You get lost in the fixing to get ready phase, and never get down to business.

  • You keep bashing into creative walls but never breaking thru.

  • Your emotions keeping getting in the way of your desired outcomes. Fear of failure keeps you from committing to projects; perfectionism keeps you from making your work public.

Flow For Creatives can help.

It’s like an inspiration turbo-boost training program. It’s practical, experiential and experimental. You learn a new idea about Flow and Creativity, apply it to whatever problem you’re trying to solve, see what happens, then make it your own.

And, did you know…

  • When in Flow, your creative problem-solving abilities can spike by over 400 percent.

  • Research done at Harvard shows that the heightened creativity produced by Flow can outlast the state by a day, sometimes two—suggesting that Flow actually trains the brain to think more creatively over the long haul.

  • Creatives are more prone to depression than most people, but an understanding of the process can protect against this liability.

  • Creativity tops the list of 21st-century skills—meaning those skills that are essential for thriving in the modern world—yet 75 percent of people think they’re not living up to their creative potential.

  • The baseline brainwave state produced by Flow is also the ready condition for “Ah-ha” insight, meaning being in the zone makes you primed for breakthrough insight.

  • Fear blocks creativity, while Flow resets the nervous system, calming us down so we can avoid burnout and gain access to much-needed insight.

  • Unless you know how to train the brain properly, most people tap into their deepest creative potential at age 5.

  • Frustration is actually a built-in component of the creative process—it’s a sign that you’re moving in the right direction not a sign that you’re going about it all wrong.

Life is better than ever and we are feeling worse than evener. We are neurotic, stressed, unmotivated and it’s literally killing us. This class is for anyone that is serious about staying in their highest performing state.

*Warning: this instructor occasionally uses strong language. Viewer discretion advised*


Jeremy Richardson

I've watched and participated in many webinars and online classes, and this was by far one of the best. The depth and breadth of information that Steven covers in this class is not only really important, but he structures it in a way that is engaging and most importantly: PRACTICAL. I'm coming out of this with a clear list of ways to improve my ability to get into Flow while accomplishing all of my creative endeavors. I highly recommend this to anyone who would like to do the same!


This is amazing. Steven is hitting so many pain point for me about reframing my fear. He is also an amazing presenter. Thank you, Steven! I am excited, I am excited, I am excited!

Isaac Freed

Utterly mind blowing. Wow. A few hours listening to Steven Kotler felt more like a few days. He has done his research, and offers so much practical application advice that I will review this material several times. Well worth it, and highly recommended. Thank you, Creative Live!