Skip to main content

Get Into Your Creative Flow

Lesson 23 of 32

Release Triggers

Steven Kotler

Get Into Your Creative Flow

Steven Kotler

staff favorite

Starting under


Get access to this class +2000 more taught by the world's top experts

  • 24/7 access via desktop, mobile, or TV
  • New classes added every month
  • Download lessons for offline viewing
  • Exclusive content for subscribers

Lesson Info

23. Release Triggers

Lesson Info

Release Triggers

A lot of what we're doing with release is, we are allowing innovation. So, I said earlier, that what happens in flow is we are trading, conscious processing, for sub-conscious processing. Conscious mind, as you know, very, very, very powerful, it's very limited, right? The working memory can only hold onto about, seven items at once. It's also very slow. Conscious thought, moves at about 150 miles an hour. It sounds really fast, it's not. Also, a thing about conscious thought, it's a huge energy hog, right? The brain is always trying to conserve energy, conscious thought is a huge energy hog. When you can tick over, from conscious processing, to subconscious processing, right. You're allowing your adaptive unconscious, which is not the term psychologists prefer for the subconscious, because Freud, kind of, ruined the subconscious for a lot of people. It's now been called the adaptive unconscious, whatever. You are trading, so subconscious thought, they don't know how big the RAM is, of...

the subconscious. As far as we can tell, it's infinite. The brain can hold as much information in the subconscious level, as you can pack it with. It's also extremely energy efficient. Burn much less energy, using your subconscious. Also, a lot faster. Conscious thought moves 150 miles an hour, Subconscious thought moves about, 2000 miles an hour. So, it's a massive increase in speed. Flow, as it turns out, is about the only time you get, to watch your subconscious work, while conscious, right. The other time you can see it, is when you're dreaming, but you're not awake for it. Unless you practice some kind of form of lucid dreaming, you don't get to be awake for it. One of the reasons flow feels so mysterious, one of the reasons artists, for years, talked about divine inspiration, I don't know where the ideas are coming from, right? Is because the subconscious has taken over. So I wanna, my favorite release story, that I ever had about this, and I will, kind of, go into release triggers and talk about how to do this. Is, so, in 2007, I left Los Angeles with my wife, and we moved to northern New Mexico. So I was sort of, like, placing a pretty good bet on the fact that I might be able to run my writing career from a little town in the middle of nowhere. And, as soon as I got to New Mexico, and my second book, "West of Jesus", had just come out, and it had done, incredibly, incredibly well. So I thought, this was gonna be easy. Not a problem, what I didn't anticipate was, A, the bottom was going to drop out of the economy. So, in 2007, just to put it into perspective, I made $23 000, which is the same amount of money I made, the very first year I started as a writer. And I was 15, 18 years of my career, at that point. So I was very, very, very, very poor at that point. And I was really really scared, and I wanted to write another book. And my first two books proposals, got rejected, nobody was interested. My third book, which was "A Small Furry Prayer", which was a book about the relationship between humans and animals, got accepted. And I really needed the money, I had no money at that point, I could barely feed myself and my family. And when you write a book, you get paid in chunks. You get your first installment when you sign a contract, you get your advance. And then your second chunk, is when you turn in the edited manuscript. So you turn in first draft, they give you edits, you fix the edits, you turn it back in, and they accept it and you get another chunk of money. So, I did my first draft. The book was about 350 pages long, and I turned it in. And my editor called me up and she went, lovely woman, "God, you know, the first 120 pages of this are fantastic, the second 200 pages, you just got to start over, it's all wrong, it's terrible, start over.". So, I had to start over and I really needed to get it done fairly quickly. Those edits came to me in May. I've never had writers block in my entire life. And I very quickly went through all the errors they had found in the first 110 pages, it was really easy, I thought it was gonna go great. About page 110, 115, and I got stuck, I got writers block. And I couldn't write, all of May, couldn't write. All of June, I'd never had writers block before, I'm losing my mind. All of July, can't write. Book is drop dead due, in October first. It's September fourth, I still am not writing. A friend of mine calls me up and says, "Hey you know, they're running the Lifsit Pajarito mountain, would you like to try downhill mountain biking?" So, I had never been downhill mountain biking before. I had, sort of, split my patellas when I was sixteen, so I couldn't really pedal a bicycle. So when I moved to New Mexico, I bought a cross country bike, just to have something to do in the summer, in the non-skiing months. And I'd been on it seven times. Friend said, "Hey do you want to come downhill mountain biking." And I was like, "Maybe it will help." Went to some, like, youth thrift store in Los Alamos, bought like used, I had football pads and hockey pads, I, nobody has ever looked as ridiculous. And I went, Pajarito mountain, for anyone who is interested in downhill mountain biking, is an absolute insane place, to learn how to mountain bike. It is one of the most difficult, knarliest mountains, downhill mountain bike tracks, there is. It's really, kind of, suicidal. But actually, the very first day I was there, a friend of mine's daughter, punctured her liver. And that was, like, my welcome to the sport. Run one was, "Oh my God, I'm gonna fucking die.". Run two was, "I can't believe the bikes actually are capable of doing, this is amazing." Run three was, "Oh crap, I'm gonna spend $10 000, on this bike, but I don't have any money for it." But it kicked me into a really deep flow state. There was enough release, from that activity. I got home, and I went, "Oh wow, let's try writing." Sat down, at my computer and I wrote for two weeks straight. I wrote 210 pages, basically in a non-stop, two week flow state. I would kick out of it, I'd go to sleep, I'd wake up, I was back in. When I turned the book in, interestingly, my editor came back to me and she said, "Well, I've got a few changes," They were all from page 0, 1 to 110. The portion of the book I wrote in flow, the 200 pages that I wrote in flow, there was one edit. There was like a word in the wrong place, in the sentence. By the way, in thirty years, in the profession, I've never seen anything like it. I mean, books come back with thousands of edits in them, this had nothing. The book turned out to be a best seller, it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and I will honestly tell you, I have no idea who wrote it. No idea, I couldn't do it again, don't know what happened, don't know what it is. But the power of a good release space, is amazing. Now there are a couple ways to, trigger release, and here, the first we're going to talk about, low grade physical exercise. Low grade physical exercise, seems to be the very best thing for trigger releasing. And when I say low grade physical exercise, I just mean physical activity. I'm talking about the most common release trigger, is a long walk, going for long walks. Albert Einstein, funny Einstein story, Albert Einstein loved to sail, he used to sail a sailboat, into the middle of Lake Geneva, and stare at the clouds for release. Funny thing about Albert, terrible sailor. He had absolutely, incredible risk tolerances, He would routinely, want this release so badly, that he would not notice, he was in the middle of a storm, and he would sail into the middle of the storm, on Lake Geneva, and have to get rescued. Apparently he got rescued, like, once every six weeks. From the middle of Lake Geneva. Low grade physical activity, sailing, long walks. My friend, Lee Slodof, who was the creator of McGyver, we're gonna be talking about him a little bit later. Lee did a lot of research on this, and found that one of the things that worked best, is building models. Just model airplanes, just dinosaurs, whatever. We've all had this experience, by the way. Who here has had a great idea in the shower? Anybody? Okay, do you wanna know why that happens? You spend all day at work, you're trying to solve a problem, you go home, step into the shower. First of all, you taking your mind off the problem, you're not going to think about your problem, while you're in the shower, and you're soaping yourself up. The act, of soaping yourself up, it draws enough attention to your physicality, that you stop thinking about it. You're paying attention to where it is on your body. Low grade physical activity. So, deep embodiment is the flow trigger, that we're talking about here. Deep embodiment is just a fancy way of saying, "I am paying attention to multiple sensory streams at once." So, learning through doing. Montessori education, when she talked about earlier. One of the highest flow environments right? Uninterrupted concentration is one thing, they often call Montessori education, embodied education. Don't just read about that windmill, go out and build one. When you go out an build something with your hands, you're engaging multiple senses at once, it drives attention to the now right? We pay more attention to things, when more of our senses are engaged. So, to pull the deep embodiment trigger, right. You engage yourself in low grade physical activity. When I say, "low grade", this is not about exercising yourself into exhaustion. This is not what you wanna do. You want to just exercise lightly, so. The only pharmacological flow hack that really exists, and this is only good for people in a couple of states, at this point, that's changing, is a 20 minute run, will produce, what is known as, exercise induced, transient hyperfrontality. Basically, go out for a walk, go out for a low grade run, it gets very very quiet up here. This exercise induced hypofrontality is the front edge of the skills seat. It means your pre-frontal cortex is deactivated, and you're actually getting a little bit of an andomyne. That's the same psychoactive in marijuana, you're getting a little bit of that. You take a 20 minute run, you follow it with a cup of coffee, and a joint. You have now mimicked, pretty much, a lot of the neural chemistry in flow. This will not work over time, you can't do this over and over and over again, but if you really wanna know, if you're unfamiliar with flow, and you've got to figure out, what does this feel like, go for a long walk, walk until it's quiet up here, drink a cup of coffee, smoke a joint, now you know what it feels like, to be in flow. There you have it. Sativa. Sativa, sativa. 'Cos you need the dopamine on the front end. The other reason this works, this is important, and this why is a bad idea to be head on sticks, for all of us, who are deep thinkers. Is, we are embodied cognitive systems, we are not heads on sticks. Our brains are not just up here, our brains are actually distributed, throughout our entire body. You have as many neurons in your heart and your gut, as you have in your head. There's new research, on the gut brain, that says, they now think the gut brain may drive the whole show. Right, so as much as we think we're living from up here, we may actually be living from down here, and it may be steering what's up here. You are a whole cognitively embodied system. First of all, low grade physical activity, as a minimum, as I said, it's very possible to be creative, over time, without being a little bit physically active. One of the reasons is, if you want to really use the whole brain, you have to wake up the whole network. And that requires using the whole network. You can't kind of think your ass into the system, you have to move it. Right, it doesn't work any other way. So, deep embodiment is a really great release trigger. It is my favorite release trigger. Now, said earlier that we studied a lot of action adventure sport athletes and they were among the best in the world at getting into flow. They were the best in the world, at getting into flow, because they leveraged three triggers. Deep embodiment, rich environment, high consequences. Deep embodiment we talked about, multiple sensory streams at once. Rich environment is a fancy way of saying, lots of novelty, lots of complexity, lots of unpredictability. Whenever we encounter novelty, complexity or, unpredictability, the brain releases dopamine. So, we've all experienced unpredictability. When you go to check Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever it is and you may have gotten a like, or you may not have gotten a like, it's an unpredictable situation. And you actually have gotten that like, you see a 400% spike in dopamine. Robert Sowalski at Stanford, who did the research on this, calls it the Magitive Maybe. A 400% spike in dopamine, you're almost at the level of cocaine, that's how much dopamine is being released. The brain loves, loves, unpredictability, novelty and complexity. Now complexity, we've all had this experience, that's right. What happens when you look up at the night sky, you stand in the Grand Canyon, you look over the edge of the rim and you see massive amounts of geological time. Your conscious mind can't process it, 'cos you've got seven spots, for information. If you're trying to deal with geological time, and the fact that there are galaxies, and you're looking back into time and other universes. It kicks it over immediately into the subconscious, so if you felt awe, right, where time seems to slow down a little bit and you get sucked into the moment. That's the front edge of the flow state. Same experience. Rich environment, and you can do this. Steve Jobs was one of the very best at this, so when Steve Jobs was redesigning Pixar. Pixar had a problem. Where people we're staying organized in their departments, so the marketing guys were over here, and the people in finance were over here, the producers were over here, the animators, nobody's talking to anybody. Because they weren't talking to anybody, there we're no ideas bumping into each other, they weren't conveying the conditions for creativity. There wasn't enough novelty, unpredictability, complexity, there wasn't enough flow. So, he redesigned Pixar. He put a giant atrium in the center of Pixar, he put all the meeting rooms, all the lunch rooms, the mailboxes and the only bathrooms in the entire building. Right there. So everybody, had to walk through the atrium, to go take a piss, and people started randomly bumping into each other, and having conversations. And it massively increased novelty, complexity, unpredictability. The result was a ton more flow, a ton more creativity, and a lot of office right? So you can do this structurally, or if you want to do it simply, leave your office and go and work in a cafe. Novel environments, it's just that simple. It's really not that hard to do any of that stuff. That's the other thing, by the way, I'm just gonna pull back for one second. None of this stuff is very hard. We are hardwired for high performance, we are hardwired for flow. We are actually hardwired for creativity, right. This stuff is all very fundamentally natural to us. None of these tricks are really that tricky. They should all seem pretty familiar to you. You just, probably haven't thought about them in this way. All I'm trying to do today, is put a little bit of structure around your thinking. Most of you, if you're a professional creative, you probably do a lot of this shit, already. You just probably haven't figured out exactly why you're doing what you're doing. That's what we're trying to do here today. Rich environment, increase the novelty, increase the complexity, increase the unpredictability. If those things have not worked, if you still cannot get release, then might be the time to reach for high consequences, which is another flow trigger. Risk, it grabs hold of our attention, it drives it into the present moment. Interestingly, doesn't have to be physical risk. Physical risk is useful it is useful. Your brain can't tell the different between physical risk, social risk and financial risk. They're actually processed all in the same structures. Social risk doesn't make a lot of sense to people, but it's the reason why fear of public speaking, is the number one fear in the world. You would think, that from an evolutionary perspective, I would be, like, getting eaten by a grizzly bear, that might be the number one, but no it's public speaking. Why is that? Because if we go back 250 to 300 years ago, and you screwed up socially, and got banished by the tribe, you were gonna die. Nobody could live apart from the group, until fairly recently. You needed everybody else for survival. So the brain has learned to process social fear, in the exact same place it processes physical fear. So, if you want a little bit more risk in your life, and you're a little shy. Go talk to a stranger. It will be processed in the exact same spot. Or, cross the bar to say hello to the cute guy, or the pretty girl, or whatever you want. Social risk is a really good hack here. Only reach, in terms of triggering, flow. Only reach for physical risk, if you cannot get a release any other way. The reason is, if you're gonna take risks, for example, when I work with action adventure sport athletes. A lot of action adventure sport athletes will, stupidly, use risk to drive themselves into flow. They will take a big chance, 'cos they want the state. It is really stupid to take a big chance, when you're not in a state of optimal performance. Risk taking a big chance, is what you wanna do, after you're in flow. Not before, right? So, but if you cannot get to release any other way, risk will get you there. It's almost guaranteed, it's a huge dopamine spike, it drives attention into the now, and it really makes you forget yourself. But you only really want to reach for it, under extreme circumstances.

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!