The Neuroscience of Flow and how to easily create and maintain it

FLOW 2Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow is widely known and accepted as a way to describe how you feel when you are fully focused and energised by what you are doing. In this state you are often so absorbed that you can lose track of time and be hard to be distracted away from what you are doing (no mean feat in today’s culture of constant pings and alerts from our phones and tablets). Being in Flow also results in us performing at our optimal best. However, it may feel that you don’t have control over Flow and have to wait for it to happen. But I believe, as with your state of mind, you can control it.

More often than not, the times you are in Flow are likely to be the times when you are using one or more of your natural talents or strengths. Therefore one simple way of achieving this state is to look for ways to use your strengths in any task that you are doing. See my blog ‘Are you doing what you love, or what you’re good at? And does it matter anyway?’ for more information on using your natural strengths.

Fascinatingly, in his book Your Brain at Work, David Rock explains how Flow happens from the perspective of what goes on in the brain, and even more helpfully demonstrates how we can, at will, take control and easily create our own state of Flow. He shows how we can induce either more or less stress in the brain to enable us to create the right balance of the crucial chemicals needed to create such a state.

Rock describes how your brain needs a certain amount of stress to function at its best, too little stress will mean you don’t focus, and too much can mean you can’t focus. Flow sits in the middle between stress and boredom; it tends to occur when there is sufficient challenge to keep you engaged, but not so much that you feel overwhelmed, or so little that you feel bored.

The two chemicals that need to be kept in balance in the brain to enable us to have this state of undivided attention are Noradrenalin (often known as the fear chemical and is linked to the fight or flight response) and Dopamine (often referred to as the feel good hormone). These chemicals affect your alertness and interest respectively.

The right level of Noradrenalin and Dopamine enable the cells in the brain to make connections more effectively and therefore function more efficiently.

So how do you take control of these helpful chemicals?

Well, if you find you are on the stressed, overwhelmed, or panic side of Flow, then there are many strategies that can help reduce noradrenaline and dopamine to reduce stress and return back to Flow. I have only included my top 3 tips here, however if you would like to explore this further, my next blog – Resilience – How to thrive, not just survive, has a few more techniques to try out. The following 3 tips we know anecdotally are good for us, but David Rock helps explain the science behind why they work.

  1. Go for a walk or do something physical – this activates the motor cortex, which is a large and different part of the brain to the one concerned with stress and fear. Now I know you probably feel you don’t have time to do this, but I’m not talking about taking a nice long stroll next to a river in the countryside. Whilst that would obviously be nice, it’s clearly not always going to be possible. However there are some quick ways you can achieve this. For example, getting up to get a drink, and then taking the long way back to your desk. Or nipping outside for 5 mins to walk round the building. Anything that can just engage this different part of your brain, no matter how brief, will help to reduce the noradrenaline.
  2. Focus your attention on sounds around you – this also activates a large area of the brain different to the part involved in the stress response, and subsequently takes away attention or reduces the activity in that area. Now again I can hear you saying, I can’t see how that is going to help me when I’ve only got half and hour to finish this bit of work, and the only sound I hear is my boss yelling at me to get this done. But, if you do tip 1 and then whilst walking round the building consciously focus on what you can hear, like the birds or the cars passing by, this can help activate the part of the brain used to engage with sounds, and subsequently reduce noradrenaline. A double whammy and super efficient approach would be to listen to music. This will not only reduce noradrenaline by switching attention to the part of the brain used to take in sounds, but if the music is upbeat and makes you feel good, it will also inject a bit of dopamine.
  3. Meditate – Okay, so I don’t mean head off to a Buddhist monastery, cross your legs and start chanting, although if there’s one near by, bonus, sign right on up as a member. Meditating can simply mean focussing your entire attention on your breath, watching, feeling and counting the breaths as you breath in and out. It’s not about stopping thinking, it’s more about noticing when you get distracted by a thought and then gently bringing your attention back to your breathing, as opposed to getting caught up in the thought. This is a good form of quietening down the two chemicals by turning down the amount of input going into your brain. Simply doing this (sat on the toilet if there’s nowhere else quiet to go) for a few minutes will not only decrease the amount of noradrenaline but also your heart rate. The benefits of developing a regular habit of meditating, whilst being a longer term investment in your time, can pro-actively help you reduce your susceptibility to stress and therefore remain in Flow more often. The best method of meditating on a more regular basis that I have found is by using an app called Headspace.com. It’s simple, practical, down to earth and you can do it in minutes and on the go.

I know that it might seem as if you haven’t got the time to do any of theses things, but seriously just a couple of minutes given over to this can in the short term help you deal with the immediate need to get into Flow, and over a longer period of time as you develop the habit of controlling your Flow, will help you get into a more helpful state more quickly and more often. This then will enable you to be more productive and efficient in what you’re doing on a more regular basis.

Alternatively,  if you find you are feeling on the boredom, complacency or comfort zone side of the Flow state, here are 3 tips to help you increase noradrenaline and dopamine and therefore move upwards towards Flow:

  1. Add novelty or humour to the task – Dopamine is released when something new or unexpected is introduced to us. That’s one of the reasons why learning can be a very stimulating and enjoyable activity. So one option could be to simply complete your work or task in a different location to where you would normally complete it. Or perhaps think about what’s funny about the task. Finding ways to feel good about what you are doing will raise your dopamine and subsequently your interest in completing the task.
  2. Picture the rewards of when it’s done – Your brain cannot tell when something is real or imagined, it will produce the same response if you imagine something as if you are actually doing it. Therefore picturing all the good things that will come of you completing something makes your brain feel that you have already completed it and again will release dopamine. This will raise your interest levels in the task. Tony Robbins talks about creating leverage to enable you to take action, and this can be done by listing all the good things or pleasure that you will get from completing the task. Expect a positive outcome or event and see how that affects your ability to focus.
  3. Create urgency or mild fear if it’s not done – okay, so I know I’ve sort of contradicted myself here, but an equally effective method can also be to think about all the negative repercussions that will happen if you don’t get this done right now, or all the things that could go wrong if you don’t tackle this right away. This can also create the leverage you may need to take action but from a fear rather than reward perspective. It increases noradrenaline and therefore your alertness to the task.

Whether you need to move down from stress or up from boredom, not every technique will work for everyone all of the time, so it is important to decide which option is best for you. This might be dependent on the situation or on your personality type. Being a believer in Positive Psychology, my tendency would be to advocate the activities that generate dopamine rather than induce fear. However if you are someone who operates most effectively by leaving things to the last minute, you might find that injecting a bit of fear is the best strategy to raise you up to be in Flow.

Whichever strategy you choose, isn’t it wonderfully liberating to know that we can take control and therefore responsibility for our own state of Flow, turning it on when we most need it to perform at our optimal best.

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