How to achieve flow state
In case you haven’t read part 1 of this blog, you may want to return to the “News” page and read it before continuing for full comprehension.
I think we stopped off where you were dying to know how to enter the state of flow… Well, unfortunately for us mere mortals, the state of flow isn’t a pill you can just get over the counter. However, the very fact of our mortality can push us closer to achieving this state… if we are willing to take a risk. When exploring flow state among extreme sport athletes, Steven Kotler discovered that risk plays a crucial role in propelling athletes into that state of total concentration – most likely since they're often dealing with life-and-death scenarios, where hitting that flow state is the only shot at making split-second decisions needed for survival.
Flow state is often triggered by a feeling of nearness to death, which, in turn, causes the maximum sensation of being alive. As Kotler puts it, “When you’re pushing the limits of ultimate human performance, the choice is stark: it’s flow or die1.” Now, I'm not saying you need to jump off a plane to enter flow. Even just nudging yourself slightly beyond your comfort zone counts as a risk for the brain. Athletes get that all the time – whether it's the sight of an opponent closing in or the challenge of having to outscore themselves.
Fortunately, there are other triggers to flow which do not include risk of death – 21 other triggers in fact, according to Steven Kotler. Now, with 22 options, you might think it's a piece of cake, but let's be real – is anything truly worthwhile ever that easy to achieve? The deal is, different triggers may work for some and not for others. So, just like with anything in life, the first step is figuring out what makes you tick to find the trigger that will bring out your A-game.
Kotler categorises these triggers into two groups based on their mechanism:
Stimulating neurochemicals: basically, getting those brain juices flowing with the help of dopamine, norepinephrine, and other neurochemicals. Remember that perfect feel-good neurochemical mix I mentioned in the previous blog? That! Equals enhanced focus and engagement. Examples include experiencing novelty, autonomy, complexity, curiosity, passion, and purpose.
Reducing cognitive load: Triggers that help cut down on the mental clutter, allowing for better concentration on fewer things at once. This frees up more brainpower to really dive into the moment. Examples include experiencing deep embodiment in the task and complete concentration.
Within these two groups, Kotler further categorises them in four types. Have a read below and take note of the type that hits home the most for you, while thinking about how you could apply them to hack into that flow state.
External triggers: The things you deliberately do to get into the flow during a specific task, like jamming to music for focus.
Internal triggers: The mental and cognitive factors that naturally put you in a flow state, like successfully completing a challenging task. You know that little happy kick you get when you complete the tests in the CONKA app? Well, that's dopamine doing its thing. And when you nail a couple of answers in a row, it's not just luck – it's the dopamine in your system making pattern recognition go into overdrive. Meaning, those tests can serve as internal triggers (yep, this is a not so subtle reminder to complete them if you haven’t already today!)
Creative triggers: The things that help you deep dive into the creative process, like attempting a new exercise or changing your training style.
Group flow triggers: Whatever amps up the collective flow when you're working with your team. For example, open brainstorms are a great idea but how can we take it up a notch? Take this for an idea: Patagonia’s “Let My People Go Surfing” policy2 allows for employees to “catch a good swell, go bouldering for an afternoon, pursue an education, or get home in time to greet the kids when they climb down from the school bus.” You read that right – leave the office to catch a wave whenever you want. It may seem counterproductive, but what if trading a few minutes of work for a state of flow could skyrocket productivity tenfold? And if you’ve read the first blog, you know it can.
Okay, whether what works for you is blasting loud music or complete silence; looking to accomplish personal goals or spite your opponents (who said flow triggers had to be noble?), I suggest tossing some flow-inducing practices into your routine. That could quite possibly be the most significant change for your (not solely) athletic performance – that is, of course, after taking CONKA3.
Ooo, your brain is already buzzing with flow-state hacking ideas, I know! If you want the nitty-gritty on each trigger Kotler talked about, check out the Flow Research Collective website4 and happy flowing!
Leticia Hosang, BSc
Leticia is a sports science, sports psychology and neuroscience researcher, previously working with Brunel London University and exploring the effects of exercise on brain activity.
Kotler, S. (2014). The rise of superman: Decoding the science of ultimate human performance. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Patagonia’s “Let My People Go Surfing” Policy.
Kotler, S. (2023). What are flow triggers? 22 examples to unlock flow state. Flow Research Collective.