The Concept of “Flow” and How It Leads to Peak Performance

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One of the books I read in 2015 is a book entitled ” The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance” by Steven Kotler.

book_front_bigThe book looked at the death-defying achievements of Extreme Sports athletes: mountain climbers, base jumpers, wingsuit divers, skateboarders, surfers, and other daredevils. At times, reading it felt like the equivalent of drinking two cans of Red Bull–adrenaline pumping, awe inducing, and it sometimes feel too incredible to be true.

But the book is not about extreme sports and adventure. It’s really about the concept of “Flow” and how it can be hacked to help us improve our performance and achieve our goals more effectively and more efficiently.

I’ve written elsewhere (like in my book Start Up: Find your place. Engage the world. Sustain your life.) that I am a big fan of the 10,000 hours observation popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers book.

It turns out that there is a way to shortcut those 10,000 hours. And the secret to it is the concept of FLOW, which was studied and popularized by a psychologist named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (it looks difficult, but it’s pronounced “chicksent-me-high”) who studied creativity and what motivates and deeply satisfies people.

He defined the “FLOW state” as “being so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

It’s like being in the zone, where you just pour out your best work while you concentrate at a task at hand. When you look up again, you realize that you’ve spent hours, literally, on what you were doing.

Steve Kotler worked in breaking down this definition of flow. There are three basic properties of FLOW:

  • Profound mental clarity: there’s a calmness to flow
  • Emotional detachment: you’re able to step back and prevent your emotions from interfering with your actions.
  • Its Automatic nature: one step or decision naturally leads into the next right step.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, there are ten core components of the Flow State:

  • Clear goals: your level of skill and the level of the challenge should be both high.
  • Concentration: Attention is completely focused on the task at hand.
  • Loss of the feeling of self-consciousness: Action and awareness merge together.
  • Distorted sense of time: You feel time speeding up or slowing down depending on the nature of your task.
  • Direct and immediate feedback: You know right away if your decision is right or wrong, so you can adjust behavior.
  • Balance between ability and challenge: If the task is too difficult, you get overwhelmed, but if the task is too easy for your skill level, you get bored.
  • A sense of personal control over the situation
  • The task, in and of itself, is rewarding. It becomes almost effortless.
  • Absorption: you are totally immersed in the activity.

One of the key concepts for me, here, is that there should be a high level of skill in the first place. And as you level up your skill, you should also seek out higher levels of challenges to get into the FLOW State.

Granted, when the skill level is low, practice can feel tedious and difficult. But if you persevere through it, you start reaping the benefits and start to be in the flow.

So what does this mean for us, cubicle-dwelling, knowledge workers?

Although the book contains lots and lots of stories about extreme sports athletes, there are also quite a lot of lessons for us, ordinary, cubicle-dwelling, knowledge-working mortals.

  1. In the first place, high performance is not just for athletes and daredevils, there are also feats of imagination and brain work. And if we could tap into the Flow state that enables extreme athletes to cheat death and improve performance, then we can certainly improve performance, too.
  2. If we take a look at the core components of the Flow State, we can make significant changes in our internal attitudes toward work, and at the same time make changes in our environment that can bring us into the zone of our effectiveness.
  3. Granted, a lot of work can feel tedious, difficult, and mind-numbing that we feel like our only escape would be to do something else. But if we can alter our perception of work, and look for the angle that will help us appreciate our work better, it will greatly improve performance.

Although Csikszentmihalyi, the original source of the concept of FLOW, and consequently Kotler in this book, claims that FLOW is possibly the source of happiness and contentment. I’m not entirely convinced. Happiness is, too often, a difficult concept or emotion to define; and its definition could be subjective and might change from culture to culture. Nonetheless, ‘Flow’ is a great way to capture that zone where human performance is maximized.

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