Flow state is widely recognized as the pinnacle of peak performance. From athletes and artists, to entrepreneurs and designers, the world’s top performers are no strangers to the optimal experience. Science shows that success and flow go hand in hand.
With its myriad benefits (sustained concentration, unbridled productivity, complete absorption, authentic happiness – just to name a few), it’s no wonder top-performers are chasing after the elusive flow state. The question is, how does one get into flow state?
The purpose of this post is to answer that exact question. After working through the lessons, you’ll come away with an understanding of how to find flow. You’ll learn what it looks like, how to reach it more often, and how to stay in it for longer periods of time. This post is your flow guide for uncovering peak performance.
Our team of psychology and neuroscience PhDs have reviewed a couple dozen academic papers in motivational and cognitive psychology and performance science in coming up with this unique framework. You can trust that it works.
Assess your personality and predisposition towards flow states
Before continuing on, take a second to complete the following task.
For each image, answer the questions listed below. A response only needs to be a sentence or single-phrase long. Write down whatever comes to mind right away. Don’t over-analyze.
- What is important for the person in the situation and what is the person doing?
- How does the person feel?
- Why does the person feel this way?
Are you done? Don’t continue on until you’ve finished writing your answers for each image. You should have three one-liners (one for each image).
Now, let’s take a look at your responses. In particular, you will code the style and tone. Let’s walk through the scoring. At the end, you’ll know your predisposition for finding flow.
Step 1: assess the motive of the story
Look at each of your three responses separately.
What is the general theme of your stories and the people? You want it to be related to achievement and goal striving. Are yours? If not, go back to your responses and reframe them to be about a person or people attempting to achieve a goal.
Score check #1: For every story you have to go back and edit, write down a 1 on the side of your page. For example, if you have to go back and change all 3, then write three 1s.
Step 2: assess if it’s approach or avoidance behavior
Again, look at each of your three responses separately.
Indicate ‘approach’ if the behavior and narrative you constructed for the person/people included some level of hope with outcomes that were more positively framed.
Indicate ‘avoidance’ if the behavior and narrative you constructed for the person/people included some level of fear with outcomes that were more negatively framed.
You want the behaviors/narratives to be related to approach, not avoidance. If any of yours are more avoidance based, go back to your responses and reframe them to more approach-related (i.e., less fearful, more hopeful).
Score check #2: For every story you have to go back and edit, write down a 1 on the side of your page. For example, if you have to go back and change 2, then write two 1s.
Step 3: assess if it’s internal or external
For all three stories, indicate ‘internal’ if the behavior or narrative you constructed for the person/people was related to an intrinsic, self-determined process (e.g., the person was doing it for their own personal enjoyment or fulfillment).
Indicate ‘external’ if the behavior or narrative was related to extrinsic, situational triggers (e.g., the person was doing it for some outside incentives or rewards).
Next step is to place each story (A, B, and C) in one of the four quadrants. Start by figuring out if you should be in the top or bottom half of the matrix.
Score check #3: If a story’s response was internally driven, then mark it in the top-half of the matrix (that story will end up in either Quadrant 1 or 3). If it was externally driven, then mark it in the bottom-half of the matrix (that story will end up in either Quadrant 2 or 4). Mark all three stories.
Step 4: assess if it’s positive or negative emotion
Once again, for all three stories, indicate ‘positive’ if the behavior or narrative was rooted in positive emotions like enjoyment, pride, fun, etc. and ‘negative’ if it was rooted in negative emotions like failure, boredom, worry, etc.
Now figure out if you should be on the left or right half of the matrix.
Score check #4: If a story’s response was positive, then mark it in the left-half of the matrix (that story will end up in either Quadrant 1 or 2). If it was negative, then mark it in the right-half of the matrix (that story will end up in either Quadrant 3 or 4). Mark all three stories.
Step 5: assess your score and determine where you sit
For each story, you will now be able to see which quadrant you sit in. For example, if for one story it was i) internally driven and ii) negative valenced, then that story would end up in Quadrant 3.
This is your predisposition towards flow. Look at the descriptions of each quadrant. As you can see, the flow predisposition is in Quadrant 1. The other 3 quadrants are various combinations of why you engage in achievement based tasks. Majority of people find themselves in these non-flow states most of the time.
Final scoring: Look at which quadrants you find yourself in for each of the stories.
- Quadrant score:
- Quadrant 1 (Flow): for each story that ends up in this quadrant, give yourself 6 points
- Quadrant 2 (Standards of excellence): for each story that ends up in this quadrant, give yourself 3 points
- Quadrant 3 (Coping with failure): for each story that ends up in this quadrant, give yourself 3 points
- Quadrant 4 (Pressure to achieve): for each story that ends up in this quadrant, give yourself 2 points
- Add the total for the three stories (maximum scoring here is 18; minimum is 6)
- Penalty score:
- Go back to your score checks in steps 1 and 2. Recall, if you had to go back and edit, then you marked down a 1 for each story. Subtract the combined number of 1s off your quadrant score. The max penalty is six points.
- Total flow score: possible range from 0 (minimum) to 18 (maximum)
What does all this mean? Scores in the higher range are indicative of having an autotelic personality. This is the disposition a person has which predicts the likelihood of experiencing flow. Those with high autotelic personalities find flow more frequently. They have a tendency to initiate, maintain, and enjoy such optimal experiences.
An autotelic (auto = self + telos = goal) activity is something we do for its own sake in which the experience is the main goal. This type of personality predicts greater flow experiences because such a person tends to engage in achievement-related activities for their own sake, in the moment, rather than to receive an external goal later on.
As this exercise has pointed out, the capacity to experience flow can differ from person to person.
If your total score ended in the lower to mid range, not to worry. You’re not stuck there. Default settings can be altered. The remainder of the post will be dedicated to the cultivation of an autotelos psychological stance.
You will learn exactly how you can engineer this disposition to enhance your flow experiences. And we will begin by first uncovering the mental mechanics of flow.
Understanding the mental mechanics of flow
Most people are familiar with the basic effects of flow: high concentration, sense of control, transformation of time. But knowing this, how does one actually achieve these states? How do you find flow?
Beyond the basics, flow is a poorly understood concept because it lacks detailed explanation. A fully developed “how-to” guide of finding flow has to begin by examining the processes that underlie it.
Flow is so unlike most of our ordinary day-to-day cognitions and behaviors. In a word, you can think of the mental mechanics of flow as: the congruent merging of opposite states.
It’s where action meets awareness; cognition meets behavior; intention meets application; conscious meets unconscious. For flow, there needs to be congruence between the two. For example, it’s the intention to perform better on a task plus the application of behaviors that actually improves your performance. On the other hand, an incongruence, or a failed merging of states, leads to rumination, distraction, and worry (states of anti-flow).
Notice how the dialectical nature of flow conjoins receptive and active qualities. You see this in the types of effects that flow produces:
- Openness to novelty, but a narrowing of concentration
- Integration of the self, but a loss and differentiation of ego
- Enjoyment of exploration, but a persistence on the same task
The most significant conjoining of the receptive vs. active lies in flow theory’s core principle: the optimal balance between challenge-finding (receptive) and skill-building (active).
Take a look at the diagram below. Each task you perform in your business can be mapped along the two dimensions of challenge and skill. For example, if you’re doing something that is highly challenging, but you feel unequipped to the job properly, the emotional state you feel is anxiety. And on the other hand, if you’re doing something really easy without your skills being put to good use, the emotional state you feel is apathy or boredom.
Seeking a balance between challenge-finding and skill-building is a hallmark sign of the autotelic personality and the basis of flow. The remainder of the post is designed to cultivate these tendencies so that you experience flow more often and for longer periods of time.
Step 1: Challenge-finding through intention (the receptive component)
As you work through the next set of tactics, remember the following definition. Flow is the smooth transition of i) intentions (receptive challenge-finding) into ii) action (active skill-building) through iii) positive affect.
We’ll return to this throughout. Let’s begin.
Step 1a. Forming intentions through the intention memory system
Before starting on your work, you want to set a clear intention on a task that is moderately difficult. This relies on intention memory. Your intention memory is a type of memory system that is involved in storing action-related information (rather than sensory-related information like most other memory systems). To activate it, do the following:
- In your mind, outline the task that needs to be done, ensuring that it is sufficiently challenging to you (given your current skill level). Also make sure that it is directly related to a personal achievement-goal. If it’s neither difficult nor achievement-related, the intention memory will never form.
- Deliberately and carefully think about a set of sequenced actions that you know will help in achieving positive gains for the goal(s) you have. This can be based on past performance or knowing what works based on other people. Carefully planning in this way will help facilitate memory encoding and storage.
- Inhibit any tendency you may have to act hastily. And make sure that the sequenced actions are of the sort that they need to be done with conscious effort, rather than automatic impulse. Flow is not merely acting out of habit.
If done properly, the memory will last until the enactment of intentions happens. In other words, once the memory is stored, it won’t decay until you do what you ‘said’ you would do. With a properly formed intention memory, you’re basically set up for success.
Pro tip: Generally speaking, the intention memory is activated from an analytical mindset. You will want to engage in concrete planning. So get out the pen and pad and begin problem-solving.
Step 1b. Moving from negative to positive emotionality
At the beginning, while you’re forming your intentions, you want to feel some level of negative emotionality. The reason is because negative emotions evoke an inhibitory and analytical mindset. Meaning, they signal the brain to take pause and carefully consider all that’s going on before taking the next step. This is the very basis of forming an intention memory.
Your negative emotions can serve you well. But pay close attention to them with the following:
- Be specific: You want to pinpoint the exact emotional response you’re feeling. It isn’t much use to say you’re feeling moody. Instead, opt for emotional labels that are detailed and more nuanced. Labels like: apprehensive, disconcerted, overwhelmed, etc.
- Be action-oriented: For each specific emotion that you come up with, write out how that feeling will eventually help you take action. Research has proven that every emotion that you have is the brain’s way of preparing you for some action.
Next step is to briefly return to our definition at the top of the section:
“Flow is the smooth transition of i) intentions (receptive challenge-finding) into ii) action (active skill-building) through iii) positive affect.”
The third point is key. While some level of negative emotion at the beginning is necessary, it can’t stick around for long periods of time. In fact, the transference from intention to action happens only once positive emotion has been activated. Do the following:
- Set an intention timer: Every performance task is different, as is every individual, but the amount of time you should allow yourself to feel negative emotions and form an intention memory will range between 30 minutes and a few hours. After which time, you should have a good sense of your intention and a plan to initiate.
- Reappraise the task: For the performance task you’re in, you want to reframe the perspective to have i) high hope for success and ii) low fear of failure. As you begin to transfer out of intention and into action, think about the likelihood of success. Note: you’re not betting 100% that all things will go your way and that there won’t be any failure. Rather, you are comfortable in the likelihood of positive outcomes. And equally so, you’re not afraid of failure, if it is to occur.
Step 2: Skill-building through action (the active component)
With the smooth transference into positive affect, the next step is to transition out of intention (receptive) and into action (active). It marks the beginning of the resolution of the flow dialectic: the merging and converging of opposing psychological states into a single unified mode of optimal being.
The main goal of these following exercises is to prime your brain so it can receive inputs about the match between your behavior (skills) and the situation (challenge). A successfully primed brain entering into flow state will:
i) constantly run a series of mini-tests to see whether the performed actions match up with the planned intentions set out in Step 1.
ii) take that feedback and run “intuitive motor programs” that tweak behaviors for reorganizing the balance between challenge (intention) and skill (action).
In this sense, the skill-building that happens during flow is quite different than that of ordinary cognitive states. The skill is built in incremental steps, constantly evolving in combination with the changes to challenge-finding. It’ll come naturally by following these steps.
Step 2a. Enhance your action-orientation
This comes from the German research models of motivation which emphasize goal-striving (versus the American models focused on mere goal-setting). Goal-striving has two orientations associated with it:
- State-orientation: a failed regulatory drive in which ruminative thoughts interject and interrupt a person’s ability to stay focused on a single task.
- Action-orientation: An effective regulatory drive that ensures the protection of goals by inhibiting other cognitions or conflicting desires, thus promoting sustained performance.
You probably guessed it, flow state requires an action-orientation to performance. How do you make sure you’re in an action-orientation instead of a state-orientation? The trick is to find yourself on the one particular side of the following three dimensions:
- Preoccupation vs. disengagement: You want to disengage from ideas about other tasks/goals that conflict with the current focal task. Many of our abstract goals can conflict with one another (that’s the nature of goals). Your job is to ignore those other ones for the time being while you’re attempting to get into the zone. You also want to disengage from the uncomfortable emotions like failure and disappointment. Instead, turn your attention to your actions, to see how they will help you achieve likely success.
- Hesitation vs. initiative: Once the intention is set (see Step 1 above), you want to take action immediately. This means putting into place certain outward initiatives that prove to yourself that you are following through with your intentions. It’s a self-signaling mechanism that fuels your own behavior. Keep track of it.
- Volatility vs. persistence: You want to persist at the task and ensure that the intentions you set in the prior steps are fulfilled by way of conscious, deliberate action. Check in every so often as you’re performing the task to test whether your behaviors are indeed aligned with the challenge-finding features outlined in Step 1. Ask yourself, are you building skills that are directly relevant to the challenge-based intentions?
Putting the three together, the optimal combination is thus: An action orientation gets you into a flow state by i) disengaging from background experiences and thoughts, ii) effectively initiating the required actions, and iii) persisting with the intentions until the task is complete.
Step 2b. Strengthen connections in your extension memory
Step 1 of challenge-finding involved intention memory. In Step 2 of skill-building, a completely different system is involved – extension memory. Extension memory is extended, associative, and holistic in nature. Operating in parallel processing mode, it tends to kick in as you move into a positive emotion state.
With extension memory, you’re less likely to categorize difficult/threatening experiences as isolated ‘objects’ and more likely to perceive them as part of a coherent whole. It’s with the help of extension memory that the receptive/active merging can be integrated into a single narrative. This system is the reason why all peak flow states are reported as feelings of unity and wholeness.
As you follow all the steps laid out already, extension memory will naturally follow. But you can also try some of these exercises to give you an extra boost:
- Associative processing: Try to make sense of all incoming information through associations or relational pairings. This means you want to see objects not as separate entities, but as things that go together as part of a bigger system or process. For example, in thinking about the various functions in the business, try to uncover all the ways in which they relate to one another. On the surface they might not seem related. But if you dig deeper, you’ll always find an associative pairing between things. It’s the idea that things work together as part of a whole. This is a holistic mindset that is common in Eastern countries. It differs from the Western bias of analytical-based thinking.
- Autonomous supportive context: Extension memory works most effectively when you’re in an environment that supports your personal autonomy or independence. Be careful that you’re creating an environment that is cooperative, where people support one another’s personal pursuits. A hostile, competitive social setting inhibits extension memory systems and limits its processing power.
- Ignore social demands: You want to be careful with the above recommendation. While a supportive social environment is critical for extension memory’s effects on skill-building, you don’t want outside influences impacting your own choices. These would alter the intention path you already set.You want your actions to be rooted in personal motives, not social ones. As you’re engaging in task performance and building skills, focus on your personal achievements unrelated to other people. It’s the one time to be selfish. That’s not to say you want to abandon the social environment altogether. Maintain the supportive environment around you, but keep it quiet as you let it run in the background.
- Recruit multiple sensorimotor pathways: As you perform, try to use a mixture of different sensorimotor modalities. Called multisensory integration, you want to pull in all your senses during performance. By default, your vision dominates. Try to combine that with tactile, self-motion, smell, etc. For example, as you work away, what are you touching? How are you moving? What are you smelling? Integrating the different modalities helps create coherent perceptual experiences.
Step 3: Re-entering the flow channel
Finding flow is a dynamic and ever-changing event. The challenge-skill balance constantly requires updating because your skills will naturally become more advanced the longer you are performing a given task. Likewise, new challenges will emerge which push you to develop a unique set of abilities.
You always want to be open to new opportunities that are just steps ahead of your current skill level. As these new situations present themselves, be mindful of the following:
- Limit your attention: Pay attention to the “steps ahead” features of the context. These are the designated set of stimuli in the environment that are just a little bit beyond your current skill-sets. Consider, that for every performance context, there is a (hypothetical) complete list of stimuli for you to know and master. Technically, it’s next to impossible for you to be able to navigate the complete list of stimuli in any performance domain. What this means, then, is that finding (and re-entering) flow is about limiting your attention to only certain features while strategically ignoring others. If you open yourself up to all possible parameters of a given task, the challenge will appear too daunting. In such instances, you’re setting yourself up for flow failure.
- Choose the type of challenge move: As you contemplate pushing the challenge ahead, you want to ask yourself if, in that particular performance task, it makes more sense to i) push that same challenge further (called a vertical challenge move) or ii) uncover a new challenge that is still partially related (called a horizontal challenge move). In most cases, you’ll want to make vertical moves first and horizontal moves second. It reduces cognitive shifting costs.
Recap and wrap-up to finding flow state
The common misconception is that finding flow state is something reserved for top experts. Yes, it’s true that certain personalities (the autotelos type) are more receptive to experiencing flow. But everyone has the capacity to uncover this optimal experience. It’s simply a matter of habit and self-training.
Following this guide, you can cultivate your flow psychology, and as a result adopt more of an autotelic personality. So whenever you’re looking to find your flow state, remember the following:
- Before initiating your plan, dig into the mental mechanics of flow. Get a better understanding, seeing flow state as the dialectical coalescing of opposing psychological states: where the receptive meets the active.
- Think about the framing of challenge and skill as belonging to this receptive/active flow dichotomy. With the basis of these mechanics, follow the three steps.
- Challenge-finding (receptive – “set the intention”):
- Recruit the intention memory system to set an intention plan.
- Tolerate a mild level of negative emotionality to spur the analytical and inhibitive mindset.
- Start transferring into a more positive emotion state, in order to begin movement from receptive to active.
- Skill-building (active – “make the move”):
- Enhance the action-orientation (vs. the state-orientation) by i) disengaging from distractions, ii) initiating a plan right away, and iii) persisting until finished.
- Recruit the extension memory system by evoking associative processing, selecting a supportive social context, and utilizing multi-sensory integration.
- Re-entering the flow channel:
- Recognize that finding a flow state is a dynamic process.
- Limit your attention to the “steps-ahead” features of a context, while strategically ignoring the rest of the variables.
- Push the challenge by a horizontal or vertical move, once you’ve reached a level of expertise.