Go with the Flow! 6 ways to Create and Maintain Your Flow State

“What if I told you that you and your staff could work eight hours a day, four days per week, and accomplish five times more each week than you are right now - without any stress or overwhelm?”

I was sitting with the leadership team of a small, tech-based company. They had just finished describing their operations and the challenges they were having to keep up with deadlines. The majority of the staff was working over fifty hours per week and well along the road to burnout.

“Yeah, right,” the CEO quickly said with a chuckle. “That would be nice,” she said dismissively. Her disbelief was evident.

“Would it,” I asked. “Would it be ‘nice?’”

She paused for a moment. “Well, yeah.”

Gazing around the room at the team I asked the team again. “What would it really be like? I mean, my sister is ‘nice’ but I think the experience I’m suggesting might be more than that. Imagine right now that it’s Thursday afternoon after four eight hour workdays this week, knowing that you have come up with incredibly innovative ideas, accomplished the tasks this week that previously would have taken you all month, and that you have Friday and the entire weekend all to yourselves without having to give any attention to this organization until Monday morning. What would that be like? What would be the differences in your lives?”

The CEO gave herself a moment to visualize it. She relaxed a bit in her chair as if she was experiencing a hint of relief. “That would be amazing,” she said, in an almost hopeful tone. These are the kinds of performance improvements possible when a team builds its culture around “flow.”

What is Flow?

Flow has many other names. World-class athletes call it being “in the zone.” Basketball players call it “going unconscious.” Runners call it “runner’s high.” Whatever name you give it, flow is an optimum state of consciousness wherein you feel and perform your best without ever experiencing the feelings of burnout, stress, or overwhelm. And just as you might build a family around a value system or organized religion, you can build a life and/or a business around flow.

Who can get into flow?

You might be thinking, “But we aren’t athletes, let alone world-class ones.” Fortunately, flow is trainable and available to anyone. With roots in positive psychology and driven by neurochemistry, you can consciously create flow cycles for yourself and your teams.

You’ve undoubtedly experienced at least a lower level flow state at some point in your life. Perhaps when you were working on a term paper in college. You sat down to write it and as you got deeper into the work, your sense of self disappeared. You were intensely focused on your work. By the time you noticed how good you felt and how well it was going, you looked up to check the time, and to your amazement, three hours had passed. You could have sworn that only 30 minutes had gone by. And sitting in front of you was a paper that was better than you would have imagined.

It wasn’t magic. It was flow.

When does flow occur?

Flow shows up in all kinds of situations wherein you are completely focused on the task at hand. Sometimes it’s a project at work. It can happen when driving a car. And it happens in life-threatening situations. Whenever you’re intensely focused on something, you can potentially produce a flow cycle. What was first known as “religious experiences” and later “peak experiences” was studied by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Me-high Chick-sent-me-high) in the 60s and 70s. He is now known as “the godfather of flow,” and first published his landmark book “Flow” in 1990. When people access flow, they are at least five times quicker than usual. That’s getting a week’s worth of work done in a day. You’ll see increases of anywhere from 700% to 3,000% in innovation and creativity. In flow, the impossible, and even the unimaginable, become a reality.

How does it happen?

Flow is driven by your own neurochemistry. There are many chemicals in the brain and the chemicals and amount that are present are relative to how you are relating to your world. When you’re afraid or excited, you’re experiencing an increase in norepinephrine. When you’re feeling good, you’re experiencing dopamine. By consciously adjusting thoughts, feelings, and actions, you can drive neurochemistry to produce flow states. Keith Sawyer discovered that there are what he called “flow triggers.” There are 22 of them that we know of currently. By ensuring your organization or life is filled with flow triggers, you can produce flow states. Flow triggers include autonomy, complexity, novelty, passion, and risk.

What's Blocking Us?

So if flow is so desirable and beneficial, why aren’t we seeing it as the standard in

organizations today? The way most organizations are set up today is diametrically

opposed to flow cycles. We allow ourselves to be easily distracted. We engage in

behaviors that we think are productive and don’t know are in fact killing our productivity

and creativity. And we advocate for these behaviors.

“I called John while he was on vacation and he got back to me right away! He’s a real high-performer!” Sound familiar? It seems reasonable and accurate. But here’s the upsetting truth. John isn’t a high-performer. John’s a mess. John believes he “has” to be available to his customers/clients as fast as possible. Otherwise, they might go to his competitor. So he “has” to be responsive. If John “has” to respond that quickly, he’s not responding; he’s reacting. His actions are driven by fear, so he ignores the fact that he’s on vacation. What seems like being responsive and taking care of business is really a fear-based, scarcity mentality being used by someone who is steeped in victim mentality and who has poor boundaries. Ouch. Eventually, living in fear and reacting to everything, John will burnout. And he’s going to blame it on everything outside of him.

Sara has an open door policy where her staff can come in anytime. She tells herself that she’s “supporting her staff” and/or “creating and maintaining a culture of collaboration and teamwork.” Unfortunately, she’s creating a culture of distraction, getting pulled away from her work every few minutes, costing her accuracy, efficiency, and productivity. And the philosophies and behaviors of an organization are reflective of the person who runs it. So her entire staff is doing it as well.

“Maria is such a great multitasker.” No, she isn’t. She only thinks she is. Biologists will confirm that humans don’t multitask. They task-shift. Maria task-shifts from one thing to another, expending more energy from shifting, losing focus, and exponentially increasing her chances of missing something or making a mistake.

These “badges of honor” are in truth extreme liabilities in an organization. They are expensive, costing valuable resources; time, energy, focused attention. And this leads

to overwhelm and burnout. People think they “have to” do these things and wear them and others as badges of honor. In truth, they are the tools of poor performance.

Is flow really necessary?

All of the above can be shifted into a new paradigm that creates flow states, which is no longer a luxury. It’s a requirement. The Law Of Accelerating Returns explains how we are going to see one hundred years of innovation in the next decade. To illustrate, the year 1920 is to 2020 as 2020 is to 2030. Organizations that can’t keep up with that pace will not be here in a couple or a few years. And if you’re planning an exit in three to five years, the world you’re planning for doesn’t exist yet. And the world that you’re in will be long gone by the time you’re ready to exit. So, yes. This isn’t optional anymore if you plan on being successful.

Here are some things you can start to do right now that will get you moving in the right direction to create flow states and ensure the sustainability of your organization.

Empower yourself

Own that you don’t “have” to do anything. You don’t “have” to react immediately. These are choices that you make. If you’re a lawyer and the judge says “you have to go to court,” no, you don’t. It’s still a choice you’re making. Own that or you’ll be in a victim mentality. Move away from “have to” and think from a mindset of making choices that are best aligned with your goals. Until you take ownership of something, you have no power to affect it.