22 Flow Triggers: The Ultimate Peak Performance Toolkit For Hacking Flow
Updated: Mar 11
“From a quality-of-life perspective, psychologists have found that the people who have the most flow in their lives are the happiest people on earth.” - Steven Kotler
Can the use of flow triggers accelerate the experience of flow?
How do you induce a flow state?
Are there preconditions to entering “the zone’’?
The post 2020 pandemic era may just be one giant amalgam of flow state triggers! We are seeing massive innovation due to the flow trigger rich conditions that continue to show up in these challenging times. I’ll let you make up your own mind after you read this.
Flow triggers are founded from evolutionary biology and are leveraged because they catapult our attention into the present. From the perspective of neuroscience, these triggers drive adrenaline and dopamine into our system. Evolution has equipped us with the ability to tighten our focus and increase our present moment awareness under VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) conditions. In order for flow to arise, we must be present in what researchers call the deep now.
Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi conducted the initial research and proposed that the altered state of consciousness that characterises flow has certain experiential dimensions. However, research led by Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler, argues that the “Flow Triggers'' are causal to flow and not merely experiential. There are 22 flow triggers that have been identified and more are currently being researched.These are broadly categorised under the following:
Individual Flow Triggers, and
Group Flow Triggers
The clever use of these triggers can help your brain to release the right set of neurochemicals that prime your system for flow.
INDIVIDUAL FLOW TRIGGERS
These are triggers that can be leveraged by relying on your internal maps and models.
1. Clear goals
You have a clear understanding of what is required for a successful outcome and are working towards it.
2. Unambiguous feedback
You receive immediate feedback from self and/or others. This enables you to course correct in real time, allowing you to push your boundaries and limitations beyond your ordinary perceptions.
3. Challenge-skill balance
The activity you undertake should be challenging yet within your perceived abilities. The imminent anxiety for the activity should not paralyse your system. It should also not be beneath your current level of skill as this can breed boredom and apathy.
4. Concentration on task
Your attention must be laser-focused on the task at hand. In this state, any irrelevant stimuli disappear from your consciousness. Worries and concerns are temporarily suspended.
You have strong intrinsic motivators. You are not primarily guided by extrinsic motivators such as fame, money, power, etc. The activity is an end unto itself and it is it’s own reward. You feel as though your journey matters and that you are contributing to something much bigger than yourself.
You pay more attention when you are the captain of your ship. You have complete autonomy over where you’re going and you alone dictate when and how you steer your ship towards your destination.
We have the curious ability to design the environment around us. In return, the environment can shape our experience and increase our probability for flow. These are the triggers that you can leverage by manipulating your environment:
7. High Consequence
There should be an element of risk involved in the task at hand. The type of risk does not matter so long as it exists. Our brains are quite egalitarian and calculate risk in an equal-handed manner. A few examples of risk include:
This involves putting yourself in situations where your physicality may be under threat. In action adventure sports, there is a real risk to your life. Depending on your personal dare-devil metrics, fatality may be a possibility.
Arises when you have to risk your social status in order to engage in the activity. This may be when you decide to take a dicey idea public.
Think demanding conversations and vulnerability.
The best works of art are produced when the artist takes a leap of faith and surrenders to her creative downloads. In my humble opinion, it’s no fun to create without breaking the rules.
Put significant money on the line and you’ll likely drive your focus in that particular direction.
This may also be classified under the shiny new object syndrome. Our brains are wired to pay extra attention to anything that it hasn’t encountered before. It can be a stunning landscape, a new business venture, or even a video game.
The complexity of the activity should not drive your system into overwhelm. Yet, it should not be so simple that your brain decides that it’s not worth paying extra attention to. You must be clear on how you are to navigate the complex terrain.
This is attributed to anything that drives salience in our brains. It’s saying, “Hey! Pay attention, I don’t know what’s happening! It might be important”.
11. Deep Embodiment
Here, your action and awareness merge. This has often been linked to a feeling of oneness with your surroundings. A painter may feel as though the paint brush is her arm. A racecar driver may not be able to differentiate his body from that of the car. A surfer may feel as though she is one with the ocean.
12. Creativity and Pattern Recognition
This is one of my favourite triggers. When your brain links old information to a new one and arrives at an original idea, it sets off a cascade of pleasurable neurochemicals. This is the creative flow state. If you have a great idea, start on it immediately. The neurochemicals are in your favour. Of course, this is easier said than done. Hence why I have notebooks worth of neat ideas piled up, unloved and unevolved…….yet. Hey, at least I wrote them down.
GROUP FLOW TRIGGERS
"Of the things that frighten us, the fear of being left out of the flow of human interaction is certainly one of the worst" - Csikszentmihalyi
Based on Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal work, Keith Sawyer discovered that improvising groups attained a collective state of mind that he called Group Flow. These genius groups enter states of peak experiences where they are able to foster improvised innovation at the highest levels. The research demonstrates that shared flow can be more powerful than individual flow. It must be all the feel-good social bonding neurochemicals that show up.
In his book , Group genius: The creative power of collaboration,
Sawyer details the 10 conditions for the phenomena of Group Flow to arise. These are as follows:
13. Shared Goals
The group must know the direction in which they intend to steer their ship. There must be a shared vision and a compelling mission that brings the team together. A dash of competition mixed with a generous helping of loosely specified meaningful goals, may create the right recipe for group genius.
14. Equal Participation
The members of the group must be able to contribute equally to the activity at hand. They must have comparable skill levels and be able to complement each other. If a members level of skill is noticeably higher, they may risk arrogance and dominance and disregard the contribution of other members. If a member's level of skill is too low, it may impede the emergence of group flow and lead to frustration for the individual.
15. Blending Egos
This is where the hive mind kicks in. You are no longer acting solely in accordance with your internal sense of self. You become completely immersed in the experience at hand, listening closely to your group and building spontaneously upon each member's contribution. Jazz musicians experience this on a regular basis. They submerge their egos and the performers appear to be thinking with one mind. In those magical moments, they appear to be reading from the same script, even though there is no script. It’s simply the group genius that arrives at spontaneous and creative musical expression.
16. Close Listening
Improvisers call this deep listening, coaches may call this active listening. We cannot enter group genius mode if the individual members are off having conversations with themselves. We must be able to deeply listen to our team mates for innovation to arise. We must be engaged fully in order to energise those around us.
17. Yes, and
The first rule of improvisational acting is to keep it moving forward. Imagine that a member of your cast says, “hey, I’ve just seen a glow-in-the-dark monkey in the kitchen!”. Your job is not to deny it but to take every possible measure to accept their idea, extend it and build on it. It’s best if you say something along the lines of, “Oh wow, I really hope he can join our dinner party tonight!” instead of “no, there isn’t!”.
At Amazon, Jeff Bezos is adamant that all employee ideas are accepted and granted the possibility for implementation. If their boss decides to deny an employee’s idea, they must write a 2 page letter explaining why they did so.
18. Complete Concentration
“The desire to do something because you find it deeply satisfying and personally challenging inspires the highest levels of creativity, whether it's in the arts, sciences, or business.” - Teresa Amabile, Professor at Harvard University
The attention of the team must be present in the moment. They must not be focused on the rewards or punishments that may be gleaned towards the end of their endeavour. This takes the focus off the present moment and activates parts of the brain that shut down flow. Terese Amabile of Harvard University discovered that high-pressure environments can trump creativity. Allowing the team to focus on challenges that are intrinsic to the task itself will inspire flow.
19. A sense of control
“The ultimate freedom for creative groups is the freedom to experiment with new ideas. Some skeptics insist that innovation is expensive. In the long run, innovation is cheap. Mediocrity is expensive - and autonomy can be the antidote.” - Tom Kelley
Autonomy and freedom are fundamental human drives. Stemming from Self-determination theory, group flow increases when people feel autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Humans need the perception of control on what tasks they choose to engage in. We must also be able to dictate how we do the task, when we do it and with whom we do it. For group flow to arise, teams must be granted their autonomy. Micro-managers need to get out of everyone’s way.
Yves Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, instituted the policy, “Let my people go surfing” - meaning that employees are free to leave their desks whenever the surf comes up. Patagonia is located near the Pacific Ocean and their entrance hall is lined with employee surf boards. Their dedication to providing employees with flow allows them to be ranked highly on the list of top organisations to work for.
Slowly but surely, certain organisations are implementing ROWE: Results Oriented Work Environments, where employees can work however they like as long as they get the job done. The research has shown massive spikes in employee engagement, and productivity as a result.
The members of the group must be familiar with each other’s performance styles. Although, they do not necessarily have to finish each other’s sentences. If you are too familiar with the members of your group, you no longer have the need to listen closely or pay attention. However, understanding their performance style is crucial to being able to harness group flow in novel situations.
21. Open Communication
Group flow does not typically emerge during conference meetings where attendees show up with a list of agenda items to tackle. They usually occur during spontaneous brainstorming sessions where ideas build upon each other and novel ideas emerge from the collective contribution. They are more likely to occur in informal, social settings where participants are open to exploration and not likely to succumb to self-doubt.
22. Shared Risk
It’s interesting to note that many improvisational groups do not experience group flow during rehearsals. It seems to require an audience and the risk of failure to drive their attention into the present moment and lock in flow. Professional actors often harness the feeling of stage fright to propel them towards a powerful flow state.
Most organisations are hell bent on minimising risk and the potential for failure. I believe this is one of the worst things to happen in organisational culture, both for the individual and the teams at large. Risking failure should be the default setting. Fostering environments that encourage experimentation and embrace failure provide teams with the fertile soil required for innovation.
Bonus Flow Trigger
Author Steven Kotler goes one step further to include spite as a flow trigger. He believes that spite does not have to be malicious or hateful. It can simply be an intense desire for proving someone wrong, especially someone who has cast doubt upon you or your dreams. This may, in fact, create the right conditions for flow to arise. Although, we don’t have the data to back this up yet. I believe there may be some truth to this matter as this serves to bring our attention to the task at hand, allows us to push the challenge/skills balance farther and it gives us more focus for free.
Personally, I spent a good deal of time learning not to worry about what other people think of my life. I strive towards my dreams because they are intrinsically rewarding and they allow me to explore the depths of my creativity. So how do I feel about this? Of course, my ego would be absolutely delighted if I can prove the nay-sayers wrong along the way. Hey, I’m only human and it’s wise to leverage what I can! The ego isn't all bad ;)
After all the talk surrounding ego-death, author of How to change your mind, Michael Pollan said, “my ego got the book written”. Apparently, the triggers for flow do not have to be noble. They just have to serve the flow towards something noble.
"May the flow be with you"
Raiza is a peak-performance consultant and an embodied leadership mentor training creatives, entrepreneurs, and executives in peak mental states. Feel free to reach out via email for any questions or book a discovery call to see how flow can help you level-up. Wishing you flow for life!