4 Stages Of The Flow Cycle: The Scientific Guide To Finding Consistent Flow States
“Few things are sadder than encountering a person who knows exactly what he should do, yet cannot muster enough energy to do it. "He who desires but acts not," wrote Blake with his accustomed vigor, "Breeds pestilence.” ― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
How can we leverage the 4 stages of the flow cycle to explore the upper possibilities of human potential?
Flow is a transcendental experience and yet, it is not a light switch that we can turn on and off. It has a special neurobiological signature. It’s part of a 4 stage cycle underpinned by the release of specific neurochemicals. If we can determine where we fall within the flow cycle, we can get our neurobiology to work for us, instead of against us. This understanding primes us for figuring out what to do next in order to maximise our time in flow. In each stage of the flow state cycle, we can learn how to cleverly apply the various flow triggers.
Please remember that you are playing with highly addictive neurobiological states, the most potent endogenous neurochemical cocktail known to humankind. You have been warned!
To leverage consistent flow, you must first understand the flow channel and master the challenge skills equation developed by Csikszentmihalyi.
The Flow Channel
The flow channel is considered as the goldilocks zone for flow. Here, the Challenge (how difficult the task is) to skills (your ability to perform the task) ratio is optimal for high performance.
High performers typically take on challenges that exceed their current skill level. Too much stress can lead to anxiety and if you keep pushing the gas pedal, you will burnout. This may also lead to the unleashing of a raging self-critic that will not shut up about how you’re not smart enough, talented enough, good enough etc. However, if we take on challenges that are beneath our level of skill, we tend to feel apathy and boredom. It’s simply not worth any effort to do.
When the activity is inherently associated with a negative emotion, you tend to procrastinate.
The secret sauce to stop procrastinating?
Strive for the grace of the flow channel, that is, an enticing mix of challenges that ever so slightly exceed your current skill level. This allows you to stretch yourself, but not snap! You are to break down your hardest goals into engaging and slightly challenging chunks. A good rule of thumb is to increase your challenge level by 4 % everyday. The compounding result can make a drastic impact in a short amount of time. If you can find the right balance, you may tip yourself into flow or perhaps, you may simply experience a good challenge.
The Flow Cycle
Herbert Benson conducted studies at Harvard to understand the real-time implications of flow on our brains. Based on research conducted by the Flow Genome Project, you have to cycle through the following 4 stages of the flow cycle in order to enter the zone of optimal consciousness, where you feel your best and perform your best.
So let’s dive right in!
Phase 1: The Struggle/Challenge
The first part of the flow cycle is counterintuitive and the exact opposite of flow.
It is the prefrontal cortex heavy learning phase where you overload the brain with information to the point of frustration. Frustration is inevitable in the first stage of the flow cycle. In fact, it is welcome! If your brain feels like it’s going to explode, you’re right on track! You want to overload your working memory and take yourself to the point of exhaustion. However, there may be an art to the struggle.
“Of all the virtues we can learn no trait is more useful, more essential for survival, and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge.”― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Though this phase has been popularly labelled as struggle, I believe a little cognitive reframing is in order. How about we call this the challenge phase instead?
No one enjoys a struggle but fostering a growth mindset can help us appreciate a good challenge. Challenges are inevitable in life. If you do not check your fixed mindset habits, you may end up in a never ending struggle loop.
A growth mindset allows for failures. It is accepting of mistakes on the journey towards skill acquisition. The fastest learners are not afraid to fail. They view it as part of the process and they strive towards their goals, even when they are difficult. They build resilience. They learn to enjoy the nuances of their craft.
Examples of Activities
Any form of skill acquisition, whether cognitive or physical, will require us to take on challenges. Some of the common challenges people take on in this phase include:
Learning a new musical instrument
Training for a marathon etc.
Learning to code
Developing the creativity muscle
Signature Brain Wave
The challenge/struggle phase is characterised by the hyperactive Beta brain wave. These are high frequency waves that allow us to process large bits of information.
There is a sweet spot when it comes to exhaustion and stress. Although the negative effects of stress have been popularised by the media, not all stress is bad. The right amount of stress, aka Cortisol and Noradrenaline, can help tighten our focus and foster deep learning.
Depending on the level of challenge, there may be too much adrenaline and cortisol in your system. When this happens, you must take your foot off the gas pedal or you risk burning out. It is not very efficient for the brain to continuously process information in high-frequency as it requires too much energy.
For the feel-good neurochemicals to show up, you must practice phase 2 of the flow cycle.
Phase 2: Triggering Release
'We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them' - Albert Einstein
Knowing when to quit is more important than never quitting. The struggle phase tends to deplete your cognitive energy reserves. Now is not the time to determine the tensile strength of your cognitive and physical capabilities.
Take a few breaths. Go for a walk. Crawl into bed and take a cat nap.
Turns out phase 2 of the flow cycle is also pretty counterintuitive huh? I mean, hustle culture has us glorifying 120 hour work weeks and the capacity to forgo sleep for the grind. BOOOO-RING! That’s not for me…..and it shouldn’t be for you either if you care about the quality of your life.
Taking your mind off the problem is almost always the solution to the problem. This gives our brain the opportunity to pass learning from the conscious to the subconscious mind. Our brains have limited capacity for storage and processing in working memory (the conscious brain). The struggle will be in vain if you cannot afford the time required for this information to be passed onto longer-term storage, that of the subconscious brain. Afterall, the subconscious brain boasts unlimited capacity and processing prowess. It would be a shame if we did not take advantage of this.
So how do you trigger release?
Examples of activities
Low grade physical exercise that does not require focused attention frees up the conscious processing centres in our brain. Some activities that can trigger release include:
Signature Brain Wave
This calming, resting state of the brain is characterised by Alpha brain waves. Here, we integrate the body/mind complex through embodiment and enter what researchers call the deep now.
During this phase, our brains release Nitric Oxide. This acts as a neurotransmitter that flushes stress hormones out of our system.Our lungs expand and we feel good because the cortisol and adrenaline have been replaced by certain feel good chemicals.
Enter the flow state….
Phase 3: Finding Flow
At this point, if we were to return to the initial activity and pay attention to our challenge/skills balance, we may just find our flow. In flow, cognitive and physical capabilities have the potential to skyrocket. Flow is a spectrum. Depending on the amount of neurochemicals that show up, you experience flow as ranging from micro to macro flow.
So how do you know whether you are in a flow state?
In their book Stealing Fire, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal explains the Phenomenology of Flow using the acronym STER:
Selflessness: There is a loss of self-consciousness where action and awareness merge
Timelessness: You feel as though time slows down or speeds up
Effortlessness: Every action feels as though it is automatic; leading from one to the next in spontaneous, creative fashion
Richness: Your mind feels as though it has access to a vast database of information
The scientific term for the neurobiological experience of flow is called Transient Hypofrontality. This is characterised by the temporary deactivation of the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex. This is where our inner-critic lives, rent free of course. During this deactivation; the constant rumination, self-doubt, and anxiety start to fade away. We are redeemed from the contemplation of the past and the future. We are thrust into the deep now. We find liberation from ourselves.
If this has piqued your curiosity, check out How to induce Transient Hypofrontality.
Flow is an autotelic experience, meaning that people tend to chase the feeling of flow as if it’s an end in itself. Self-concordant goals play a huge role in achieving flow.
Signature Brain Wave
Whilst the research is ongoing and individuals in flow show a range of brain waves, most people tend to experience a shift towards the Alpha/Theta borderline.
The slow activity Theta brain wave amplifies creativity and daydreaming.
Gamma brain waves are the fastest measurable brain wave. These occur during eureka moments (neuronal firing) and are equated to heightened perception and peak mental states. They are common amongst experienced meditators and monks.
This is where your potent endogenous neurochemical cocktail takes you soaring across the skies of your imagination. Pattern recognition and lateral thinking capabilities go through the roof. It’s likely a combination of Dopamine, Noradrenaline, Endorphins, Anandamide, and Serotonin. To put this into context, think about when you last fell in love with somebody. The addictive, loved up, rose-tinted worldview that came along with the experience was facilitated by just 2 of those neurochemicals: Dopamine and Noradrenaline. In comparison, flow has the potential to take you on the wildest rides!
Word of caution: it’s not for everyone.
The dark side of flow
Though engineering your life around flow has the potential to reward you with highly pleasurable states, you must err on the side of caution for various reasons. If you’re not adept at emotional self-regulation, you may find yourself unable to cope with the lows that follow the feeling of flow.
Flow is a high energy state, it requires a large amount of calories and neurochemicals. However, you cannot remain in this state for a long time. Once the feelgood neurochemicals have been exhausted, flow starts to drop and it’s normal to start feeling a little blue. You must learn the art of emotional self-regulation to navigate these lows.
Here is where you prioritise radical self acceptance and active recovery. It is vital to give your body the time to recover and replenish the depleted stores of feelgood neurochemicals.
As they say…..after the ecstasy, the laundry…..
Phase 4: Prioritising Recovery
We have now entered the final stage of the flow cycle. Switch off, tune out and give yourself some TLC! You must slow down to speed up.
In this phase, you typically have no more feel good neurochemicals left in your system, so don’t take your emotions too seriously! Don’t give unnecessary weight to any negative thoughts that may arise. Simply practice active recovery and positive psychology basics to allow your body to replenish itself naturally.
The release of Serotonin and Oxytocin allows for deep recovery.
Signature Brain Wave
The slow activity Delta brain wave is crucial for healing and rejuvenation.
Examples of Activities
The following activities form a strong active recovery protocol.
High Quality Sleep
Optimal Nutrition and Hydration
Epsom Salt baths
The creative flow cycle is an integral model for peak performance and overall well being. Once your tank is full again, rinse and repeat!
Remember, it’s wise to not chase the feeling of flow itself and simply surrender to the other three phases of the flow cycle. The more you prioritise challenge, release, and recovery, the higher your probability for stumbling upon flow. Treat flow as an emergent property in order to escape the traps of becoming an insatiable flow junkie!
“During a peak experience,” Maslow explained, “the individual experiences an expansion of self, a sense of unity, and meaningfulness in life. The experience lingers in one’s consciousness and gives a sense of purpose, integration, self-determination and empathy.”
If you'd like to learn more about the specific flow triggers, check out this article on the 22 Flow Triggers: The Ultimate Peak Performance Toolkit For Hacking Flow
Wishing you spontaneous flow for life! :)
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!