We used to believe that flow worked like a light switch, either on or off.
But thanks to research done by Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson, we now know that mini flow cycles may arise optimally in a four-stage cycle, with each stage underpinned by different and precise changes in brain function.
You have to move through each stage of the cycle before you can enter the next.
The four stages of flow are:
Stage one: Induction
The Induction phase is the time time window after we wake up and we celebrate the tart of the day with activities like journalling, physical exercises, yoga / mediation.
It should serve to slowly move from the alpha waves to the beta-waves in our brain.
Stage two: Struggle
Optimal performance begins in maximum frustration. While flow is an incredible high, it can start with a deep low.
Struggle is a loading phase. We’re loading, then overloading, the brain with information. And this is why the prefrontal cortex, which is deactivated in flow, is hyperactive in struggle.
We’re learning in this stage. We need the conscious mind to acquire skills and information.
Yet, this means that the inner critic, which is silent during flow, can be unfortunately loud during struggle.
Here’s why: Flow is built around automatic processing, but automatization requires work. You master skills slowly and consciously, before the brain can execute flawlessly and unconsciously.
Flawless unconscious processing is one reason flow feels flowy. When the brain knows what to do, it does. But first, we have to learn what to do, which is what happens in struggle.
In this stage, we discover that abiding peak performance lesson: our emotions don’t mean what we think they mean. The stage is frustrating by design. For most people, frustration is a sign that they’re moving in the wrong direction, that it’s time to stop, rethink, and regroup. But in struggle, frustration is a sign that you’re moving in the right direction. This way lies flow. Keep going.
Here’s a tip: When you’re in struggle, use the triggers to your advantage. Never struggle outside the challenge-skills sweet spot, without clear goals or structures in place to provide immediate feedback.
If you’re really stuck, deploy novelty, complexity, and unpredictability—meaning go struggle someplace new and novel.
Make sure that the pattern recognition system is well stocked and that you’re not blocking creativity with a bad mood (and, if you are, deploy gratitude, mindfulness, exercise, sleep, and so on, to reset your mood).
Stage three: Release
During struggle, the prefrontal cortex is hyperactive. It’s working feverishly to solve a problem. In release, we want to relax and let go. The goal is to take your mind off the problem. This allows us to pass information processing responsibilities from the conscious to the unconscious.
Release is an incubation period. It’s about allowing the brain’s pattern recognition system to chew on the problem for a while—while you do other things. The research shows that low-grade physical activity works best.
Go for a long car drive. Build model airplanes. Work in the garden. Play guitar. Draw, hike, or read.
Here are three tips on release:
1) Don’t exhaust yourself. The stage requires taking your mind off the problem for now, but you’ll need energy to dive back in later on. If you do exhaust yourself—with a hard workout, for example—you’ll need to eat and sleep before restarting.
2) TV won’t work. Release requires brain waves in the alpha range, but the quick cuts of television keep pulling us back to beta.
3) Not all struggles are the same. When engaged in a long struggle phase—like trying to write a book or start a company or learn the ins and outs of probability theory—following a hard work session with a release activity makes sense.
But for those situations when the struggle arrives in an instant—when you’re out for a mountain bike ride and suddenly the trail gets steep and dangerous—how do you then move from struggle to release?
Same process, smaller time frame. You need to trigger that fight response to enter flow, so move into attack mode. Expend the effort. Push through the brain’s desire to conserve energy. Then, immediately, relax.
Stage four: Recovery
Flow is a high-energy state. But what goes up must come down. This is why, on the back end of flow, there’s a recovery phase.
In recovery, we’re recharging our batteries. Nutrition matters, sunlight matters, sleep matters. Learning is significantly amplified in flow.
But for the brain to move information from short-term holding into long-term storage, deep delta-wave sleep is required. Memory consolidation, as the process is known, demands these delta waves. This is another reason it’s hard to live a high-flow lifestyle without regular rest.
Passive recovery—TV and a beer—won’t work. Active recovery is mindfulness, saunas, stretching, Epsom salt baths, massage, ice baths, and the like. And active recovery takes work!
After a hard day, even the extra energy it takes to take a long bath can feel like a Herculean task.
However, if your interest is in moving through the flow cycle as quickly as possible—so you can get back into state—then you have to get serious about recovery.
If you don’t refill the tanks in this stage, then you’ll never be ready for what comes next: the hard fight of struggle.
Within this 4 – phases‘ cycle we may arrive in flow states in a continuous way. Here’s how we can maximize our time in the state.
Distraction and Interruptions are the number one reason people get knocked out of flow. And once out, it’s hard to get back in.
Then, there’s negative thinking. Flow is a highly creative state, where the brain is hunting these very associations. The minute you start thinking negatively, you lose this ability. Worse, this reengages the prefrontal cortex, turning the inner critic back on, and KO’ing the whole enterprise.
Nonoptimal Arousal: This is another reason we trained up motivation. If you don’t have the energy to fight, you can’t get into flow.
But the same thing holds true once in flow. If you don’t have the energy to sustain that fight, you’ll succumb to fatigue and won’t get to play in the zone for long.
This is also why nutrition, active recovery, sleep hygiene, and regular exercise matter. All give you the best chance of optimal arousal in every situation.
Lack of Preparation: This could mean physical or mental preparation. In either case, if you haven’t automatized key skills and abilities, you can’t get into flow.
You can use flow amplification to have deeper, longer flow experiences.
The way to turn a microflow state into a macroflow state is via dopamine and norepinephrine.
Flow triggers help to move from micro to macro flow states.
Up the level of novelty, complexity, or unpredictability in what you’re doing.