We’re drowning in information—about how to live better, eat right, earn more and find true love—but we’re still starving for motivation. One Harvard Medical School study found that when patients were faced with “change or die” medical advice to stop smoking, drop their blood pressure, lose critical weight or manage their diabetes, only 12 percent were able to pull it off. That means seven out of eight of us would die rather than change.
And that might just be because we’ve been going about it all wrong. Typically, the only two forces that motivate us to change are Pride and Guilt. Pride—“I bet I can still fit into those jeans from college,” and Guilt—“I need to outrun those calories from sitting on the couch all weekend.” But neither of those two drivers last long: they’re like squirting lighter fluid on your backyard grill—great for a brilliant flare-up, but not much good to actually cook with over the long haul.
There is hope, though—an even more powerful force, a state of mind that all of us have experienced, but only a few of us know the name for: Flow. You know when you get so totally lost in what you’re doing that time seems to disappear into a magical extended moment? That’s Flow. And for most of us, it’s about as good as life gets. As soon as it’s come and gone, we find ourselves itching to do it again.
And there’s a reason for that. In a Flow state, our brain gets flooded with some of the most powerful feel-good reward chemicals possible—dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin. It’s nature’s way of signaling “Yes! Do more of this!” And like kids who go out sledding until they can’t feel their fingers anymore, when we’re in Flow, we literally can’t stop until we have to. No journals, no accountability coaches. Just the pure joy of doing it.
The trouble is, as quickly and mysteriously as it comes, Flow can leave us high and dry again. So we find ourselves stuck waiting for lightning to strike again rather than learning how to up the voltage ourselves.
But recent advances in performance psychology and neuroscience have helped us crack that code, and by deploying some simple tips and tricks, we can significantly up the odds of finding Flow when we need it most.
Here’s a simple five-step process that can help you prime yourself for Flow any day, anywhere, whether you’re heading to the gym, an important business meeting or a night out on the town.
FUEL, MOVE, BREATHE, LISTEN, RISK.
- Fuel. Flow is incredibly energy-intensive for our bodies and brains to support, so if we’re not fed and hydrated, it’s less likely to happen. Drink a pint of water, and eat something that is low in sugar with healthy fat and protein—a handful of almonds, an energy bar, half an avocado. When we’re busy or stressed, it’s tempting to skip meals and snacks and run on caffeine—DON’T!
- Move. Moshe Feldenkrais said, “A brain without a body cannot think,” and he was right. Scientists call this “embodied cognition” but it really means that using our lungs and hearts, and moving our arms and legs directly affects how we think, what we think, and how we feel. It doesn’t need to be fancy either. A brisk walk, stairs instead of elevators or your favorite class at the gym all fire up neurons, circulate blood and oxygen and flush out the stress hormones that we typically stew in. Working out is not just about how we look, it’s about how we perform!
- Breathe. If there is one simple game-changer, it’s this. Patanjali, the father of modern yoga, said, “Breath is the umbilical cord to the universe.” What he meant was, if we can stay connected to relaxed and natural respiration, we can stay connected to everything that’s happening all around us. The Navy SEALs use a technique called “Box Breathing” where you inhale, hold, exhale and hold for five seconds each (that’s the “Box”). It trains them to relax under stressful conditions. Try it if you’d like, but you don’t even need to get that fancy—just breathe slower, deeply, smoothly, for three minutes. Your whole world will be better for it.
- Listen. This one’s fun, and most of us know it intuitively—music really is, as Shakespeare said, “the stuff of life.” Pick your favorite playlist that matches the energy of what you’re trying to accomplish. Early morning workout? Go with high tempo (between 120 and 150 beats per minute) feel-good tunes. Deep thinking work at the office? Check out brain.fm, which has specially created audio tracks to drown out distraction and improve focus. Music modulates our brainwaves, impacts our mood and primes our neurochemistry. It’s like wallpaper for our minds—choose it well and use it as your secret mood booster!
- Risk. Saving the best for last. Flow doesn’t happen when we’re phoning it in. It only shows up when we’re pushing ourselves beyond the limits of our experience, but staying within the limits of our abilities. So wherever you can, take safe, recoverable risks—try a new skill or move, go for a personal best exercising, sign up for a new class, visit a different nature park, take a different route home. Soren Kierkegaard famously said, “To dare is to risk losing one’s footing; to not dare, is to risk losing oneself.” If in doubt, always chose the new memory. Your future self will thank you for it!
Will following these steps get you into Flow all the time? Probably not. They are just some of the techniques we can use to get better at learning to feel and perform at our best. But what they can do is help us become more likely at finding Flow more often. They put us back in the driver’s seat of shaping our own best lives. They give us a chance to stop struggling harder, and start living smarter.
We can stop forcing the feel, and learn to feel the Force instead. And who doesn’t want a little more of that in their life?
How to Find Flow: Watch FGP’s video to find out.
Where to Learn More about Flow: The FGP website; the FGP Flow Profile quiz; Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi; The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler.