Take this quiz:
1) Have you ever lost your sense of self?
2) Do you ever lose track of time?
3) Ever find that something you’re doing suddenly seems effortless?
4) While you were in the middle of doing something, have new insights occurred to you?
These questions aren’t asking about an artificially induced state of consciousness. They are describing the characteristics of flow, and if you can think of a time and place when you were doing something — rock climbing, knitting, dancing in a studio class — and experienced these conditions, you’ve been in flow state.
Flow is a specific state of awareness, and focus is an essential part of it. Flow happens only when your attention is in the moment, so if your mind is wandering, you can’t get into flow. That’s why action sports offer great examples of flow, and so do Special Ops military functions, underwater welding, piano recitals and open heart surgery. Activities that have very high consequences for mistakes (and therefore require focus) tend to drive people into flow states. After all, if you’re thinking about what happened at home this morning instead of the patient under your care, bad things can happen.
Flow comes naturally to children. You’ve seen kids deeply absorbed in learning a new task, building sand castles or pursuing bugs in the grass. They often drop into flow states very naturally because the connection in their prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain responsible for that distracting, critical inner voice grownups have — is still developing. It explains the success of the Montessori environment, in which children are less frequently interrupted in their work and play.
Flow comes naturally to children. You’ve seen kids deeply absorbed in learning a new task, building sand castles or pursuing bugs in the grass.
Adults have to work a little harder to achieve flow state, but there are things you can do to achieve that crucial aspect of focus.
In “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” Nicholas Carr explores what’s happening to our attention span and our ability to think deeply versus broadly in the digital age. With so many technological distractions, the way we socialize is changing: a lot of socializing is happening in a sort of simulated layer of social media. For flow states, however, the ability to be present where you actually are is a huge factor.
The first step to eliminating distraction is to turn off your phone or put it away, and avoid screens where you eat and work out. It helps to put yourself in natural surroundings, too. Researchers at UCLA and UC Berkeley think nature is a powerful stimulant in flow states because its variety and beauty overwhelms our working memory, and we actually end up relaxing and experiencing a state of awe.
Try these focus triggers
The simplest way to get to flow state is through intense and varied movement, that is, movement that crosses your midline on multiple planes of motion. Here are five key ways to trigger focus — that precursor to flow — and to eliminate distraction:
- Movement: The simplest way to get to flow state is intense and varied movement, in other words, movement that crosses your midline on multiple planes of motion.
- Breathing: There are dozens of really sophisticated breathing patterns you can do that will change how you feel and then how you behave and perform. But the simplest is just to pay attention and breathe deeply, smoothly and regularly, and that alone does a lot.
- Gratitude: Another way to get your mind into flow is to practice gratitude, and not even for humanistic reasons. Practicing gratitude takes you out of your amygdala, the part of your brain that’s always scanning for danger and dismissing anything that’s nonthreatening. Evolution has reinforced the advantages of being a neurotic pessimist, because it’s better to be afraid and wrong than to skip along optimistically — and get eaten.
“Accepting the moment with gratitude forces you to be present.”
When you practice gratitude, however, you’re actually rewiring millions of years of evolution to make yourself think about the positive, nonthreatening aspects of life without dismissing them. This approach creates new neural networks in your brain and tells your body that you’re not going to fight with this moment — in fact, any unhappiness in this moment comes from your subjective decision that it’s insufficient. Accepting the moment with gratitude forces you to be present.
- Internal quiet: Focus on sensation helps to quiet that distracting internal voice. In fact, if you can turn that voice toward sensation cues, such as “feel the turn” when you’re skiing, eventually activity ceases to be about words and becomes embodiment and sensation. Then at some point, thoughts, sensations and actions all kind of merge together, and you’re doing your thing. By the way, thinking harder about not thinking does not help you to reach flow state.
- Group flow: You’ve seen some sports teams that have it, like the Golden State Warriors, who seem to perform better together than they do individually. It’s a state you might have reached in a studio class, on an intramural team or in a jam session. It’s an area of academic research, as just about every team or organization wants it; it’s hard to create conditions that lead to it; and when it’s achieved, it’s incredibly valuable.
When people get better at achieving flow states individually, they can help other people get into flow just by entrainment. (Our brains and bodies sync to external rhythms, which is why you find yourself tapping your foot in time to the beat.) Research into this phenomenon among Navy SEALs suggests that the leader is not the person who talks the most or has the best ideas; it’s the person who regulates his or her own physiology. The rest of the group becomes attuned to these people.
Supercharge your focus with sleep
Most of us confuse activity with results, so we trade war stories about how busy we are, how little we’ve slept and how crazy our lives are. But flow requires patience, which means distancing ourselves from those workaholic tendencies that are socially rewarded and taking time to conserve energy, recover and repair.
It might mean getting more sleep or closing the laptop early and going for a run in the middle of the day when you realize you’re at a point at which you’re going to be staring uselessly at the screen for two hours. That’s a path to sustainable high performance instead of burnout.