Have you ever watched an Olympian experience her childhood dream by effortlessly breaking her personal record? Or an astronaut flawlessly orchestrate a rocket launch? Or a president deliver a country-altering State of the Union address? Their focus, ease and courage are impressive.
There’s a name for that type of state of mind — Flow state.
Flow has only been a subject for clinical psychological research since the late 1990s, but its existence is far from new.
You’ve experienced flow state. Think of a time when you were immersed in an activity and looked up and time had fallen away but it felt like only a few minutes. That’s flow.
It’s a state when your mind is quiet and your actions are deliberate and happen with ease.
In our digital society it’s easy to be stressed and distracted. Flow state is available to those who are willing to do the training and see opportunity in challenging environments. When in flow, we are present — focused on the task at hand and eloquently adjusting to the challenges.
Getting to that state is incredibly challenging. It’s not like we can just wake up and say, “today I’m going to be in flow.” It requires a fundamental commitment to embrace risk, matched by the required skills to thrive in those conditions. While deep focus is one of the entry points into flow, it also requires a lot of our brain’s resources, so we benefit from dedicated breaks between sessions of deep work, building in time for mind-wandering and spontaneity.
But for times when you want to access deep focus, how do you get into flow? Or if you’ve been there, how do you increase your frequency of getting into the most optimal state for humans?
The Variables for Flow State
First, you have to have an accurate appraisal of your skills. You have to be able to correctly match your skills to the challenge at hand. If you’re “over your skis” and don’t have the technical skills you need, that’s great feedback. It’s now time to double down on getting better at a particular physical skill. If you have the skills but become overwhelmed with nervousness or anxiety prior to the challenge, that’s when training psychological skills makes sense. There’s no substitute for putting in the work to master your craft, both physically and mentally, so that you can earn the right to trust yourself in any environment.
Getting comfortable with challenge and working the nuances of your craft that continuously stretch your boundaries are essential to training the mindset skills that trigger flow. To do this you need to trust in yourself and your abilities. There’s an equation for trust.
Time x Behavior = Trust
You earn the ability to trust yourself by doing hard things over a long period of time.
On a parallel path to earn self trust, one of the key mindset skills involved in this process is continuous and sustained focus.There are two key components: focusing and refocusing.
Focus is a decision you make to be present in the current moment, focused on the task, person, words or activity in front of you.
Refocus is something you train. Everyone’s mind wanders, but the highest performers have trained their mind to return to the task at hand over and over again when needed.
Focusing and refocusing are the precursors to flow.
How Mindfulness Enables Flow State
One way to think about “deep focus” is that you’re completely locked into the present moment — fully engaged, with all of your essence, to the task at hand. If this is difficult for you, welcome to the club. Mindfulness is one way to train being in the present moment. Mindfulness and continuous refocusing are very closely linked neurologically. The mechanical nature of Mindfulness training is literally the training of your mind to return back to the present moment and focus on the task at hand. This focus could be on a task, being present with your family, a flickering candle, or your inhale or exhale of your breath. Whatever it is, the more you train the more flow you’ll feel in the moments that matter.
About eight minutes a day for as little as two weeks has demonstrated some of the positive effects of mindfulness. Eight minutes a day is a small investment for the large return of increasing the frequency of being in the most optimal state known to humans: flow.
Train Flow State
If you’d like to train focus and refocusing, first choose a task with low stakes. Maybe it’s washing the dishes, walking the dog or brushing your teeth. Focus on the task and every time your mind begins to wander, bring it back to the task at hand. That’s it. It really is that simple. And, at the moment you recognize that you’re distracted, celebrate that just a bit — that’s the moment that for you to practice the refocusing. Over time, it becomes easier.
A second way to train deep focus is to up the stakes and up the consequences. This by no means is the “safe way” of training. Going “all in” could look like a work meeting or an intimate conversation with a loved one.
It takes disciplined work but it’s not something reserved for professional athletes. Anyone can get there and enjoy the benefits of flow.
There’s only three things we can train as humans: your body, your craft and your mind.
It may feel a bit abstract if you’re new to this type of training, but conditioning your mind is something that everyone can do. It’s the process of training the psychological skills that will help you live in the present moment more often. It’s the present moment where high performance is expressed and wisdom revealed.
Teams at the highest level prioritize flow. Steve Kerr, head coach of the Golden State Warriors, commented on the importance of flow on the Finding Mastery podcast, saying, “There’s nothing else that can match group flow. That’s what I’m constantly hoping our team achieves.”
By investing in mindfulness and other mental skills training you’ll open yourself up to better relationships, more productivity, a more fulfilling career and a more authentic version of yourself.
Training mindset principles is important for anyone looking to improve personal performance. These principles are covered in the Finding Your Best course. Apply today to join the next cohort.