“Task-specific focus becomes the gateway to the merger of action and awareness and the activation switch for automatized processing.” – Steven Kotler, bestselling author and Executive Director at the Flow Research Collective
In our first article, we introduced an optimal state of consciousness known as flow. Within flow, our brains redirect energy from the prefrontal cortex toward action and awareness in the present moment, allowing us to feel and perform our best without the usual anxieties of everyday life. In this article, we aim to describe some of the proximal conditions needed to tap into flow. With an understanding of these conditions, or “flow triggers,” anyone can learn how to bring more flow into their daily lives.
Since the initial investigations by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1960s, researchers have identified twenty-two flow triggers. Every trigger works by enhancing our attention in one, or a combination, of three ways: They drive dopamine and/or norepinephrine – two of our strongest focusing neurochemicals – into our systems; or they lower cognitive load. We will save the neurological talk for another day. For now, let us break down some of the most important flow triggers and the ways in which we implement them in every session at Hypower Performance.
In his book, “The Art of Impossible,” Steven Kotler classifies the twenty-two flow triggers into four categories: internal, external, creative, and social. For the purposes of this article, we’ve omitted the creative triggers and combined a few of the social triggers together. Because all growth starts on a personal level, we’ll begin here with the internal triggers.
1. Clear Goals: First and foremost, we must know what it is we’re trying to accomplish. The key word here is clear. Don’t be vague. Give your athletes a clear task – the what – and let them discover the how for themselves.
2. Complete Concentration: Our attention must be locked in on the task at hand. Want to drive focus? Set aside a specific time period during the day to work on your task and commit to focusing only on that task during that period. Tell your friends and family what you’re doing so that you won’t be bothered, put the cell phone away and get to work.
3. Immediate Feedback: It’s important to know whether or not what you’re doing is working. Rather than critique every movement, our goal is to empower the athlete to be confident in his/her own decision-making ability. While we guide athletes through obstacles, we understand the true power of an athlete comes from his/her ability to adapt to ever-changing situations.
4. Challenge-Skills Balance: The task must be challenging. Anything that is too easy quickly turns mundane and drives attention away. On the contrary, anything too difficult seems futile and creates stress and anxiety. Hence the word balance. The flow motto is, “Stretch, don’t snap.” Set goals that lie just beyond your current ability.
5. The Triad of Curiosity, Passion, & Purpose: When this triad is present, attention and focus skyrocket. Research has proven that we are biologically programmed to be inspired more by intrinsic motivators than extrinsic ones. Curiosity means we are genuinely interested in pushing our limits and learning more. Passion comes from enjoyment of the activity and the dose of dopamine our brains receive when we enter flow. Purpose is the feeling that we are doing something bigger than ourselves, something that will change who we are and therefore change our world.
6. Autonomy: This goes hand-in-hand with attention. Csikszentmihalyi explains, “If attention is the means by which a person exchanges information with the environment… then voluntary focusing of attention is a state of optimal interaction.” When we have the freedom to choose what we do, our energy is automatically focused and committed.
7. High Consequences: This simply means we are taking a risk, putting ourselves out there knowing there is a chance of failure. Risk increases the amount of norepinephrine and dopamine our body releases. However, this doesn’t necessitate physical risk. Our minds process social and emotional risk the same way they do physical.
8. Rich Environment: This is a combination of novelty, unpredictability, and complexity. The brain naturally prioritizes novel information because, from an evolutionary standpoint, it could mean either danger or opportunity. For the same reason, unpredictability drives attention. Complexity is the experience of awe, the feeling of being a part of something greater than ourselves. On the court, these three factors present themselves quite easily. As trainers and coaches, we simply need to put players into situations in which the obstacles are unpredictable and the outcome is yet to be determined.
9. Deep Embodiment: Attention rises when we truly engage in an activity. Our sense of self squanders. Studies prove that learning and memory skyrocket when multiple senses are engaged. In today’s world, too much time is wasted watching videos or listening to speakers. While studying your craft is important, there is no substitution for the real work. Go out and hone your skills.
10. Good Communication and Always Saying Yes: This is essentially the group version of immediate feedback. The importance of constant, positive interaction between individuals cannot be underestimated. At Hypower, we encourage an environment where athletes can build relationships and support one another. We constantly remind athletes of the fact that they are all here for a shared purpose: to grow as individuals and to help each other do the same.
11. Blending Egos and Equal Participation: In a team sport, this is every coach’s goal. Blending egos is a collective understanding that no individual is bigger than the team and no single athlete can succeed alone. Equal participation means that everyone is involved in the growth process. Every athlete has a role to play and a chance to make the team better.
12. The Desire to Prove Others Wrong: Though the scientific data is insufficient at this point, Steven Kotler includes spite as a bonus trigger. This is not to be confused with hatred or malice. Spite is our ego’s competitive spirit. It’s the motivation to prove the nay-sayers wrong. While it may be dangerous and often ill-advised to operate solely on this sort of aggression, we have seen countless athletes succeed because of it.
As we mentioned in our first article, flow is a biologically universal phenomenon. It is within reach of any and every person looking to grab on, so long as these proximal conditions are met. If you truly desire growth, fulfillment, and peak performance – find ways to implement these triggers into your life. Set clear goals, challenge your current abilities, seek feedback, take risks, and emerge yourself in rich environments. Once you get the hang of things, find others to share your experiences with. We are all capable of flowing through the process. And once we learn to do so, we’ll never want to turn back.
Written by Alex Kaslander
Trainer at Hypower Performance