Peak performance and Flow

“If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way. If not, you’ll find an excuse” — Jim Rohn

I’ve started a 30 day blogging challenge (more about it here and please sign up to receive the newsletter). This is day five.

TL;DR recent discoveries in psychology found the conditions necessary to achieve flow, a mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. Learn how you can apply these principles to reach peak performance.

Limitless

In the movie limitless, Eddie Morra (played by Bradley Cooper) is sure that he has no future. His life changes when he takes a drug that enhances his mental acuity. He then uses the drug to rise to the top of the financial world, given his new abilities to process much more data and connect seemingly unrelated events to stock prices. Sounds intriguing?

Recent stories in the Economist and New York Times covered the trend of ‘microdosing’, taking small quantities of LSD to trigger an altered state of consciousness in the brain as well as new research into the use of psychedelics to treat depression and PTSD. But what if you could get there without a magical pill?

Today, I’d like to focus on Peak Performance. Let’s start with some definitions. According to the medical dictionary:

Peak performance is a state in which the person performs to the maximum of their ability, characterized by subjective feelings of confidence, effortlessness and total concentration on the task.

When I read this definition, it felt synonymous to a state of Flow:

In positive psychology, flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

I became interested in Flow, after reading the book by Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Chick–sent–meehayee) who originally coined the term. The book is the result of one of the largest empirical studies conducted on happiness, using Experience Sampling Method (ESM), which sampled people’s mood in various random points of the day. Surprisingly, the majority of people reported higher levels of happiness while at work, than they did on holiday. Isn’t that bizarre?

Csikszentmihalyi concluded: Just like there is no formula for happiness, there is no formula for FLOW”, but together with Jeanne Nakamura, they identified six factors that when combined with each other, can create a state of optimal experience:

  1. Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  2. Merging of action and awareness
  3. A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  4. A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  5. A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
  6. Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience

Later on, psychology writer Kendra Cherry has mentioned three other components of optimal experience:

  1. “Immediate feedback”
  2. Feeling that you have the potential to succeed
  3. Feeling so engrossed in the experience, that other needs become negligible

The book Stealing Fire by Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler, explores various models of ‘ecstasis’ (psychology, neurobiology, pharmacology, and technology) with examples ranging from elite Navy Seals teams to Silicon Valley execs. Turns out that to achieve altered mental states, we globally spend over $4 trillion dollars if you take into account everything from alcohol to caffeine to action sports, EDM concerts, yoga, even online porn (source).

So how can we seek this state of Flow, Ecstasis, Peak Performance without illegal substances? it ain’t easy, but here’s what I’ve learned so far:

  • Meditation and mindfulness: so much has been written about the impact of meditation on the brain. Meditators tested in the lab has shown massive reduction of fear, anxiety, and stress. More here.
  • Sensory deprivation: Pitch dark water-filled tanks invented by Dr John Lilly in 1954 by for the National Institute of Mental Health, are now back in use by the Navy Seals. By “cancelling the self” they were able to increase their mental toughness, learn faster (6 weeks instead of 6 months to learn a language) and have shown to produce theta waves in the brain, which are also linked to deep meditation. I’ve tried the ‘civilian version’ at TED this year:
The Somadome meditation pod was a form of sensory deprivation at TED Vancouver this year
  • Engaging in action sports – Athletes describe a sense of Flow under the most strenuous physical conditions. For example, when breaking a record in the olympics. And I’m not talking about the pride that comes from standing on the podium, but the stressful, sweaty, painful moment in fierce competition. Personally, I’m a big believer in the connection of mental and physical and have experienced this myself while cycling Long distances with Techbikers.
  • Sound and Music- sound can alter consciousness and has been used in religious ceremonies since ancient times. Think about a shaman performing a ceremony, or gothic churches with echo bouncing off the walls. Taking part in a rave with EDM music can also have this effect.
  • Technology — sounds counter intuitive, but Mikey Siegel, MIT and NASA trained roboticist is the founder of Consciousness Hacking, a startup making “tech-assisted self-awareness devices” meant to help people “tune their internal environments” and reach non-ordinary states of consciousness on their own.

Your turn

I’m not an expert on this topic, but I’d love to learn more. What are the best ways to achieve personal and team flow, without substances? Please share your feedback by leaving a comment.