Hacking Flow — How to Trick the Mind Into More Productive Behaviour

Science-based content to help you achieve your goals

Mar 19, 2019 · 9 min read

Achieving ‘flow’ takes practice. While meditation is a good means of practicing to calm down your mind, we might still find it difficult to enter ‘the zone’ when working — especially for tasks we do not enjoy. If our conscious mind would be in perfect control of our body none of this would be a problem. We would simply force our body to achieve perfect concentration and voilà — there we are, doing focussed work for the next couple of hours. Yet, we know that we are biased creatures. With the beginning of the 21st century, the findings of scientists and authors, such as Daniel Kahneman and Dan Ariely, reached broad popularity. It is now generally accepted that the human mind is prone to bias and that we can apply tricks to trick the mind into more productive behaviour. Let’s jump straight into the most relevant ones for flow.

Flow Hack #1: Leverage The Zeigarnik Effect

Bluma Zeigarnik, a psychologist, was always fascinated by how well waitresses could remember her orders even though their groups of customers consisted of a large number of people. It was even more fascinating to her, though, that those waitresses completely forgot the order, sometimes even the faces of the people who ordered, a few minutes after the guests had left the restaurant. How can their memory be so good and bad at the same time?

Eventually, Zeigarnik discovered that we can memorize uncompleted tasks much better than completed ones. This is called the ‘Zeigarnik Effect’. The idea is quite practical and very sound from an evolutionary perspective. Since completed tasks are usually not important anymore, it makes sense to forget them to make room for new, fresh and more important memories [1].

The Zeigarnik effect rose to popularity because of its seeming practicality for studying. Many study techniques hence exploit the technique by suggesting to not complete a certain memorization task. It is expected that the learned material would then pop up more often in our minds, which is supposed to help us better memorise the desired subject. Yet, those positive effects are not proven scientifically at all. Furthermore, from a logical perspective, the question remains: Once the list is completed then — will the mind forget everything anyway? There is no doubt this practice makes it to the list of ‘Unlimitix’ top 10 bullshit practices’ — and we can highly recommend you do not apply this trick when studying. Finish your subjects, and don’t use this as an excuse to half-ass everything.

The positive effects of the Zeigarnik Effect stem from an opposite logic. Since uncompleted tasks pop up in our heads all the time, they distract us from what we want to do right now. Roy F. Baumeister, for example, has found that people performed much worse in solving puzzles when they had to remember a list with tasks they needed to complete after solving the puzzles [2].

Get your to-do’s out of your head before your flow phase

Luckily, researchers found that we do not have to complete tasks to get them out of our head. We merely need to integrate them into a list we trust, e.g. write them down on a sheet of paper we won’t throw away. This is why we recommend to take 5–10 minutes before a scheduled flow phase to write everything down you have to do later today. Subsequently, reserve time in your calendar for finishing those tasks and make sure that your calculation is feasible. During focus phases, every time an additional thought pops up in your head, write it down on the same sheet of paper, forget it, and re-focus. Don’t force yourself to re-focus, just carefully bring your attention back to your task. At one point, you will have established a habit of automatically writing every unrelated thought down. You will not be distracted and directly move back to your task at hand. Your body will have ‘understood’ that you will take care of the task later and it will hence not pop up in your mind again [3].

Flow Hack #2: Use Binaural Gamma Beats

This is a peculiar topic and research does not yet fully back this concept. However, there are hundreds of self-experiments from people reporting positive effects of binaural beats and I myself have had very positive experiences with them, whether placebo or not.

At this point, I feel obligated to explain myself. If you’re not interested in the philosophical considerations behind our articles, feel free to skip this passage. At Unlimitix, we believe in the superiority of science, that is, the pre-eminence of that which is proven to work without question. This does not mean, however, and that is an unpardonable error often perpetrated by many scientists, that the unproven is simply wrong. The unproven is unproven, but definitely not wrong by definition. For example, does the moon affect our sleep? Science cannot tell. It is indeed impossible to prove, because we cannot institute a control group that is not affected by the moon. That is, we cannot compare those who are affected by the moon to those who are not affected. Because everyone in the world could possibly be affected by it. This does not mean that the theory in itself (i.e. that we could be affected by the moon) is humbug — it could be, but it could also not be. A true scientist frees herself from the temptations to simply regard the unproven as wrong, and enacts boldly and curiously towards the unknown.

After this unfathomably long justification of tapping into the scientifically unproven, let me get straight into binaural beats. Let us assume we are wearing headphones and are listening to different frequencies on our left and right ear — for example 400 Hz and 440 Hz. For some reason nobody can yet fully explain, our brain seems to adjusts to the difference: 440 Hz — 400 Hz = 40 Hz, which is a gamma-wave brain frequency (learn about brain waves here). We can use this trick to induce flow states. There are many free tones on YouTube. Just make sure you are listening to pure binaural gamma beats without any additives — we especially recommend the channel HQ Binaural Beats and FulLengthBinaurals. Make also sure you have good headphones. They should be at least capable of sending different sounds on the left and the right side respectively.

Flow Hack #3: Apply Biofeedback

Biofeedback is about providing an individual with feedback about a biological process in their body, such as flow. As a consequence, the individual is enabled to increase awareness and gain conscious control.

Usually, biofeedback involves electrical, scientific gear. Without it, it’s much more difficult, but not less practical. Pay attention to when your mind wanders off and when you have difficulties to concentrate in particular. Keep in mind that your mind influences your body and that your conscious brain, if trained well-enough can conquer the bodies intuitive and subconscious demerits. This act of meta-cognition will help you greatly in mastering flow. And as sophisticated as this sounds, it is actually really easy: Notice when your mind wanders off. This can be done by using a tally to track every single time your mind got off track. Make sure that you create a sense of metacognition when you work so as to provide yourself with biofeedback. As odd as it sounds, this technique is hyper-effective in increasing your productivity and will help you to eventually not become distracted at all [4][5].

Flow Hack #4: Leverage Breathing Techniques Before Tackling Your Work

As dicussed in this article, gamma wave frequencies in your brain are a symptom of flow. Research was able to assert that for specific breathing techniques, flow and high frequency gamma waves can be evoked in your brain [6][7]. The simplest technique you can use is to work with a breathing pacer, such as this one. Breath in through the nose and out through the mouth. Doing this for three minutes before starting to work can be incredible helpful in reducing stress and entering flow. If you want to see this in action, watch this brilliant TEDx-Talk. Research especially supports further Yoga-related practices such as Bhramari Pranayama [6].

Sometimes, these techniques sound too simple to be true. Yet they are thoroughly backed by science and find many applications. I can only encourage you to prepare a pre-flow checklist with everything you want to do before entering a phase of maximum concentration and focus. We’ll provide one in our newsletter soon. You can subscribe at www.unlimitix.com

A final word on preparation

This last advice is not exactly a flow hack, but very important for your flow phases: Know exactly what you want to do during your flow phase! In the best case you have some tough task to complete, like coding, reading complicated research or writing a beautiful essay. If you’re really good, it will also work with writing an ordinary report, creating some PowerPoint slides, et cetera. If you are dealing with smaller tasks, make sure you directly have a default task at hand once the first task should be completed. Yet, note that those flow phases are not for finishing a to-do list. You’ll have a very hard time to get into a flow state when dealing with many tiny tasks jotted together in a list. I will provide useful tactics for to-do lists soon under the topic ‘time management’. Try to focus on a core skill of yours, something you are good at, for which you were hired for — or founded a business of.

Action Steps

Prepare your own pre-flow checklist. For example,

  1. Use the Zeigarnik Effect to become more productive. The more you get used to this, the less conscious it will be for you to incorporate distractions on your to-do list.
  2. Use binaural beats to amplify your flow experience. Especially after you’ve prepared greatly, listening to binaural beats might facilitate you entering flow.
  3. Use biofeedback to accelerate your flow learning curve. Leverage your ability to be self-aware to enhance your flow experience.
  4. Do a breathing exercise or meditation technique to initiate flow.

Note that this is article one in a whole series of articles. You can find the subsequent articles as well as articles regarding other topics, such as sleep, on our website. After you have read our articles, not only will you have a thorough understanding of your body and your inner workings, but also will you be able to put that knowledge into use and apply it flexibly throughout your live to design your individual desired plan of winning life.


[1] Zeigarnik, B. (1927). Das Behalten erledigter und unerledigter Handlungen. Psychologische Forschung, 9,1–85. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/BF02409755

[2] Baumeister, R.F., Vohs, K.D., & Tice, D.T. (2007). The strength model of self-control. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(6), 351–355. https://doi.org/10.1111%2Fj.1467-8721.2007.00534.x

[3] Masicampo, E.J., & Baumeister, R.F. (2011). Consider it done! Plan making can eliminate the cognitive effects of unfulfilled goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(4), 667–683. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0024192

[4] Shaffer, F. & Moss, D. (2006). Biofeedback. In Yuan, C.-S., Bieber, E.J., & Bauer, B.A. (Eds.), Textbook of complementary and alternative medicine (pp. 1–24). London, UK: Informa Healthcare.

[5] Peper, E., Harvey, R., & Takabayashi, N. (2009). Biofeedback an evidence based approach in clinical practice. Japanese Journal of Biofeedback Research, 36(1), 3–10. Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/5c1d/bc6dfc5e284ddbd5660c0f00a4cac642608e.pdf

[6] Vialatte, F., Bakardjian, H., Prasad, R., & Cichocki, A. (2008). EEG paroxysmal gamma waves during Bhramarwe Pranayama: A yoga breathing technique. Consciousness and cognition. 18(4). 977–988. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2008.01.004

[7] Cavelli, M., Castro-Zaballa, S., Gonzales, J., Rojas-Libano, D., Rubido, N., Velásquez, N., & Torterolo, P. (2018, September 29). Nasal respiration entrains neocortical long-range gamma coherence during wakefulness [PREPRINT]. http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/430579

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