How to Be Happy & Productive with “Flow Habits”
The case for consistency over intensity
A while back, I watched Joe Rogan interview mixed martial arts instructor Firas Zahabi.
When discussing how to work out smarter, Zahabi said something that I found interesting.
He’s a big believer in never being sore. Instead, whenever you’ve worked out, you should wake up the next day feeling good.
It doesn’t matter what your fitness level is. Even if it’s your first day in the gym, you shouldn’t feel any pain.
When Rogan asks him how that would be possible, Zahabi explained it like this:
“Consistency Over Intensity”
Let’s say you can do a maximum of ten pull-ups. Does that mean you should try to do ten when you work out?
According to Zahabi, the answer is no. Instead, you should aim for five. Why? Well, let’s consider these two options:
- You hit your max every time you go to the gym. Working out that way, you’ll get sore, and you’ll have to rest. You might be able to do pull-ups twice a week for a total of 20 reps.
- You hit half of your max every time you go to the gym. Working out that way, you won’t get sore, and you won’t have to rest. You’ll be able to do pull-ups every day of the week for a total of 35 reps.
As you can see, option two leads two almost twice the training volume. Over the course of a year, that will have a dramatic effect on your results. But that’s not the only benefit of choosing consistency over intensity. It also helps you…
Get in the Zone
According to Zahabi, working out should be fun and addictive. That’s the only way to make yourself do a lot of it.
To make that point, he refers to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research on “flow” (3):
“A state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
If something is too hard, you’ll feel anxious. If something is too easy, you’ll get bored. But if something is in that sweet spot where your skills match the challenge, you’ll find it enjoyable:
Research shows that people tend to be happiest and most productive when they’re in flow. But we rarely set ourselves up to experience it consistently.
The gym is an excellent example of that. Most people drive themselves into anxiety every time they go there. They push themselves to exhaustion and come to associate training with pain.
Zahabi’s advice is to optimize your training for flow. Work out in a way that is neither too hard nor too easy. That way, the exercise will be so much fun that you’ll naturally want to come back to it.
I’ve thought a lot about the concept of flow recently, and I’ve realized that it’s a very useful framework, not just for exercise, but for any kind of recurring behavior.
We all have a tendency to set overoptimistic goals, and we can mitigate that by creating what I like to call “flow habits.”
A flow habit is a behavior designed to optimize for flow. Most of the time, that means reducing the challenge to avoid anxiety. And the way to do that is to start small. Here are a couple of examples:
- If you want to meditate regularly, start with just two minutes.
- If you want to read more books, begin with only two pages a day.
- If you want to floss, start with flossing just one tooth every night.
The idea, just like in the gym, is to focus on consistency over intensity. Instead of big efforts, you go for small wins. That way, you’ll create sustainable habits that will grow naturally over time.