Hacking Flow For More Creative, Dynamic, Stress Free Living.
The bean-counters have got it wrong.
The most valuable resource in business today is not time, money or Maconomy.
That heightened state of focused awareness where time bends, performance skyrockets and the critical voice of self-consciousness falls silent.
When you’re in flow, negative emotions such as stress, fear and anxiety become a distant memory. And the radical shift in neurobiology pulls the plug on second-guessing, self-doubt and a crippling fear of failure.
Once free from negative head-chatter and chronic worry your mind expands and creativity becomes unbound. You get an upsurge in energy and excitement and before you know it you’re riding the wave of a legal high — leapfrogging plateaus, tearing down boundaries, and mainlining the greatest performance enhancing, steroid-for-the-soul known to man.
But the best thing about flow isn’t what it feels like, it’s what it does.
A decade’s worth of research from McKinsey and Co. and the Flow Genome Project tells us that we’re 700% more productive in flow and 500% more creative. And numerous studies from across the globe tell us that people who spend more of their life in flow are the happiest people alive.
Yet despite its dramatic upsides, flow has a ginormous downside:
It’s so fucking fragile.
One minute you’re in the thick of it, feeling great and performing at your best, and the next you’re spat out like Dorothy over Kansas.
If you’re lucky, you’ll know what jolted you out of the slipstream and be able to make the necessary adjustments to drop back in. But most of the time you have no idea what put you flat-on-your-back. Something bubbled up from your unconscious mind and kyboshed your fun for no known reason.
But flow doesn’t have to be so hit and miss. And quite frankly, considering the fact that its byproducts are responsible for such a major chunk of GDP, we shouldn’t let it be, either.
Taking conscious control of this optimum state of human consciousness is what flow hacking is all about. It puts a conscious structure around an unconscious process, and forms a bridge between what science knows and what business does.
And what science knows, is that this high-performance state is not an uncontrollable, elusive muse. It’s a muscle that can be pumped up, strengthened and sculpted like a bodybuilders pecs in the weights room.
Flexing Your Flow Muscles
Up until about 20 years ago scientists thought the brain was a fixed organ. They believed that when we reached a certain age our mental capabilities were set in stone. Hardwired.
So if you were born stressed-out and anxious you’d die stressed-out and anxious. And if you were born to flow like a demon, you’d die being able to flow like a demon. It was just the way you were. Your lot in life. Your gift or your burden. Like it or lump it.
But the scientists were wrong. Dramatic improvements in the sensitivity of brain imaging technology has proved the opposite to be true.
We now know that the 100 billion neurons packed inside our skulls aren’t encased in an impenetrable bone case that can never be tinkered with, upgraded or rewired. They are in fact plastic. And they remain plastic (malleable) for their entire life; from Stork to Reaper.
Which means that your brain’s physical architecture, and therefore its abilities and its disabilities, can be and are, continually modified by your dominant thoughts, behaviours, experiences and emotions.
Sometimes you make these neurological upgrades or downgrades on purpose. But most of the time, you make them without your conscious knowledge or consent.
However, make no mistake about it, whether you’re consciously aware of making them or not, they are happening, and you’re the one who’s commissioning every single one of them.
So you can either chose to strengthen your ability to get stressed-out, frustrated and paralysed under pressure, or you can chose to strengthen your ability to flow under pressure. It depends on the muscles you chose to build – your flow muscles or your stress muscles.
Unfortunately, evolution has hardwired our brains with a five-to-one bias towards the negative. So when the shit hits the fan we’re five times more likely to automatically and unconsciously default to the path of least resistance —the negative emotional state we call ‘dis-stress’.
Meeting pressure with stress is fine if you do it once in a while. But the more you travel down the stress path the deeper you stamp its adrenalin-infused cobbles into the folds of your brain. And recent studies tell us we trigger the stress response at least 50 times a day!
As well as being mentally and emotionally exhausting, being in this constant state of red alert gets you really, really, really good at getting stressed out when faced with challenge, uncertainty or provocation. Which ironically, is when you need flow the most.
But don’t throw in the towel just yet, because the plasticity bends both ways.
If you mindfully recognise the impact your dominant thoughts and emotions have on your brain, you can use them to build new and more desirable paths within it. You can create flow-centric, super highways that quickly become the default network you travel down under pressure.
And when that happens, the older, less travelled paths fall by the wayside. Or to go back to the muscle analogy, the under-exercised muscle atrophies and dies, and the exercised one become big, strong and robust. In short, flow becomes less fragile, and more predictable.
This ability to use the thoughts that run through your mind to forge new furrows in your brain is major news for flow hackers. It means that just like you can custom-build a PC to be the ultimate games machine, you can custom-build your brain to be the ultimate flow machine.
And the fastest and most direct way to make those modifications is through a systematic hackathon which (amongst other things) actively builds self-confidence; cultivates an open and receptive mind; develops the courage to stay strong in stretch zones; and trains you how to reach and surf the Alpha/Theta brainwave channel assigned to flow-on-demand.
But none of those hacks will work if you don’t build a strong foundation to flow from. And that, is where the power of focus comes in.
Flow Follows Focus
There are two types of focus.
The focus you voluntarily direct, and the focus that gets hijacked by emotion. Unsurprisingly, the type of focus you need to cultivate for generating flow, is the one you voluntarily direct.
And when directing that focus, you need to direct it deep into the present moment; in the sweet-spot that lies between the baroness of boredom, and the heat of anxiety — a place psychologists call The Flow Channel.
It’s because flow is sandwiched so tightly between boredom and anxiety that it’s so easy to get knocked out of ‘the zone’ and into ‘fight, flight or freeze’ — otherwise known as anger, overwhelm or procrastination.
It may feel like you’re a million miles away from worry or apathy when you’re in flow, but from a neurological perspective you’re skirting the borders of those less appealing emotional states as a matter of course.
But you can’t be coy when it comes to hacking flow. Because it doesn’t come to the unfocused tinkerer or the noncommittal ditherer. It comes to the courageous and the confident. The bold and the brave. The one who is focused on the challenge, locked onto the target, and unafraid to push themselves to the edge of their abilities, time and time again.
And once you’re in it the payoff is worth it, because you’re so absorbed in the moment that distractions bounce off you like bullets off a flak jacket and the critical voice of self-doubt and judgement has been gagged, bound and bundled into the trunk. In many ways it’s as God-like as we get.
So in a world where our focus is being pulled in a million different directions at once, how do you hack into the moment and stay there?
The answer lies in mental weightlifting. And in this article, the heavy lifting comes in the form of a game.
The Alphabet Game
The following flow hack gives both hemispheres of your brain a thorough workout and its goal is twofold:
A) Build your focus by driving your attention into the present moment.
B) Take your conscious mind’s critical factor (your firewall) offline so that your unconscious mind can come to the fore.
As well as building and strengthening the mental muscle responsible for focus, you’re artificially creating a flow state that you can “anchor” and fire off when you next need it.
When you play the Alphabet Game it’ll probably take you around 10 to 15 minutes to get into a really good flow state, and it’s important to remember that when you begin, speed isn’t important, rhythm is.
And don’t worry if you don’t get past step 2 or 3 the first few times. The key to maintaining flow states is to keep the challenge hard enough to not slip into boredom, but not so hard that you slip into frustration. It should be challenging and difficult but doable.
So follow the steps below and if you have any questions or observations about anything you’ve read or experienced from doing the exercise, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or add them to the comments below.
And if you’d like to learn more about flow hacking and stress combating be sure to sign up to my ‘Sustainable High Performance’ newsletter at leadingleft.com, or ask me about my Flowjacking™ training course.
Thanks for reading!
Step 1: On a piece of paper or Word Document copy the A-Z diagram below.
Step 2: Read each letter from A to Z out loud, and as you do so, lift the corresponding arms or arms (L = Left, R = Right, B = Both)
Step 3: When you get into an effortless, rhythmical flow, do the same thing but in the reverse direction — reading back from Z to A.
Step 4: To add some complexity to the task, go back to reading from A to Z but when you lift your arm, lift the opposite leg at the same time (i.e. if you lift your right arm, you should lift your left foot and leg). For the instruction “T” do a little jump.
Step 5: When you’re able to run through the alphabet a couple of times without conscious thought or stuttering you’re done for the session.