I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Jamie Wheal for the Future Squared podcast. Jamie is the co-founder of The Flow Genome Project, alongside Steven Kotler (who wrote seminal books such as The Rise Of Superman and co-wrote Abundance alongside Peter Diamandis).
Jamie and I talked about all of the weird and wonderful things that people do to get them into an optimal psychological state, otherwise known as flow or being in ‘the zone’. For more on the flow state and the various previous post.
We riffed on all manner of things that Jamie and Steven have unpacked in their new book, Stealing Fire, which explores four years of investigating high performers in places such as the Googleplex, Richard Branson’s Necker Island, Red Bull’s training centre and Nike’s innovation team.
Consulting firm McKinsey found that if we could increase the time we spend in the flow state, overall workplace productivity would almost double. This doubling in productivity is driven by five neurochemicals - norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, serotonin and anandamide.
Anandamide, also known as ‘the bliss molecule’, is credited with runner’s high which I was told has long been falsely attributed to endorphins. It also prompts lateral connections and generates insights far more than most brainstorming sessions which is why you get your best ideas while exercising.
When it comes to generating truly breakthrough ideas, as opposed to simple process improvements, I’ve long been against traditional brainstorming sessions. The whole idea of throwing people together into a room for an hour or two, with countless psychological, environmental and political factors at play, and saying “Give us your best ideas!” borders on insanity.
Red Bull’s Hacking Creativity study brought together over 30,000 high performing athletes, entrepreneurs, artists and professionals. It found that while creativity was essential for solving complex problems, the biggest gap most companies and people faced was learning how to train it.
Our minds are consciously processing no more than 120 bits per second, while unconsciously we’re processing several million bits per second. This means that we’re essentially seeing our worlds through tunnel vision and only conscious of about 0.001% of the bitstream. That’s 99.998% of potential breakthroughs that our conscious minds ignore.
“You can pound Red Bulls, drink coffee and eat pizza all night” says Jamie “and you might get lucky once or twice, but it’s unsustainable and your quality of ideas and thought will degrade”.
“Creativity is not a skill, it is a state of mind”.
Innovation tools such as design thinking can aid the creative process but not the state. Like any tool, it comes down to how you use it, and perhaps more importantly for creative pursuits, the state you’re in when you use it.
So how do we increase anandamide?
- Exercise: Aside from running, other forms of moderate to high intensity exercise can trigger anandamide production. A Georgia Tech study found that runners and cyclists had 80% more anandamide in their bloodstream after a 40 minute session.
- Meditate: Anandamide is also produced during meditation which, once stigmatised, has gone mainstream thanks to apps such as Headspace and Calm which boasts millions of users.
- Eat Chocolate: Chocolate contains anandamide which gives you a temporary feeling of happiness after eating it, perhaps also partly responsible for why so many crave chocolate so much!
- Non-Invasive Brain Stimulation: The University of Sydney conducted a study using the ‘9 dot problem’. They ran an experiment with a control group and not one person successfully solved the problem. They ran it again after the control group received 10 minutes of safe brain stimulation known as transcranial direct current stimulation and 40% of the same group solved the problem.
- Marijuana: The green stuff was credited by countless bands in the 60s and 70s for firing their creative spark, including the Beatles, Bob Dylan and perhaps less surprisingly, Bob Marley. One might wonder what the recent legalisation of cannabis in California, home of both Hollywood and Silicon Valley, might do for the film and tech industry in years to come.
- Psychedelics: It’s no secret that Steve Jobs credited LSD for a big part of his unique world-view and creativity. Today, micro-dosing on LSD and various other hallucinogens is gaining popularity amongst many circles of high performers, not least in Apple’s heartland. Author of the 4-Hour Work Week and Silicon Valley titan Tim Ferriss says that “the billionaires I know, almost without exception, use hallucinogens on a regular basis. They’re trying to be very disruptive and look at the problems in the world and ask completely new questions.”
So the next time you’re sitting down to a brainstorming session or trying to do some creative work, perhaps go for a run beforehand, meditate and consume a small serving of chocolate.
Doobies and LSD optional and contingent upon company work policies!
Jamie and the Flow Genome Project team piloted a program at Google, an organisation with various big company constraints. I asked Jamie what a busy executive at a company like Google might do to keep their creative juices flowing and #getshitdone.
Here’s what he had to say!
- Write down the three most important things you have to do the next day. Your mind will subconsciously go to work while you sleep. Founder of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman, echoes these thoughts and has been quoted as saying that “I never go to sleep without giving my subconscious a problem to solve”.
- Drink a pint of water (that’s 500mls) first thing in the morning to get out of a dehydrated state.
- Have a cold shower
- Plug your headphones in when you first get to the office and tune into binaural beats such as Brain.FM to help you get into flow
- Avoid email
- Protect the first 90 minutes of your day to focus on your three most important things
- Use the Pomodoro technique (this technique advocates 25 minutes of work followed by a short break - find here a list of Pomodoro apps for your phone and desktop)
- Push-ups: “I crank out some pushups whenever I feel my attention waning”, says Jamie. But it doesn’t need to be push-ups. You could squat, lunge, do some jumping jacks or if you’re really keen, smash out some burpees to restore your focus.
- Save less creative stuff for the afternoon when you are feeling more taxed
Pre-order your copy of Stealing Fire on Amazon.