Flow has been defined as a mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus. The term was first coined by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975 and is often referred to as as ‘the zone’, however few people truly appreciate that ‘the zone’ is actually a physiological state.
Why did I choose to write about a topic that may at first glance seem to have more to do with psychology and physiological science than business innovation?
The answer is simple.
A 10-year McKinsey and Co. study on flow and productivity found top executives 500% more productive when in flow. Interested in finding out more?
So I thought...
The Flow State
Before I go on, it’s worth knowing what the flow state looks like from a physiological perspective. The human brain possesses five different types of electric patterns, also called “brain waves” across the cortex.
According to C Wilson Meloncelli, the five brain waves can best be summarised as:
- #1 Delta - experienced in deep, dreamless sleep
- #2 Alpha - dominant during quiet thought, while daydreaming or light meditation
- #3 Beta - associated with normal waking consciousness
- #4 Theta - intuition and processing information above and beyond normal consciousness
- #5 Gamma - higher processing tasks and cognitive functioning
The flow state is activated when the alpha and theta brain waves coalesce - this is essentially the border between the conscious and subconscious mind.
Picture for a second a lone surfer about to hurl himself onto a 20 foot wave on a treacherous, shallow coral reef - in that moment, the mind is processing information above and beyond normal consciousness and intuition takes the driver’s seat (theta) whilst rest of the world simply slips away (alpha) to allow the lone surfer to focus only on one thing - riding that wave (well, maybe two things...staying alive).
According to Steven Kotler, best selling author of The Rise of Superman and founder of the Flow Genome Project, “if we are hunting the highest version of ourselves, then we need to turn work into play and not the other way round. Unless we invert this equation, much of our capacity for intrinsic motivation starts to shut down. We lose touch with our passion and become less than what we could be and that feeling never really goes away.”
How I interpret this is that in order to be our best at anything, we need to be pursuing our passions which activates a sense of play otherwise we will only ever perceive work as just that and will struggle to tap into the flow state that sees free solo rock climbers (that’s climbing on your own without a rope) scale and survive 600 metre high walls. When it comes to pushing human limits, it’s a case of flow or die.
So you’ve never caught a wave, climbed a wall or jumped out of a plane? Have you ever been so immersed in an activity that time just seemed to slow down, you effortlessly and blissfully put in hours of work and the rest of the world seemed to just slip away?
Did you find that state productive? Do you want to find that state more often?
Sure you do...
Triggering the Flow State
According to Kotler, there are a number of ways to activate flow states across psychological, environmental and social lines. Yes, you can engineer tapping into your flow state. How?
- Intense focus - no distractions, no multi-tasking, singular tasks, solitude
- Clear goals - with calm, the mind doesn’t wander and can stay focused on the present moment and present action. Presence also underpins mindfulness and meditation which is essential to calm, clarity and better decision making.
- Immediate feedback - knowing how to improve performance in real time means that the mind stays present, this is akin to the surfer changing tact while riding a wave based on the immediate feedback they’re getting from the very wave they’re catching
- Challenge/skills ratio - Research shows that tasks which are 4% more challenging than our skills are capable of meeting strike a chord at the midline between boredom and anxiety - this is the sweet spot to maximise attention and flow.
- High consequences - elevated risk levels keep us focused. There’s no trying to get in the zone when it’s life or death / success or failure.
- Rich environment - an environment with lots of novelty, unpredictability and complexity can focus our attention - not knowing what is coming next can activate flow.
Social and group flow triggers:
- Serious concentration - think a basketball team all focused on the common goal of sinking the game winning shot with 5 seconds left on the clock
- Shared, clear, goals
- Effective communication
- Familiarity - common language, shared knowledge base - everybody on the same page
- Equal participation and skill level - professional athletes will be bored playing with amateurs who themselves will be frustrated with the experience
- Risk - failure underpins innovation and creativity. WIthout skin in the game, be it monetary, mental, physical, creative, social and so on, then there’s no risk. Ever played poker without money on the table? No doubt you were “all in” on many an occasion when you normally wouldn’t be with real money down.
Some other triggers to explore:
- Meditation and Mindfulness - calm the mind, think clearly, stay present on the task at hand. The Headspace and Calm mobile apps are great places to start.
- Binaural beats - first discovered in 1839 by phsyicist Heinrich Wilhelm Dove, it refers to the coalescence of different audio frequencies, one in each ear, to help trigger brain activity in the flow state. You can listen to some beats at MyNoise.net and Brain.Fm the next time you’re doing something that requires your full concentration.
- According to Matt Mullenweg, founder of Wordpress, listening to the same song on repeat gets him into the flow state, while Arkansas psychologist Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis echoed these thoughts in her bookOn Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind
- Smart drugs, better known by those in SIlicon Valley as ‘nootropics’, are cognitive enhancers that support focus, memory, creativity and motivation. UFC commentator, stand up comedian and Brasilian Jiu Jitsu brown belt, Joe Rogan, says he won’t do anything that requires focus without nootropics. Popular brands include Alpha Brain, Nootrobox and Australia's Noots(disclaimer: I'm an advisor at Noots).
- Batch processing - lifestyle entrepreneur and all round motivational guru, Tim Ferriss, popularised this in his New York Times bestseller The Four Hour Work Week. The idea is that you select times of day to batch certain processes, such as checking email, which he claims to do once or twice a day. This way, you’re limiting distraction and you stop chasing supposedly shiny objects down a rabbit hole.
Flow State Busters
So I’ve given you more than enough flow state inducers to work with, but what about flow state busters. Well, apart from the inverse of the triggers above, there’s no shortage of things that get in the way of flow each and every day.
Some of the more common busters might include:
- No passion
- No purpose
- No tangible, measurable, visible outcomes
- Phone calls
- Open plan offices / unscheduled interruptions by colleagues
It’s worth mentioning the cognitive switching penalty here - the time it takes to get back into flow after being interrupted might be as short as a few minutes, but can often be more than 30 minutes. If your day is littered with the above interruptions then do the math and the numbers look pretty ugly, pretty quickly.
Business Model Innovation and Flow States
So you’ve heard of business model innovation.
McKinsey’s award winning article Reinventing Your Business Model suggests that a business model has four key elements - value proposition, key resources, processes and profit formula. Key resources refers to people, technology, products, information, partnerships, facilities, equipment and brand of an organisation. Classic cases of business model innovation leveraging the ‘people’ component of business models might include automating procedures usually performed by humans such as helpdesk functions or mundane transactional tasks.
But we rarely, if ever, look at radically improving the productivity of existing employees by triggering flow states. What if organisations invested some budget into improving the physiological state of human beings?
Forbes included ‘flow state percentage’, the amount of time an employee spends in flow state, as one of the five new management metrics that today’s managers and leaders need to know.
As Peter Drucker famously said, “if you can measure it, you can manage it” - and today, with EEG, we can measure flow state percentage.
An EEG (or electroencephalography for those of you that want to be technical) records brain waves and today there are multiple variations of this on the consumer market such as Muse and Melon. Now, we’re not advocating that employees stroll around with headbands on at all times but understanding what kind of work gets employees into a flow state, even if they self monitor at their own leisure, will provide valuable insights to help engineer the more frequent achievement of flow states.
The best selling author of the mindfulness bestseller The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle, says of modern art that “because we live in such a mind-dominated culture, most modern art, architecture, music, and literature are devoid of beauty, of inner essence, with very few exceptions. The mind left to itself creates monstrosities, and not only in art galleries. Look at our urban landscapes and industrial wastelands. No civilization has ever produced so much ugliness."
What he is referring to is the fact that the modern mind is often a messy mind, clouded with work, social, monetary, emotional, psychological and physical pressures, and rarely focused on one task at a time. As such, most people spend little time in flow, resulting in sub-par performance and creative endeavours.
When it comes to innovation, we can run all the hackathons, idea contests and corporate incubators we want, but unless people’s contributions are coming from a place of unperturbed flow, then chances are that those contributions may be average at best.
Most people say that they have their best ideas while in the shower, after a gym workout, whilst going for a run - this is because these activities tend to calm the mind and free it from the noise of the world, allowing us to see things clearer. It is also the very reason why time-boxed brainstorming, while generating ideas, may not serve to generate very good ones.
Clearly, getting employees into a flow state is a powerful way to not only increase productivity, but also increase creativity and innovation in an organisation and just might be the secret weapon for organisations looking to differentiate themselves from competitors.