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12. How to Achieve Flow State

What is a flow state? When you feel it, you know it. An almost effortless ease of action. To define it, you could say it's a feeling of being in control without making any conscious effort to do so, or being completely immersed in an activity with energized focus. In this episode, performance coach Jason Brooks, PhD breaks down the steps to achieving flow and how to get it back when it slips away.




We discuss:


What a flow state means and how achieving it is as much about knowing yourself as it is knowing the skill [02:00];

  • When you’re in a flow state, you’re operating at a level where you have complete focus and there is an automatic, almost effortless feel.

  • It’s a feeling of being in control without any conscious effort to do so.


How Michael Jordan’s superpower was being 100% present in every moment of every game [06:00];

  • “The Last Dance” provides an amazing opportunity to get a peek into the psyche of arguably the greatest basketball player of all time.

  • The key ingredient to his excellence was his ability to be in the zone, always.

  • In the big moments of a game, he wanted more than anything to be the one to take the last shot. He didn’t feel any sense of a threat that he could be exposed to fail or let his team down. He saw it as a chance to execute what he did best -- to win and close the show.


The nuance distinction between a flow state and being “in the zone” [07:50];

  • Robert Nideffer PhD, an iconic performance psychologist, has done some of the best research around the ideas of focus and flow. He differentiates between flow state and being “in the zone”.

  • Being “in the zone” is more often equated with physical performance where there is an actual observable result (such as the number of points scored in a game).

  • Being in a state of flow has more to do with the mental performance, without a result attached to it.

  • Link to Nideffer article titled, “Getting Into The Optimal Performance State”.


The TED talk by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi which discusses flow states and how activities that bring about a state of “flow” are more likely to bring us pleasure and lasting satisfaction [09:20];

  • Flow states happen when maximal skill meets maximal challenge- when you’re right at the edge, but still within your capabilities.

  • To achieve a flow state, you need to come to a situation with a certain level of knowledge or skill. It’s a feeling of being in control of things, without making any conscious effort to do so.


There’s no shortcut to getting into a flow state, and one of the things that you must have to experience it fully is a requisite level of skill [10:50];

  • The more time you put into the refinement of a skill, the more likely you’ll get into a state of flow.

  • If you have great skill, much of what you do will be automatic. There will be less internal distraction and more bandwidth for the task at hand.


Tools to bring yourself back into an optimal state when unavoidable distractions hijack your focus and attention away from a task [14:45];

  • Confidence and trust in your abilities will help minimize the voice of resistance in your head that might lead to self-doubt.

  • Self-doubt is an internal distraction that is disruptive to performance and can kill flow.

  • If you recognize what triggers negative self-talk, you can be prepared with tools to counteract them. For example, you could reset your arousal level to a more comfortable baseline. Or you could disregard the thoughts, recognizing that “this is just fear, doing what fear does. It’s not going to help me”. Then shift the focus back to the task and the things that you actually can control.

  • When distracted, remind yourself that you are prepared. You have encountered tough scenarios before and the outcome has been fine.


Why having joy in what you do is essential to achieving flow [17:30]

  • If you love what you do, then when you have a moment of doubt and wonder why you’re doing a difficult task, you’ll realize, “This isn’t about me. It’s about the mission.”


Self-distraction theory and how that contributes to performance [25:30];

  • The biggest task-irrelevant stimulus that interferes with performance is your inner voice.

  • It is common for people to become inundated with distractions, doubts, and fears to the point that they can no longer perform to their potential. They experience an attentional shift from external to internal, becoming self-conscious and losing focus of the things that serve them.

  • If you can figure out which moments cause this to happen and what distractions you’re prone to, you can catch yourself when it happens and employ the strategies that you rehearsed ahead of time so that you can respond effectively.

  • Achieving a heightened sense of focus in a pressure moment takes a lot of work


Ways we can set ourselves up for success to be in a flow state [32:40] ;

  • Oftentimes we find ourselves in a flow state by accident, but there are things we can do to make it more likely.

  • First, we must ensure we have the adequate skill level to perform at our best. We must constantly look for ways to improve and continue to have goals that we set for ourselves to achieve an even higher standard of performance.

  • Second, practice and rehearse. The more accurate you can approximate your practice and training to reality, the more likely that that’s how you will perform in the moment.

  • Be aware of what distracts you and ensure that your external environment is as distraction-free as possible.

  • Figure out what are your internal distractions, and be aware of the way the voice in your head talks to you in stressful moments (so you can rehearse better responses to it)..

  • Have strategies to down-regulate your arousal level, and trust in your ability to perform even if you’re only able to turn the dial down by 10%.

  • Give yourself kudos for things you do well. The more you can shine the light on your successes, the more confidence you will have the next time you’re in a high stress situation,


How practicing basic techniques will give you something to fall back on when you’re lost [44:00];

  • Oftentimes going back to the basics and reviewing the elementary level of understanding of a topic will help you get back on track to mastery.

  • One of the things we can do when feeling flustered is to shift our attention back to the task at hand. By making sure your mechanics and fundamentals are sound, you’ll focus less on external distractions

  • Having pre-formed algorithms can help shift your attention back when you predict a specific task might instill fear or trepidation.


Whether it’s better to capitalize on your strengths, or shore up your weaknesses [51:40];

  • The focusing style that you mobilize should be the one that fits best the situational demands that you are in.

  • People who have chosen a vocation which requires skills that are not their natural proclivity should figure out ways to make their weaknesses a little less glaring.

  • Having strategies to navigate the transition points more effectively (from your strengths to your weaknesses and vice versa) can give a better sense of control.


Strategies for coming back once you’ve lost your focus and feel yourself straying from your flow state [01:00:30];

  • You must have the confidence and courage to step back, take a deep breath, and reset.

  • When you pause to get your focus back to where it should be, quickly assess whether there’s an actual problem. Is your technique correct? More often than not, it’s just nerves..


How one might develop the ability to get into a flow state for a hypothetical vocation if they’re starting at ground zero [01:04:50];

  • Learn about the specific demands of whatever you’re stepping into and get some exposure through actual experience.

  • Find out the particular challenges and potential distractions that come with being in that profession.

  • Know yourself and how you respond to various stressors, pressures, and situations. Recognize how who you are might be problematic given the situational demands of the profession.

  • Practice hard to gain skills.

  • Have love for what you do.

  • Know what will take you out of a flow state, and have awareness of how you’re going to be influenced by distractions.


Shownotes by Melissa Orman, MD

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