3 Triggers to Flow in Action So You Can Perform at Your BestNone By Cara Bradley
Flow in action is beautiful to watch—like witnessing a basketball player place a ball perfectly in the net, or hearing a comedian time a joke with precision. You’ve experienced flow in action yourself when you swerved your car around an object on the road or skillfully closed a deal at a sales meeting.
Flow in action is simply engaged mindfulness. It’s a sense of full participation in the moment from our head, heart, and gut. Flow is where action and awareness merge. It’s a sense of embodied cognition or full-body knowing—on the court, onstage, or in the boardroom.
Flow in action: It’s where mastery emerges.
Like the athlete or comedian, when in flow we are more skillful in our actions. More precisely, we are acutely aware of what’s happening and what we’re doing. In other words, we’re more likely to step up to the plate and smack the ball out of the park.
Flow in Action for Increased Productivity
In addition, when in flow, we crank out work—really good work. In fact, a 10-year McKinsey study showed that top executives reported being 5 times more productive in flow.
Think about it for a second. We are 5 times more productive when we are focused and not distracted. Ann Marsh wrote in Fast Company, “Being able to control and harness this feeling is the holy grail for any manager—or even any individual—seeking a more productive and satisfying work experience.” And Sir Richard Branson once said, “In 2 hours in flow, I can accomplish tremendous things!”
Simply put, increase your focus and engagement during your next project, meeting, or softball game, and you’ll experience flow. In earlier parts of this series, we learned how to know what flow feels like, in addition to strategies to return to flow when you’re thrown off balance.
Now let’s explore how to train to flow—in action.
Training to Flow
If you want stronger biceps or triceps, you need to weight-train. If you’ve ever strength-trained with weights, you know that you need to periodically increase the weight or the reps.
The same is true when training to flow. If you want to sustain attention during a particular project or meeting, you’ll need to build your capacity to focus for longer periods of time.
To train to flow in action, it’s helpful to understand the situations and environments that likely trigger flow. According to Steven Kotler, author of The Rise of Superman, there are common ways to trigger flow (17, to be exact). Playing with these triggers can make living in flow more predictable.
Let’s look at 3 triggers to experience flow in action more often.
1. Fierce Focus
Flow demands a single action at a time. In other words, to get the job done well and on time, there is no room for distraction or multitasking. When I work with elite athletes, I call this focus training “Fierce Focus.”
On the court, Fierce Focus could mean taking 100 free throws without stopping. At your laptop, it may mean setting your phone timer for 15 to 20 minutes and cranking up a playlist of binaural beats.
The only “rule” of Fierce Focus is that you contain the task and remain engaged in the project at hand no matter what. Give it a try and you’ll quickly notice when your mind gets itchy to get some water, hop on ESPN, or pick up your phone. Nope. Nada. Don’t do it! Stay with your project no matter what. Doing so will make you stronger. I’m practicing Fierce Focus right now as I try to finish up this article. (It’s not easy. I really want to break and get some cold water.)
2. Set Clear Goals
It’s much easier to stay focused when you have a clear understanding of a task and how you’re going to accomplish it, e.g., “Complete the forecast by entering the Q2 numbers,” or, “Send my colleagues my summary of the meeting.”
Having clear goals reduces the “time drain” of our wondering and wandering mind. If your goals aren’t clear, break them down into smaller mini-goals that can be accomplished in shorter time periods. For example, “Finish the second and third paragraph of chapter 3,” instead of, “Write part 1 of my next book.”
3. Match Skills to Challenge
The “Skills/Challenge Ratio” promotes balance and can keep you out of the office refrigerator at 3 in the afternoon. This flow trigger was introduced by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the seminal book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The Skills/Challenge Ratio explains why when a task is too hard for our skill set, we are more likely to get frustrated and give up—and why if a task is too easy and repetitive, we will get bored and easily distracted.
In The Rise of Superman, Kotler writes, "If the challenge is too great, fear swamps the system. If the challenge is too easy, we stop paying attention." He goes on to say, "Flow appears near the emotional midpoint between boredom and anxiety, in what scientists call the 'flow channel'—the spot where the task is hard enough to make us stretch; not hard enough to make us snap."
Training to flow more often at work and play requires some mental strength training. Remember: Fierce Focus, set a clear goal, and create a task that's not too hard and not too easy.
Check out the other flow triggers. Play with them at work and at home. Teach them to your colleagues (and your kids)!
I leave you with one warning: Train to flow more often, and you just may find yourself happier and 5 times more productive.
Cara Bradley, author of On The Verge: Wake Up, Show Up, and Shine, teaches executives and athletes how to live in flow, using strategies that integrate movement, breath, and mindfulness training. She is the founder of the Verge BodyMind Center in Philadelphia.
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