Short on time? For the key points about flow state triggers, stick to the bold text and the conclusion. Check out the infographic at the bottom for a quick glance at the flow triggers.
Let’s get things clear from the start. Flow state triggers don’t just trigger flow by themselves. They are pre-conditions that can generate more flow. Flow experts identify between 17 and 20 triggers. About half are individual triggers and others are group triggers. Some overlap. In this article, we’ll focus on the individual ones.
Of course, you don’t need all triggers to tap into flow. Steven Kotler, a leading expert on flow, did a study with Google employees. By focusing on just 4 triggers they managed a 30-80% increase in flow.
The triggers are divided into four categories: psychological, social, environmental and creative triggers. So, if you pick just one flow state trigger from each category and practise it, you will become a lot better at finding flow on a regular basis.
Three types of flow state triggers:
- Psychological triggers for flow
- Social flow state triggers
- Environmental flow triggers
- Bonus: Creative flow trigger
Psychological flow triggers
The psychological flow triggers are having clear goals, receiving immediate feedback, ‘working’ with highly focused attention and a perfect skill-challenge balance. These triggers are influenced by your emotions and how you deal with them.
#1 Immediate feedback
The name of the first trigger speaks for itself. Actions and tasks with immediate feedback lead to a smooth-flowing process because there’s no need to stop and think about results and what to do next. It’s an ongoing circle of action and reaction.
Immediate feedback is very present in several sports. Every move leads to an immediate reply from your opponent or the environment. You get feedback on so many levels.
When playing e-sports, for example, every click leads to something and every action caused by that click leads to new information. Every action has a consequence that immediately guides you into taking the next step. If you go around the corner in a first-person shooter, you don’t think, you just click the button and your war hero immediately fires his weapon.
Without purpose, it’s difficult to give something your full attention, so try to find purpose in whatever you do. Don’t like your job? Try to think of the people you might be helping by doing it. Make that your purpose.
Without your undivided attention, it’s hard to tap into flow. One thing you could do to benefit from a longer attention span is to focus on something of interest. Find your purpose. Just choose activities that don’t want to make you check your phone every other minute.
Purpose is not enough to find attention, though. You need to actively practise to be able to focus all your attention on the present moment.
Furthermore, it’s essential to avoid distractions and multitasking at all costs. Help yourself by leaving your phone in another room. You might not realise it, but your mind is actively involved in ignoring potential distractors. So if your phone is right beside you, you’re wasting precious attention energy on ignoring it.
#3 Clear goals
Everything is easier when you have a clear path ahead of you. When you know where you’re going, you don’t need to stop and think in which direction to go next. Your movements will flow and you won’t get interrupted by a lack of clarity. Moreover, you’ll benefit from the immediate feedback we mentioned before.
#4 Challenge-skill balance
The balance between challenge and skill level is perhaps the most discussed flow trigger. Flow is most often found on the edge of your skills.
Experts often talk about the 4% rule, meaning that flow is most common when the challenge outranks your skills by about 4%. While this percentage was first put forward as a somewhat random number, recent research shows that it might have been a very good guess. Whether the 4% rule is spot on or not, it’s important to keep in mind that people, including you, perform best when the challenge is just outside their skill range.
An activity that’s too easy for you won’t lead to flow because it will bore you. If the challenge is too hard, you’ll feel anxious and these negative emotions will prevent you from finding flow. The balance needs to be just right. However, it always changes. As we master a skill, we need more challenges.
With some activities, finding flow might become more difficult as you master it. When you get very good at something, it’s harder to find the right challenge and complacency can set in. For other activities, such as playing music, mastery may make it easier to tap into flow thanks to reduced frustration and anxiety levels.
While a perfect balance between challenge and skill is probably the most important trigger, our favourite is clear goals because, with a few words of advice, everyone can easily learn how to implement this. Check our other articles to learn more about the benefits of deadlines and how to set effective goals and milestones.
Social flow triggers
The social triggers for flow are distraction-free concentration, familiarity with the activity, risk and a sense of control. These triggers are closely linked to triggers for group flow. On an individual level, it’s all about how people around you influence you. With their opinions, for example.
Full concentration is paramount to finding flow. Cancel distractions, both internal and external. Don’t allow email or phone notifications to interrupt you and turn off the damn TV. If your mind is too occupied with hearing and seeing, it can’t focus on what the analytical mind was made for: processing and executing.
Inner discursive thoughts are a big flow blocker. There’s something in the brain called the default mode network. It’s the region in your brain that gets activated when you’re not doing anything — it engages in self-discussion. Internal distractions like this make it very difficult to tap into flow.
Fortunately, you can calm down this default mode network by engaging in regular meditation or mindfulness practice. The practice of stilling your mind for a few minutes a day has a long-term impact. After a mediation session, for example, you will find it easier to silence that inner voice for the rest of your day. The last thing you need for flow is that stupid chitchat about your failed date or your next meal.
Familiarity is mainly a group trigger, but it also works as a personal one. A familiar setting or familiarity with team members and a process improves your sense of control. Simultaneously, it will boost your confidence leading to more intrinsic motivation.
Being familiar with the process reduces obstacles. It’s closely related to mastery and immediate feedback. You know what the goals and expected results are, leaving little room for mistakes or doubts blocking your path to flow.
Familiarity can also be something really small. You’ll often see football players inspecting the pitch before a match. Chess grandmaster Mikhail Botvinnik practised in a noisy and smoky room because that’s the environment in which he’d compete for the world championship. Guess what? He took home the trophy.
While familiarity helps with a sense of control, novelty and risk both spark arousal: the ideal state to lead you into the flow. The perfect jumpstart.
Challenge and risk motivate you to work harder. Risk is a focusing mechanism. All your attention becomes focused on the moment because your brain thinks you are in danger. Your reptilian brain, the oldest part, isn’t so good at distinguishing between physical, mental and social dangers. Hence, when it perceives any of these dangers, it thinks your life is at risk (even though, contrary to popular belief, social judgement doesn’t actually kill you) and it will trigger your mind to be fully aware. As a result, information will be perceived and analysed at a significantly faster rate.
Taking more risks and embracing failure have other flow benefits as well. They make you improve your skills and expand your comfort zone. If you take more risks, you’ll become happier, you’ll feel more satisfied and you’ll be more fulfilled. In time, you’ll become more comfortable with risk and find more satisfaction and engagement while doing difficult tasks. And remember that it’s always easier to focus and find flow when working on tasks that you’re passionate about.
#4 Sense of control
Feeling a sense of control works in two ways as a flow state trigger. On one side, a feeling of control over actions gives a motivation boost, especially in a business environment. When you’re given control over something, you know that you’ll be held accountable, but also that you are deserving of trust. This adds both extra challenge and confidence, helping to trigger that flow state.
On the other side, a sense of control is related to familiarity and other triggers. Knowing which actions will lead to your desired results, gives you access to immediate feedback and a better-aligned skill-challenge ratio.
Everything happens in your mind and with the right attitude, you can tip the balance in your favour. Let’s pretend you’re going to deliver an important presentation at work. It’s a big contract and you don’t know the clients. A lot depends on you and you need this to go well. That’s why you’re anxious and worried. Unfortunately, anxiety won’t help you to find flow, or land the contract. So you need to find a better balance by focusing on what is within your control. Will the meeting be at your office? If so, can you make the clients feel at home? Can you think of any past successes that might help? Did you thoroughly prepare your presentation? Trust in your skills and preparation. Focus on what’s within your sphere of control. Focus on the process to find flow and results will follow.
Our favourite is distraction-free concentration because without this, none of the other flow triggers matter. Learn how to set up a distraction-free environment at home and turn off your phone.
Environmental flow triggers
The environmental triggers for flow are high consequences, a rich environment and deep embodiment. It’s all about how you relate to what’s around you and trying to get the most out of it.
#1 High consequences
High consequences are closely related to some other flow triggers, especially risk. They can be social, mental, emotional or physical. They can be real but are very often perceived. The benefit of this is that you can trick your mind into a state of arousal. Fear, for one, is 99% perceived. It only exists in the future. We’re afraid of what is to come. So by imagining that if you don’t do X, Y will happen, you’re inviting fear and risk.
By pretending these high consequences are real, you’ll put your body and brain on high alert. Your senses will work double shifts and produce faster outcomes.
If the dangers are real, rely on your skills and experiences. Trust in your vision and instinct. Find your sense of control. This combination allows you to believe in a good outcome and focus on the present moment.
#2 Rich environment
Rich environments are full of novelty, unpredictability and complexity. These are things that will keep you active and won’t allow your mind to wander easily. A rich environment is ideally a balanced mix of novelty and familiarity. Something familiar enough to give you a sense of control but sufficiently unpredictable to add some risk and arousal. Try a new cycling route, or go to a visually stimulating place if you suffer from a lack of creativity.
To give yourself that flow boost, aim to surprise yourself and discover new things about your abilities and the activity at hand. Awe for your environment or the unknown is another state that often precedes flow. When you’re so positively surprised by what you see, your senses become more actively involved and you get immersed in the activity.
#3 Deep embodiment
Deep embodiment means full immersion. It happens when you need complete attention to perform. Think of an extreme skier. One small slip and things could terribly go wrong. Often, you’ll notice that different senses are engaged. You need to see, hear and feel to perceive the important information around you and achieve an MVP performance. Learn through doing — flow comes more naturally when you’re actively involved.
Full immersion can be achieved by building a mindset that prioritises internal experience over external pressure. Focus on your passions, and allow your feelings and awareness to flow without interfering. Do pay attention to bodily feelings and posture to receive internal feedback and adjust accordingly.
Focus on your breath — oxygen is a powerful flow booster by the way — to let everything go, reduce desires and still your mind. Pave the way for full immersion in a purposeful task.
Our favourite environmental trigger is deep embodiment. Actively immersing yourself in an activity by finding it’s deeper purpose is, in our opinion, the most powerful of these triggers.
Bonus: Creative flow triggers
There’s only one creative trigger, and that’s creativity. It’s a bit hard to really implement this from one day to another but you can boost it in some ways. Train yourself to reduce the fear of failure. Try to get closer to the edge and embrace failure as part of the learning process. All the biggest innovations were once perceived to be crazy and impossible.
Reading is another creativity booster when it’s combined with output. Read and write to improve pattern recognition. Expand your horizon to boost lateral thinking. When ideas come more naturally, it’s easier to tap into flow and you won’t get kicked out of it as often.
For me personally, not finding creative ways to write or not having the necessary information are the biggest flow blockers. Stopping the creative flow because I need more background information frustrates me. Sometimes I get upset by not finding the information I’m looking for and goodbye flow. So I recommend being well-prepared and thinking outside the box. But as with all skills, these needs practise.
What can you do to discover flow state triggers?
We’ll give you two ideas to help you explore these triggers and discover which ones work best for you.
The first idea comes from musician Diane Allen. She talks about discovering your flow strategy in her 2019 TEDx Talk.
It all boils down to these four questions:
1) WHERE are you mostly when you experience flow?
2) WHAT are you doing there?
3) WHY are you doing it? What is your purpose?
4) HOW can you transport that purpose to different areas of life?
The second idea comes from MMA-fighter, Michael Chandler. On the Joe Rogan Experience, he talks about how he got better at finding flow through thorough analysis.
When you’ve felt a powerful flow experience, don’t let it go to waste. Analyse it. Discuss it with a coach, friend or colleague. Journal about it. Document it enough so you can later replicate the circumstances. The above questions are a good starting point.
Finally, Michael recommends letting go of the perfect result. It doesn’t exist. Instead, focus on trying to perfect every second of your process.
What you should also know about flow state triggers
Flow can be triggered by many things. They are popularly divided into the above categories but there are many more triggers. There’s still a lot of research to be done. Not a single trigger goes into more detail about flow state and music. Yet, on an empirical level, a repetitive playlist has been found to benefit your flow experience. Some people also find that darker rooms help them tap into flow, and as already mentioned, oxygen intake can be a flow booster too.
In conclusion, this isn’t a definitive list of flow state triggers. It’s a summary of the most popular, most-documented flow triggers known to mankind. And while it’s far from complete, it’s more information than you’ll ever need to get closer to finding this optimal state of performance regularly.
If you want more information about flow, check out these practical tips to induce a flow state.
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Original photo by Federico Beccari on Unsplash
Sources and further reading/watching about flow state triggers
- Living in flow – the secret of happiness with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TzPky5Xe1-s
- Fear or Flow: how to create an optimal experience, Cameron Norsworthy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v8ten8zWOS4
- Joe Rogan and Michael Chandler. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=odcll3qmZH8
- Losing yourself in flow state, Diane Allen. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ookkfdGMHeM
- Steven Kotler. https://www.stevenkotler.com/rabbit-hole/frequently-asked-questions-on-flow
- C. Wilson Meloncelli. https://www.cwilsonmeloncelli.com/17-flow-triggers-to-hack-into-the-flow-state/