Flow States for Peak Performance

In today’s hyper-connected world you are expected to be able to respond to an incredibly diverse range of tasks without any compromise to performance.

Phone calls, interruptions, changes to plans, difficult new information, people issues, impromptu meetings and unforeseen circumstances all contrive to pull you from an ideal state of focus and effectiveness.

Our outcome as managers and professionals is getting more done in less time without compromising quality.

Knowing how to activate and maintain high performance states allows you to maintain control as you switch from one type of activity to another while managing interruptions without any significant loss of quality output.

In this series of posts I will be exploring the relationship between skills, mindset, our states/emotions and our performance. I will then describe the structure of high-performance ‘flow’ states and how to access and activate them for the purpose of increasing personal performance.

As you read this series about developing and activating flow states go ahead and test the simple patterns that I describe and note how this impacts on your performance.

What is flow?

There is a growing awareness of a psychological phenomena associated with high performance called flow. This is an experience where the person is fully engrossed in an activity to the extent that nothing else seems to matter and in which they are performing at the edge of their capacity.

Being in a flow state is typically pleasurable and in some instances the person experiences a distortion of their experience of time. What is a flow state?

The original work was developed by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who described flow as

“…being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Knowing the structure of flow states and the contextual conditions in which they occur enables people to deliberately activate this desired state to bootstrap their performance.

In a future post I will unpack the features of a flow state and describe ways that high performance flow states can be activated deliberately and applied to situations of your choice to enhance your performance.

When and where do flow states occur?

What are the contextual conditions where flow states naturally occur for an individual? Consider for a moment any experience where you were fully engaged and absorbed in an activity, where you lost your sense of time passing and in which you performed exquisitely well.

In that example you were probably doing something in which you were skilled. There was a challenge in what you were doing and you were stretched to the edge of your ability in doing that task in that situation.

Flow occurs when a person is engaged in a task that they are skilled at, in a context that provides enough challenge for them to stretch themselves. The challenge in that context must not exceed their capacity nor must the challenge be too easy.

If in your work you manage or lead others, consider giving tasks to the people you lead that is challenging enough and is within their capacity. Consider how you can organise your work to provide enough challenge for yourself. In the next post I will explore motivation and flow.

Motivation and Flow States

Intrinsic or self motivation is an essential component of and prerequisite for entering and maintaining a flow state. Intrinsic motivation is where you are interested in the context that you are in and the task you are engaging in within that context. 

I used to teach with a psychiatrist who told me the story of how as a young man he was almost thrown out of his medical degree for underperforming. He reminded himself that he was doing his undergraduate medical degree so that he could later do post grad studies to become a psychiatrist. He made a decision “I might as well make this interesting”. He loved history so he then reframmed medicine as history. He put himself into a state of interest in relation to his studies and then performed exceptionally well. 

Once interested and motivated he was able to fully engage himself in his studies. Consider examples from your personal history where you performed well and note, were you interested in the context, the outcome and task (intrinsically motivated)? Did you want to achieve your outcome or intention? 

Features of Flow States

People who are embodied in high performance flow states have minimal muscular tension in their physiology. Typically their breathing is even and their attention is externally focused on the world and the task or activity that they are engaged in. 

If you observe someone who is in a flow state and performing exceptionally well you might notice that there is a symmetry in their body. That they have a soft focus with they eyes and that their attention is on the world around them. As well as a steady soft focus their peripheral vision is typically engaged and open. 

When in a high performance flow state the person has a complete lack of self-reflection. They are fully absorbed in the task that they are doing. There is a complete absence of internal dialogue. 

Contrast this with someone who is performing poorly. Their focus is often tunnel vision. They have a lot of internal dialogue and they are often self-reflecting as they attempt to do the task or activity.

Physiology, state and performance 

A byproduct of naming a category is that we have to use language and may make an artificial distinction that is epistemologically shoddy. For example, separating mind and body linguistically directs our thinking to make that metaphor concrete. How do we decide what falls into the category called Mind and the category called Body?

Physiology does not distinguish between mind and body. The brain is included naturally.

In any state, we are using physiology, breathing, and sensory attention in a particular manner. If we change our breathing, the way we are holding ourselves or moving will alter. If we change our physiology or shift how we use our senses our state changes.

There is a relationship between our physiology, breathing pattern and state. This is fundamental to developing, accessing, activating, and applying flow states and is nicely described in a model developed by the linguist and co-creator of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, John Grinder, which he called ‘The Chain of Excellence’.

The model holds that a person’s performance is a function of their state. To change state, one must change physiology, and a simple way to change physiology is to change one’s breathing pattern.

Exploring flow states

Most people have experienced being in a high-performance flow state. One way to explore any state is comparing and contrasting it with a different state. This is one of the most basic ways in which we learn. We are creating what the anthropologist Gregory Bateson calls “news of difference.”

To do this, identify two states for the contrast. Take an example of when you were in a flow state and select an example of when you were performing below par. 

The next step is to reactivate each state separately. To do this, take your example of the flow state and remember when and where you experienced the state and the circumstances. Can you remember what you saw, heard and felt at the time? Make sure the memory is life-size, three-dimensional, and moving. Take the position as if you are reliving the experience, looking out of your eyes, listening through your ears, and being aware of your posture and pattern of breathing. Then shake off the state and repeat the exercise using the subpar state.

Compare the experiences of the two states noting differences in posture, breathing and muscular tension, and attention variables: focus vs peripheral vision, external sound vs internal dialogue. 

Generating flow states Using Sense Memory

As applied in the previous post, one way to access a high-performance flow state is by reactivating an example from one’s own history. 

When we do this, we are bringing conscious attention to the sights, sounds, and sensations we experienced there at that time. Method actors refer to this as sense memory. It is an approach to activating and embodying desired states to bring a character to life.

A potential risk of using sense memory to reactivate a state is that the state may have undesired historical associations that reduce the quality of the result when we apply the reactivated state to the context where we want to improve our performance.

Another way to activate a high-performance flow state is by using games or activities that generate a high-performance flow state free of history and associations.

The activity produces a high-performance flow state as a byproduct of the activity. The state is content-free, produced in the present, and can be applied to any context where we want it. 

Defining the context for enhancing our performance

High-performance flow states can be applied to situations, times and places to increase our performance significantly. First we need to identify and prepare the context where we want to boost our performance.

Ask yourself, ‘Is there a situation, time and place where I produce poor performance?’. When you have chosen a context, explore it with sense memory (see earlier post). Place yourself mentally back in that situation, time and place and bring it to life around you. 

Take an inventory of your state in that situation. How is your posture, movement, and breathing pattern? How are you attending with your senses?

Now ‘step back’ from that situation and act ‘as if’ you can observe yourself in that context. 

Consider, if I were to increase my performance noticeably in that context, what would be the consequences to productivity, effectiveness and personal accomplishment?

Now that you have defined and prepared the context, you are ready to create a flow state for that context.

Generating flow states using activities

There are a number of games already developed for generating flow states as byproducts of the activities. I will describe the principles of game design so that you can explore this for yourself, instead of describing the specific games that I use with clients. 

Juggling with one addition is an activity that can be used to generate a high-performance flow state. What are the features of learning to juggle that produce a flow state? 

Juggling has a variable set of conditions to produce challenges. When first learning to juggle, you start with just one ball, then progress to two balls, and then to three. You have enough challenges based on your level of skill. For some people, using one or two balls correctly with an even rhythm and an even arc can produce sufficient challenge for a person to perform at the edge of their ability. 

Automation. As you progress, tossing and catching the ball(s) will automate. The basic movements will become unconsciously competent. 

External attention and stimulation of peripheral vision. Juggling the balls in a steady, even rhythm automatically stimulates and opens up peripheral vision. Your visual attention will be external. 

Juggling has other features that can generate a flow state In addition to the features described in the last post.

Physiology. Juggling uses both sides of your body and thus activates both brain hemispheres. To succeed, you must use your physiology in a resourceful manner, with upright, balanced posture and even breathing. Typically, people breathe with an even rhythm when in highly resourceful states.

Ideally, you want to have minimal muscular tension in your body as you juggle. There should be varying tension only in the muscles you need to make the toss and catch. 

Reduced internal dialogue. To do this, I suggest you add a ‘content-free’ auditory task to your juggling, such as reciting multiplication tables out loud. This not only helps to keep your chosen rhythm, it also has the same function as a mantra used in meditation. 

Feedback on performance In most games, feedback is provided by the coach. In juggling, feedback is provided through dropping the ball. You pick up the ball, re-adjust your attention and physiology, and begin again.

Juggling with an auditory task for about 15 minutes without dropping the balls will typically develop a flow state. 

Learn more

Check out our course, Competitive Advantage, States, and Performance.

(Note: If you would like to learn more about the New Code of NLP you can get a copy of our latest Kindle book, ‘AEGIS: Patterns for extending your reach in life, work & leisure’ by Jules Collingwood, NLP Trainer. For only $4.99 here).

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