How to get into (and stay in) a flow state
The “flow state” or the “zone” is the holy grail of productivity. It is defined by psychologists as the “mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”
I define the flow state as that feeling where you are having fun at what you are doing, you are being extremely productive, you are completely focused on your work with all your thoughts and emotions, and everything feels “smooth.” You are not distracted because you love what you are doing, and you are doing it well. There was an urban myth that most people only use 10% of their brains, and “geniuses” like Einstein used 20%. This myth has been debunked, but I think the general idea is valid. When it is completely focused on a challenge with all of its thoughts, emotions and creativity, the human mind can be incredibly productive, but most people are not completely focused on the challenges they are presented in their lives, and are probably running at something around 30-50% of their productivity.
Psychologists characterize flow states in the following way:
• Clear goals that, while challenging, are still attainable.
• Strong concentration and focused attention.
• The activity is intrinsically rewarding.
• Feelings of serenity; a loss of feelings of self-consciousness.
• Timelessness; a distorted sense of time; feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of time passing.
• Immediate feedback.
Flow states and dopamine
To understand flow states, one must first understand dopamine and how it affects the brain. What follows is an oversimplification – when I say “dopamine” I really mean “the neurochemicals that make you feel good.” I am not a brain scientist so don’t kill me.
No matter how much humans try to romanticize themselves as “rational” beings, human beings are ultimately apes that evolved to seek pleasure. You can try to deny yourself pleasure with “willpower” but you will always eventually give in. We are literally robots programmed to seek dopamine at all costs.
We can get a dopamine release in different ways, which I will generally categorize as “good” and “bad.” “Bad” dopamine is sex, drugs, music, food, “thrills” like speeding, trashy pop culture, video games, porn, etc… “Good” dopamine comes from overcoming challenges within a productive activity (dopamine “wins”).
I use the terms “good” and “bad” with qualifications. There is nothing inherently “wrong” with bad dopamine – everybody should enjoy sex or good food every once in a while. But ultimately, most of your dopamine should come from overcoming challenges within a productive activity. Unfortunately, many people resort to bad dopamine to make themselves feel better because they are not regularly overcoming challenge in a productive activity.
A “flow state,” for lack of a better way to describe it, is a period where you are regularly receiving dopamine from overcoming challenges within your productive activity.
Overcoming challenges within a productive activity
Let’s break this definition down.
First, to achieve a flow state, you must overcome challenges. If your task does not challenge you, your brain will not be excited and will not want to do it. I think there is a spiritual reason to this: our minds are attracted to transcendence, so we always want to be improving and aiming for something higher. If we are doing some easy, monotonous task, our mind will check out emotionally and seek something more stimulating. Usually, the lack of a challenge is not too much of a problem. You can just listen to music or a podcast or something while you power through the easy task. The problem more often is that the challenge is too difficult. If you find yourself consistently doing tasks that are too easy for you, you may need to find a more challenging job or figure out a way to delegate those easy tasks to somebody beneath you and focus your time on more productive and important activities.
The activity must also be “productive.” As I stated earlier, our brain seeks dopamine, and whenever we achieve something we get a small dopamine boost. If we are working on something for a long time, however, and we get no “wins,” our brain starts to lose interest and seeks something that will give it wins. This is why video games are so enticing for men – their work, school or hobbies do not give them instant wins and their subconscious brain, who doesn’t understand the long-term value of succeeding at work, seeks cheap, instant wins from the video game.
You must also “overcome” the challenge. It is absolutely incredible to me how many people do not see their work as a series of challenges. Instead, they see it as a set of instructions from a superior they must follow. They don’t care if they do a good or bad job, or even if they accomplish anything, but whether they follow the instructions well enough so that they do not get in trouble. When things go wrong that are unforeseen by their instructions, instead of fixing the problem they throw their hands up and say “well that’s not my fault.” This is a terrible mindset because if you see your job as following instructions you will never get any dopamine “wins.” Each dopamine “win” gives us motivation and energy for the next challenge, so if we never get any wins, our entire job will be drudgery. Each task can be defined as an overall challenge (for example, in a company making money), with sub-challenges (making a good product, selling the product), and then sub-challenges within those sub-challenges (working with the designer, finding good salespeople, etc…). If you are sleepwalking through each sub-challenge without conquering it, you will never get any “wins” and you will subconsciously live in constant anxiety that the overall challenge will fall apart because you never succeeded in conquering the sub-challenges.
To succeed at anything, from being a McDonald’s employee to a corporate lawyer, you must take ownership of the task and conquer the challenges posed by that task. At most companies, the primary challenge is to make money. If you are making enough money for the company, you can come to work with your dick out and randomly put it in people’s mouths whenever you want. If you can’t figure out a way to make money on your own, then you must conquer some ancillary challenge given to you by your company. The bigger challenges you overcome, the more valuable you are to your company and the more fun you have.
The key to entering the flow state is being prepared. My goal is to eliminate any source of distraction or anxiety from my mind before I start the task so that when I am doing the task I am completely focused on that task and nothing else is clouding my consciousness. Here is a short list:
• I make sure I am well rested, not tired and not hungry. I might eat something or drink a red bull before I start.
• I check my to do list and calendar to remove any anxiety that there are other tasks I need to be doing.
• I remove any distractions (sounds, weird smells, etc…) that could bother me. I turn off my phone and close my email program.
• I plan my day so I have enough time to complete the task so there is no anxiety caused by rushing. I try to give myself more time than is needed and I start the task earlier than I need because I always want to feel “ahead” of the game rather than behind.
I also prepare myself for the task so that there no “hiccups.” For example, before I write an article, I spend some time thinking about exactly what I am going to write so that when I sit down, I don’t get interrupted by myself thinking about what to write next. I find that I work better when I am focused on one thing at a time, so if I hit “writer’s block” when writing, I stop writing, and go for a walk to think about what to write next.
Your preparation may have to be deeper. You may have some paralyzing anxiety, depression, emotional hang-ups, repressed trauma or self-limiting beliefs that constantly haunt you and distract from focusing on a task and succeeding. You may need therapy, spiritual work, and/or intense self-awareness to fix these issues within yourself. At the end of the day, the world doesn’t give a fuck what your issues are, it cares about what you are accomplishing, so you need to get those issues out of the way and accomplish shit.
The intimidating challenge
The biggest obstacle to entering the flow state is what I call the “intimidating challenge.”
The intimidating challenge is a challenge that your brain consciously or subconsciously sees as too difficult or too large for you to tackle at that time. When your brain feels like the next challenge is too intimidating, it subconsciously calculates that any effort spent on that challenge will be wasted, and seeks dopamine elsewhere. For example, if I put you in front of a computer right now and told you to program the next Facebook, you would immediately want to do something else because that challenge would sound too scary. Rationally, you may say “I can program the next Facebook if I spend enough time on it and do enough work,” but your brain is subconsciously going to see that road as too long and dreary to actually want to do anything. Remember, humans are subconsciously wired to seek dopamine, and if we subconsciously think that the challenge in front of us will not provide us dopamine, we will look elsewhere.
The intimidating challenge is, in my opinion, the basis of procrastination and distraction. You know how when you are procrastinating your brain wants to do anything and everything EXCEPT the task you know you are supposed to do? That’s your brain seeking dopamine elsewhere.
The brain’s subconscious processes are very sneaky and subtle. Of course, in the most naked manifestation of dopamine seeking, your brain will want to watch Youtube videos or masturbate or something. But on a much more subtle level, your brain may instead seek “easier” productive tasks or tasks it enjoys more, rather than the tasks it must do. You may must be very careful that your brain’s subtle emotions do not alter your path to something fundamentally less beneficial for you.
They key to overcoming the intimidating challenge is to break it into smaller challenges. If your challenge is finding a job, you may want to break it into smaller challenges like “fixing your resume” or “writing a cover letter” or even smaller ones like “look up jobs to apply to.” When breaking down challenges, I try to break them into challenges that are slightly too easy for me – as I explained earlier, if the challenges are too easy your brain will not want to do them, but I find that, for myself at least, I get most excited to conquer a challenge when I see it as slightly too easy.
Breaking big challenges into smaller ones is playing a trick on one’s own mind. My rational mind knows that the overall challenge is finding a job, and that fixing a resume is not worth anything unless I follow it up with more work to actually get the job. Nevertheless, my subconscious brain is scared of the bigger task of finding a job, so I try to “trick” it into thinking that the only challenge I really need to do is fix my resume. I promise myself that I just need to fix my resume and then I can go reward myself with something fun, like going to the gym or a strip club. Sometimes I even lie to myself and tell myself that if I do one small task, like send an email, I will be done for the day. Of course, this is a lie – after I conquer that small challenge, my brain gets excited for other challenges, so I move on to the next one. But I realize that the subconscious brain is a complicated monster with its own motivations, and I need to fight it to get what I want.
Ultimately, the goal is to get so many small wins that your brain gets used to the “wins” and is no longer intimidated by the big task because it sees itself as making progress. However, if you find yourself hating your big challenge no matter how many small wins you get, you may be pursuing something you fundamentally do not enjoy or are not good at. More likely, you are “missing” something that is needed to be good at that task, like an inborn trait or an important piece of knowledge that would make that bigger task less intimidating.
I think the intimidating challenge is the main thing holding people back today. We are bombarded with images from the media of wildly successful people that have accomplished incredible things and have incredible amounts of money, power, and influence. When we see these people, our heart sinks because the mountain to get where they are seems so incredibly high and difficult to climb. Although it is beneficial to have big goals and impressive role models, we must start where we are and focus on the small task in front of us, no matter how insignificant it may seem in the broader scheme of things. If you want to be a billionaire, the last thing you may want to do is make your bed, but you must realize that many of these incredibly successful people became that way because they turned their mind away from everything and focused on one little corner of the world.
A big cause of the “intimidating challenge” may also be your subconscious mind. As I discussed earlier, many people have self-limiting thoughts so they see themselves as fundamentally incapable of achieving certain goals, especially big ones. I recommend you read my article on confidence about this question.
Some people think that the flow state is only available for when they do something they "truly enjoy." But what makes you enjoy something? You usually enjoy something when you can overcome challenges while doing it. Most people "hate" doing things because they are not good at those things. If you can recalibrate your challenges, you will find that you "enjoy" a lot more things than you thought you did.
The “worker bee” and “creative” work modalities
To be able to consistently fall into a flow state, one must understand the difference between the “worker bee” and “creative” work states of mind. Both states of mind are necessary to be productive and successful and to successfully achieve a flow state.
In the worker bee mentality, the worker is given a particular goal and well-defined instructions to achieve that goal, and the worker faithfully follows those instructions until that goal is achieved. A worker bee must be very focused, disciplined, determined and able to block out any and all distractions while they are pursuing the goal. Sometimes the worker bee is given a macro goal (for example, “win this lawsuit”) and a micro goal (“draft this brief” or “interview this witness”) that must be accomplished on the way to achieving the macro goal.
In many ways, the creative modality is the opposite of the worker bee modality. In the creative modality, the worker is given a macro goal (“win this lawsuit” or “write a funny screenplay for a movie”) but is not given adequate instructions to achieve that macro goal, usually because the person giving the assignment does not know the instructions. For example, there is no finite set of instructions that one can reliably follow to write a funny screenplay or win a lawsuit. If there was, then any idiot on the street could do those things and they would not be as lucrative.
Because a creative person does not have all the instructions, they must figure the path themselves by keeping an open mind and considering multiple possibilities. Not only is a creative person allowed to get distracted, they MUST get distracted so they can consider possibilities that are not immediately in front of them. A perfectly creative person would consider every single possibility when making every single creative decision, but obviously that is impossible. But the more possibilities a person can consider, the more creative they can be. Most successful artists are very intelligent and have a lot of diverse influences they draw from to create something that nobody has seen before. A creative person must also be willing and ready to go off on tangents and follow random ideas to their logical conclusions, even if those random ideas may ultimately end up being useless.
Neither work modality is sufficient, by itself, for success. Ultra-successful people can effortlessly switch between modalities, oftentimes multiple times when working on the same task. As I stated in my writing example earlier, I try to break up the “worker bee” in “creative” aspects of tasks and do them separately (for example, I take a walk, think of what to write, and then sit down and actually do it), but sometimes I am forced to do them together.
A person who can only be a worker bee will never produce anything original or impressive, because they can only follow instructions given by somebody else. Pure worker bees are also usually terrible employees because they cannot exercise independent judgment. There are almost no jobs with a full set of instructions that answer every single possible problem that could come up, so every job requires at least some creativity. And in almost any job a person must be able to “switch course” or “break the rules.” To achieve the macro goal (“win the lawsuit”) it may appear at first that the proper micro goal is to draft a brief, but upon further reflection, it may turn out that the proper micro goal is to do something else. A worker bee will not be flexible enough to know when to switch course.
A purely creative person, however, will also fail. Creative people have open minds, which is a good thing when being creative, but an open mind also makes it difficult to focus. Once your creative mind helps you figure out the task you must accomplish, the creative person must be able to close their mind and focus on the task, but many creative people enjoy having an open mind so much that they cannot close it back up when they need to focus. A lot of creative people also fall in love with the dopamine rush that comes with coming up with a new creative idea, and find it torture to work on a task with well-defined instructions and no creative payoff. The dopamine rush that comes with creating a new creative idea is so strong that many creative people become dopamine addicts and get hooked on drugs, crazy experiences, sex, etc…
The creative modality sounds like more fun to most people and also appears to be more lucrative. The richest and most famous people in society appear to be artists, writers, and entrepreneurs – not worker bees doing the boring work. But in reality, the most successful people can combine the creative modality with the worker bee modality.
I do stand-up comedy and I see both extremes in work modalities. Some comedians approach comedy like a “worker bee”: they try to rationally figure out the “formula” to being funny and mechanically apply it. These comics usually fail because their comedy is unoriginal and uninspired. Comedy is only funny when it is genuinely innovative, not when it is a collection of well-established “tropes” that people already know about.
Some comedians, however, are TOO creative. They have lots of original, interesting and funny thoughts, but are too undisciplined and unfocused to present a good show. These comedians often ramble, forget their jokes, and ignore the basics of joke structure and putting together a set. Their careers often go nowhere because they cannot do tedious, boring tasks like sending their videos to bookers, managing their finances, or doing their taxes.
Work modalities and flow
To get into flow, you need to be able to switch effortlessly between each work modality.
Reality doesn’t care about your feelings, and it definitely doesn’t care about whether you enjoy being creative or being a worker bee. Reality only cares about whether you accomplish the goal; it doesn’t care what your mindset was. That dopamine rush that comes with achieving a goal only comes if you actually achieve that goal, and you may need to mix work modalities to achieve that goal.
People sometimes get stuck in the “worker bee” or “creative” mindset partly because they get the dopamine rush from small tasks. A sandwich artist at Subway may fall into a “groove” where he receives a small dopamine burst every time he makes a sandwich or a creative may get a dopamine rush when they come up with a new idea or observe others react to their creative invention. A person who only enjoys making sandwiches, however, cannot run a successful sandwich shop by himself because there are other tasks involved in running a sandwich job. A creative person who only enjoys the creative payoff will not be able to actually build the non-creative parts of any task.
In sum, while it is necessary to recognize the different work modalities, you cannot get stuck in them.
The danger of the flow state
Like all good things, the flow state has dangers.
Like any dopamine rush, you can be addicted to the flow state. Obviously, it’s better to be addicted to productive activity than video games or cocaine, but getting hooked on the flow state may be detrimental to actually building a good life. Some tasks are inherently boring and drudgery, and do not allow for a flow state, but you must do them anyway to be successful. If you constantly seek a flow state, you may ignore important tasks and hold yourself back.
Another danger is that a flow state may introduce you a lots of cognitive biases so it's extremely important after working in a flow state to get out and to critically assess your work.
I’ve noticed that the difference between a good boss and a good employee is that the employee just wants to do the one task he really enjoys, whereas a boss wants to do everything the business needs to succeed, even if there is no flow state.
There are also tasks that require lots of work before you can get to the point where you consistently get “wins” so you need tons of patience. As you can imagine, there is no bigger dopamine win for a lawyer than winning a case, but it takes years of work to get to the point where you are winning cases. Many lawyers are miserable because they are not getting dopamine wins early in their career.
Although flow states and dopamine are good ways to hack your mind to be more productive, you cannot let yourself become just a dopamine-seeking animal. Actual success and happiness requires patience, sacrifice and periods where you are not getting any dopamine wins. Ultimately, your activity should be controlled what your rational brain and what you really need to do, not just what makes you feel good. Your dopamine reward system should be your slave, not your master. This may require meditation or other spiritual practices. The same way you may need to control your exposure to drugs or alcohol, you may need to control your exposure to flow states.