How to get in the zone with a flow state at work

Being in a ‘flow state’ or ‘in the zone’ can help you perform at your most productive. But how do you get into the zone at work, and what are the benefits?

David Quinn: BrightHR Social Media Manager

Flow is an increasingly popular concept in business. For those of you that are unaware, ‘flow’ is supposedly an optimal state of consciousness. Whilst in flow we feel and perform our best, and we experience intense focus and concentration. This is no small feat when we consider that our brains are constantly seeking ways to conserve energy.

We see this conservation at work whenever we undertake familiar tasks. Whether it’s driving home from work, or simply going about our workday - if it’s familiar, our brains will effectively put us on autopilot. Often we’ll have little or no recollection of events as a result. In fact, these passive states are more of a problem now than ever, because many of us are less engaged at work than we’ve ever been. In fact, a recent Gallup poll found that 71% of workers are disengaged from the work they do.

However, when someone enters a flow state, the brain’s electrical signals behave differently. Our brains effectively become ‘hypoactive’, meaning the frontal cortex is taken offline. The frontal cortex is responsible for our sense of time, which is why during flow states, subjects report time passing either very fast or very slowly.

The self is also calculated within the frontal cortex, and so when this brain area goes quiet, creativity and risk-taking rise because the subject’s inner “Woody Allen” - the neurotic, anxious part of our personality - is silenced. As a result, the subject is left hyper-focused and attentive, but also relaxed and capable of unprecedented skill and creativity.

Furthermore, when someone enters a flow state, a range of neurochemicals including dopamine and endorphins are released in their nervous system. As a result, their strength increases, pain decreases, and the subject focuses even more on the present moment.

The biggest benefit of the chemicals released during these flow states is cognitive. The neurochemicals that show up in flow are also the chemicals that facilitate learning, memory retention, lateral thinking, and creativity. As a result, creativity can spike up to four hundred percent in flow.

The more neurochemicals that show up during flow, the better chance the lessons learned during this experience will be stored for long-term in the brain. This means that the popular ‘ten thousand hours’ rule devised by Anders Ericsson and popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book ‘Outliers’ is not always correct. During flow states, the ten thousand hours required to master a skill can be halved. The subject learns at an accelerated rate due to the cocktail of neurochemicals that has been released.

I wanted to learn how flow could potentially be harnessed by me and my team at BrightHR. Fortunately for me, a group of psychologists, researchers and science journalists have been probing the limits of flow since the 1970s. It’s clear from this research that where and how you enter flow is unique to each person, but flow itself is available to every single person. Even more good news: flow can be triggered, and once you know these triggers, you can redesign aspects of your life to get you into a flow mindset more often.

The research behind flow states

The first research into flow was done by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Raised in poverty in the Soviet Union, Csikszentmihalyi had few pleasures available to him except chess. He would immerse himself in games, sometimes for hours, and he soon noticed that when he did so, hours would pass by like minutes.

He became fascinated with why time seemed to pass so quickly in this way and soon went round the world to pursue the question of happiness. Specifically, he asked why some people occupied terrible circumstances, but seemed much happier than others; and meanwhile, why did some people enjoy far more luxurious circumstances, but yet still seem to feel far more miserable?

He concluded that happiness was determined by how people spent their time. He began comprehensively documenting the day-to-day activities of a wide range of societal groups, ranging from Korean female retirees to rich American Wall Street yuppies, Detroit factory workers, and more. During this research, he began to notice and then document the existence of flow states.

What Csikszentmihalyi found is that people from across the world all expressed a preference for this sort of state. Across every social stratum, he found that people had a way of seeking something very similar in terms of their work and leisure activities. They all craved and naturally sought out a state where they were challenged, but not overwhelmed. Too easy, and they became bored; but too difficult, and they became overwhelmed.

He found that each group separately described a state of consciousness which was roughly the same. They all described it using similar terms – including ‘in the groove’, ‘in the pocket’, ‘grooving on it’, ‘flowing’, ‘losing oneself’, etc. What‘s more, they could only achieve these states some of the time - showing that ‘flow’, as Csikszentmihalyi discovered, was not only a desirable experience but an elusive one.

Fast forward to the 1990s. Extreme action sports, including snowboarding, free-solo rock climbing and freestyle skiing, were becoming popular and the media wanted stories about these athletes. Journalist Steven Kotler was tasked by his editors with following these athletes and documenting their stories. Being a competent skier he did just that and followed them wherever they went. As a result of doing this he broke many bones, so he would often be recovering for months at a time. When he returned to the sports after each injury, several months would have passed, and he would find that huge leaps forward in performance would have occurred.

Sports performance, as a rule, is slow and predictable – records aren’t broken that often. But in extreme sports, records were being broken every month. In 1990, the biggest gap jump in snowboarding was 40 feet. By 2015 the largest gap jump was 250 feet - the height of a skyscraper. Even more surprising: snowboarders are now regularly jumping that distance.

Prior to 2012, some rock-climbers had solo free-climbed the formidable Half Dome wall in Yosemite, but they had taken days to do it. They also used portable ledges to rest and sleep in between climbing sessions. But in 2012, a young climber named Alex Honnold solo free-climbed Half Dome in less than 2 hours.

The fact was that during this period, extreme sports athletes were achieving increases in performance that were virtually unheard of in human history. So, as Steven Kotler began to ask at the time, how was this happening? And why?

The answer, he discovered, was flow. These athletes had learned to harness flow states in order to boost and benefit their performance. The reason why they have done this so much more effectively than other sports areas is partly because of the stakes inherent in these activities.

Basically, if you don’t get into flow fast in an extreme sports environment, you risk serious injury or death. Contrast this to bat and ball sports, where the biggest risk is disappointing your team-mates or fans. Secondly, many action sports involve deep physical embodiment: jumping; grappling, and navigating an environment rich in novelty and complexity. Scientists have found this physical embodiment is a certain way to snap someone into focus on the present moment.

Getting into the zone

If like me, you’re keen to learn how to trigger flow states, the good news is that some of the techniques used by extreme sports can be appropriated for use by us.

Firstly, flow follows focus, and taking risks drives focus into the present. For adventure athletes, the risk can be serious injury or death, but in the workplace the risk can simply be social embarrassment.

“The brain can’t tell the difference between physical consequences and emotional risk,” says Kotler. This means the way to trigger focus and flow is to take risks - and not necessarily huge ones. This could mean speaking up in a group setting where you’d normally stay silent; taking creative risks by using unusual ideas in your work or volunteering to take on new or bigger responsibilities. As long as you feel at risk, your nervous system will respond by driving your focus into the present - and straight into flow.

Secondly, extreme athletes achieve flow partly because of the novelty and complexity in their environments. No two surfing breaks are the same; every day the snowpack on a ski-run is different. In business, our aim should be to break our habits and routines. Driving home on auto-pilot, as mentioned earlier, is efficient and saves the brain energy, but it won't put you into a flow mindset. Instead, shake things up by taking a different route to work, brushing your teeth with the wrong hand, or anything else that feels ‘against-the-grain’. These tricks will lead you to complexity, which will demand focus, which will lead to flow.

Finally, use all of your senses. Flow states are triggered when you pay attention with all sensory streams: listening, looking, smelling, tasting, and touching. Action and adventure sports demand deep embodiment. A kayaker, for example, pays attention to the environment with his whole body, becoming literally part of the flow of the water. Montessori education is another example, promoting learning through doing and engaging multiple sensory streams.

You can emulate these effects in the business world through whole body experiences and mindfulness. In practice meditation, balance, agility training, and even video games will achieve the same outcome. Offices that offer a range of sensory activities - for example, a ping-pong table or indoor gardens - will help their employees attain a deeper state of physical embodiment. This will lead them further into flow.

One of the most encouraging facts about flow is that anyone can attain it, anytime they want - as long as they use the triggers correctly. Action athletes have built their lives around these flow triggers. They take risks, but they also focus their entire working lives around maximising those experiences that drive them into the present - straight into flow.

The benefits

So what does this mean for you and me? I began this article by explaining that flow is a way for any of us to perform at our best. But of equal concern is just how out of flow most of us are currently. There are claims that the average person spends less than 5% of their day in flow. If we could increase that to just 15%, some believe overall workplace productivity would double. That would be an improvement to make every employer sit up and take note.

But the benefits of a flow mindset run deeper than just productivity. As Csikszentmihalyi discovered during his decades of research, flow is more than just an efficiency hack: it’s a direct route to happiness and satisfaction. People that spend a lot of their time in flow, he discovered, were consistently found to be happier and more secure than their peers. This has implications for all of us. If we can unlock just a fraction of this flow technology, and apply it to our own lives, the possibilities for becoming better employees and happier people are endless.

Could flow states help your business succeed in the future? What does the future even hold for the world of work? Download The New Workforce and find out