Understanding Flow

When it comes to getting more Flow - there are two important models to understand.

The first is the Challenge Skills Equation (CSE) developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This model is based on something known as the flow channel.  The flow channel represents the sweet spot between the challenge (how hard it is) and the available skills (how good I am at doing it). In this sweet spot you are neither stressed nor bored. In this sweet spot, you are likely in flow. But if the challenge is too much - you may freak out, freeze up, explode, implode. Or if it’s not enough, you may switch off, get distracted, tune out.

While easy enough to understand, the sweet spot in the flow channel is very hard to get right. Sometimes we completely overshoot it (which leads to epic breaks and burnouts), and sometimes we don’t quite get there (which leads to boredom and lethargy). Your personality type will give some indication of which side of the equation you err upon the most.

The Flow Cycle7.jpg

So what can we do to get the balance right? How can we actually generate more Flow in our lives?

Recent research conducted by theFlow Genome Project, gives us some insights. In a Flowpilot conducted with Googleresults showed that a way to ensure you are able to get into and stay within the Flow channel is to make the challenge at hand 4% harder than it was the day before. While it might not sound like much, the compounding nature of this means hefty progress is made in short periods of time. And without the burnout.

The Flow Cycle

The second important model when it comes to hacking Flow is the Flow Cycle developed by the Flow Genome Project.


Flow is not a switch you can flick on or off. You are not in and then out of Flow, you are operating within a cycle. The better you can understand the Flow cycle, the better you can move through it efficiently and gracefully.  Drawing on the work of Herbert Benson in The Break-Out Principle - the Flow Cycle provides a dynamic map of what Flow looks and feels like in real time. There are four distinct and necessary stages: Struggle, Release, Flow & Recovery.

The most important thing to understand about the Flow Cycle is that in the pursuit of Flow, you must absolutely forget about finding Flow. Don’t go hunting it. Instead - pay much more attention to the other stages of the cycle. Understand what is happening in the struggle and recovery stages and Flow is more likely to show up frequently and naturally.

Phase One - The Struggle

‘All life is suffering’ is not a new concept. It’s one we have heard in both Eastern and Western traditions since the beginning of time.

The struggle might even be described as a new kind of 21st century normal. That experience of hyperactive neuroelectric activity, where our brains are firing along in constant beta wave activity. This is where we are thinking, ruminating, cogitating from our prefrontal cortex. We are either consumed with the past or the future. We are doing a whole lot of thinking about ‘me’ and about ‘stuff.’ We are in a state of perpetual arousal and stress. Our systems are in norpropoxyphene and cortisol overdrive. And while this might be useful if we were about to fight a saber-toothed tiger, it is not so useful in our 21st century modern day lives. We don’t really need heart racing, blood shunting responses to an overloaded email inbox. Or a beeping iPhone. Or a bad news day. What this leads to (if left to fester) is a permanent and perpetual state of micro PTSD that eats us alive.

So the struggle phase is real, and we all know it. What we don’t all realise, is we can choose to view this struggle as ‘life’ - as the hard place we permanently exist within. Or - we can view it as a phase in the Flow cycle. We can stay in a cortisol fuelled existence feeding inflammation and disease. Or - we can consciously use the struggle as a springboard into Flow. Knowing how Flow works at a neurobiological level, gives us this choice.

We can continue to struggle, push harder, run out of gas, give up. Or - we can pivot. We can cease the the full frontal attack. We can rotate, look at things differently, come around the outside, and move into the next phase. The Release phase. If we can do this -  things start to feel good. Really good.

Phase Two - The Release

In this phase we start to release nitrous oxide in our brain which acts as a neurotransmitter. With this, the stress hormones get flushed out of our system. We start calming down. And then along comes a potent mix of reward neurochemicals. Endorphins as well as norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, and serotonin all show up at the same time. All are pleasure-inducing, performance-enhancing neurochemicals, increasing everything from muscle reaction times to attention, pattern recognition and lateral thinking. We are now in Flow.

Phase Three - Flow

Here, our brain waves slow down from super fast beta waves to cascading alpha waves. We become more relaxed, aware and alert. Our heart rate decreases. These neurochemicals have carried us through into our Flow state. The wonderful state where Selflessness (sense of self disappears), Timelessness (hours seem like minutes, or micro-seconds can be seen in vivid detail), Effortlessness (your tasks/mission seems much easier), and Richness (we gain insight and information in vivid detail) abound. We feel our best and perform our best.

Flow significantly boosts well-being, motivation and productivity. It helps us learn and master skills. It improves our ability to solve problems. In Flow we have access to rich and relevant information. We create, we find meaning, we innovate. This experience might stay with us for a micro-moment, a few minutes, a few hours, a few days. It is the intensity of the experience that impacts on the fourth and final phase - the Recovery.

Phase Three - Recovery

Flow is potent, powerful, impactful. It therefore requires us to replenish. And we must replenish in an active and conscious way. We need to sleep, eat, move our bodies, relax our minds and integrate the learnings and fuel our tank for the next cycle of struggle, release and flow.

As we come off the high of the feel-good neuro-chemicals released during the Flow state, the low can often lead to self-sabotage or an emotional reaction to try and quickly regain the Flow state. The key here is not to let this phase block the learning or reverse the results of being in Flow. Instead we need to recover more deeply and move smoothly back to the struggle, ready and willing to repeat the cycle.

Clare Johnson