By August 22, 2019

How To Get Into Flow State 🧠💡 | Become A Productive BEAST!

Flow state is something super important for programmers and, those who have entered this state know what I'm talking about.

In flow, every action, every decision, arises seamlessly from the last. In this state, we are so focused on the task at hand that all else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Our sense of self vanishes. Our sense of time distorts. And, as the research demonstrates, every aspect of performance goes through the roof.

Today I'm going to partner up with Rian Doris, part of the Flow Research Collective. The Flow Research Collective is a research and training organization. Their mission is to understand the science behind ultimate human performance and use it to train up individuals and organizations.

By decoding the neurobiology of flow—understanding what is going on in the brain and in the body when humans are performing at their best—they can open up a new possibility space for human potential.
(Source: https://www.flowresearchcollective.com)

If you're interested in getting into the flow state, especially if you're a developer and want to get the best out of your code, definitely watch this video and the FREE video training Rian has stored for you.

Transcript Of The Video:

John Sonmez:
What's up guys. John Sonmez here from SimpleProgrammer.com and today I've got Rian here, and Rian is a friend of mine and he happens to also work at the Flow Research Collective. And I thought it'd be kind of cool to talk to him a little bit about a flow, the flow state, which is something that, as programmers, it's really, really important to understand. There's a lot of new research in this area and showing effectiveness of this, and how you can get into this flow state. So, so welcome Rian.

Rian Doris:
Thanks for having me John. Appreciate it. And hey guys as well, to anyone who's watching at. So yeah, love to tell you a little bit, John, about the Flow Research Collective, what we do, what we mean by flow, a little bit of the research around it, if that's cool.

John Sonmez:
Yeah, yeah, definitely. Yeah. Yeah, it's definitely something I've been been interested in. I know when I was doing a lot of development that I could really tell when I was in the flow state or not in flow state, but I didn't know what it was. It didn't have the word for it, but it would be like, I'd sometimes be working on a programming project and it would seem like the entire day would just go by in an instant, and I would get so much done, but then some days I couldn't, it just didn't happen. But it's those rare occasions when that happened that I felt like I was so productive and time just flew by. Didn't even feel like I was working.

Rian Doris:
MMM. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Even when people aren't aware of what it is from a scientific standpoint or that there is a name for that state, everyone still intuitively kind of wants to get themselves there, and a lot of people, again intuitively, kind of orient their workdays towards getting themselves into that state for as long as possible because it's when you're most productive. So yeah, what we do at the Flow Research Collective is, firstly, we study flow. So we've got a research institute, we're partnered with UCLA, USC, Imperial College London, number of other universities, Formula One and some other institutions doing research into flow. So looking at what that state of extreme focus is from a neuro biological standpoint.

Rian Doris:
So, what's actually going on in the brain and in the body when people are in that state. And then we've got sort of a training and consulting side as well. And we work with entrepreneurs, executives, athletes, creatives to a certain degree as well, teaching them how to access that state more consistently and how to kind of take it from this sort of elusive thing that sometimes kind of happens maybe into a skillset so that you can get into that zone on demand or as close to on demand as possible and reliably recreate it and start spending more and more your worked in there so.

John Sonmez:
Okay. Yeah that's really interesting because you guys work with the founder of your organization is Stephen, right?

Rian Doris:
Steven Kotler, yeah.

John Sonmez:
Yeah. Because I read the, what was it? The Superman? I trying to think of…The, yeah.

Rian Doris:
Yeah, yeah.

John Sonmez:
The Rise of Superman. And I remember kind of at the end of the book, it was like, “Okay, well, here's all the things that happen in flow state.” And I think maybe at that point the research wasn't quite there because the answer was like, “Well, if your life depends on it, like the best way you can get into flow state is to be in a dangerous situation where you're going to die. That will guarantee that you're going to get there. But right now we don't know the answers.” But it sounds like a lot has happened since the time of that book, right? Because now you're telling me, “Okay, we can actually scientifically study this. We can actually purposefully put you in flow state or teach you how to do that.” Right? That's the one thing, when I read the book, I was like, “Aw, shoot.” I just want to know how to do it. Like, now I'm hooked. I'm like, “All right, flow state sounds great, but how do I actually do it without jumping off of a cliff with a parachute or you know.”

Rian Doris:
Yeah, it's funny. So the way Steven often describes it is that sort of we're evolutionarily hardwired for high-performance and for flow and that's why a lot of those sports drive flow so aggressively because you're taking enormous risk, you're in environments with high levels of complexity which require heightened information processing and things like that. So from kind of an evolutionary almost safety standpoint, those triggers, which are extreme, are a sort of kicking you into that state so that you can deal with those complex and, again, from an evolutionary standpoint, dangerous circumstances. So you get pushed into that state to be able to cope. But yeah, through sort of looking at the research, looking at what flow actually is in the brain and the body, we've been able to identify lots of different triggers that you can use without having to jump out of an airplane or whatever that you can use at your desk day to day to be able to almost sort of trick your physiology and get yourself into that zone consistently.

John Sonmez:
Okay. Now, I know a lot of people have different ideas of what flow is, what what exactly is flow? And, I mean, probably some people are watching like “I don't even know what you guys are talking about right now. What is this flow?”

Rian Doris:
Yeah, always happy to bring everyone up to speed, because it's funny, even the word. We sort of have an internal running joke about the fact that we all have a little bit of a problem with the word itself. It just sounds a little bit make-y up-y.

John Sonmez:
Yeah.

Rian Doris:
It sounds a bit like energy or alignment or manifestation or something like that. But it's actually a technical term. It's a term that's used within positive psychology and it was coined by a Hungarian psychologist called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who wrote a book called Flow. And it's a technical term. It's used it's used within positive psychology, within psychology generally, and even within the sort of neuro scientific research that looks at this state as well. And so it's not something that we have labeled ourselves and it has a definition that exists outside of us as well.

John Sonmez:
Right.

Rian Doris:
And it's technically defined as an optimal state of consciousness where you feel your best and you perform your best. And more specifically it refers to those moments where every action, every decision arises seamlessly from the last. You are so focused on the task at hand, that all else sort of falls away. An action awareness merge, your sense of self vanishes, so that kind of inner critic, that dialogue people often have going on in their back of their mind with themselves goes off line and your sense of time distorts. So you get time dilation where time either speeds up, which is usually what happens within knowledge work. And the programmers who are watching this, that's probably the experience they've had where hours would go by in what feels like minutes, but then sometimes, with more sort of physically induced or embodied flow states, time can slow down as well, and you get that sort of freeze frame effect, like the way you hear people describe even things like car crashes sometimes.

Rian Doris:
And as the research shows, when you're in this state, every aspect of performance, both mental and physical go through the roof. So, to give a little breakdown on some of the research and then what that looks like if that's helpful?

John Sonmez:
Yeah, yeah. Sounds like it's like taking the limitless pill.

Rian Doris:
Yeah, yeah. It's funny that, but yeah. I mean, it… Well, yeah, I'll give you a little bit of a breakdown of the research and then I'll describe why enforcing it's not-

John Sonmez:
Okay.

Rian Doris:
… as great as the limitless pill, and why we'll sort of close that gap and solve that problem, because yeah. So the research done by McKinsey, which Steven often references, found that executives, when in flow, are 500% more productive, which is an insane number. It means that you can go to work on Monday, spend Monday in a flow state, and get the same amount of work done as your steady state peers do in an entire week or go to work on Monday and Tuesday, spend both of those days in the flow state, and be doubly as effective as the competition.

Rian Doris:
Research done by Teresa Amabile, a psychologist at Harvard, found that creativity spikes for up to three days after flow state. Research done by advanced brain monitoring at DARPA found that skill acquisition speed, which is kind of a fancy way of labeling learning, increases by the 490%, and that was done by study with snipers. And research done at the University of Sydney, again, found 430% increases in creative problem solving. So, and that's just a small snippet of what the research looks like. Now the problem is, and the reason it's not as good as the limitless pill, and the reason that you probably don't hear people talking about it as much as you might think when you hear about this research is that it is an elusive state.

John Sonmez:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Rian Doris:
So, what usually happens is people would get into this state, maybe half an hour a week, or for a couple of hours every couple of weeks, or whatever the case may be. And so if you're 500% more productive for half an hour a week, it's not going to actually be that revolutionary. It's not going to cause you to be limitless or be able to kind of accelerate as fast as he managed to do so in the movie.

John Sonmez:
Yeah.

Rian Doris:
And so what we try and do through our training and our research is take it from this elusive, sporadic, infrequently recurring thing and make it a skillset, and, as I mentioned, teach you how to recreate it with reliability and consistency so that you can work towards spending three hours every day in that state and then over time work towards spending the majority of your work day in that state. And it's then that you do start to see real insane impact in your life, and it's then that it becomes really impactful and kind of actually has a kind of a significant effect on the real life outcomes that people care about.

John Sonmez:
Okay. Okay. Yeah, no, that makes sense. That you've got to put it in the work to get the result. But yeah, I can imagine though, as a programmer, being able to lock into this flow state. Even three hours a day would be phenomenal, because if you can perform at several hundred percent of your base level, that's an insane amount of productivity. And plus the idea, also just that it's… I think perhaps maybe one of the things that really drew me into doing programming was that you do get into that flow state. It's almost like when I was reading the Rise of Superman and he was talking about, Steven was talking about the extreme sports and how it's like you get a glimpse of this thing and so that's what draws people to keep on doing it is pushing it to the edge.

John Sonmez:
It's almost the same thing, I think, when you're programming. You have those moments, it's a short period of time maybe, where you're in that flow state and you keep on searching for it again, like you want to keep on going so that you can experience that again. But it's elusive, like you said, you can't reliably so… So you keep on, it almost creates that addictive quality to it. Maybe video games are so addictive because of the same reason as well, but…

Rian Doris:
100%. 100% accurate. And so what they call it, they don't use the term addictive in the research, but they use the term autotelic, which essentially means that it is worthwhile in and of itself just because it's such a pleasurable state to be in. And that's one of the reasons it's so advantageous, because it's simultaneously incredibly satisfying and pleasurable, and even correlated with outcomes around sense of overall life satisfaction and meaning. But it's also inherently, so long as you're deploying it on the right activities, a state that's inherently productive as well. And obviously that productivity is going to be less impactful if it's being used within a video game. But it is an inherently productive state. And one of the things I always love to describe is that one of the reasons that surfers or action adventure sports athletes will wake up at 3:00 AM in the morning effortlessly and pack their car and go drive five hours to some perfect beach break without even thinking about it is because they are chasing that state and they want to get that state.

John Sonmez:
Yeah.

Rian Doris:
But one of the cool things that you can do is you can recreate that same state from a neurophysiological standpoint within any different activity.

John Sonmez:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Rian Doris:
Certain activities are going to be more effective for creating flow than other ones, but there is no reason from a neurophysiological standpoint, that you can't be in somewhat of an exact same state when you're surfing as when you program. And so one of the things I love to describe, or one of the ways I like to describe what we do is try and make work feel like skiing. Because even though the activity's vastly different, the state that you are in can be exactly uniform. Which is cool. And then you can create, as you're saying, you create that almost addictive feeling around your work, which is obviously super helpful, because it shifts the whole paradigm from work being this thing, you've got to push yourself into and whip yourself and whip yourself towards. So this thing you're getting pulled into because of how badly you want to get back into that zone.

John Sonmez:
Yeah. No, that makes sense. I think that explains a lot of the really super successful entrepreneurs that everyone is like “How the heck can they do this?” And I was watching a video from Sam Ovens the other day and he was talking about like-

Rian Doris:
That's funny, [crosstalk 00:13:54] .

John Sonmez:
“You need to love your work.” Right?

Rian Doris:
Yeah.

John Sonmez:
And I was like, I was thinking, “Yeah, that doesn't…” Like I know what he believes what he's saying when I'm seeing that, and a lot of the stuff that he says I agree with 100%, but it's like you can't just pick something that you love, it's more like you have to learn to love it.

Rian Doris:
Yes.

John Sonmez:
And I think the reason why he's got that disconnect is because he is in, he must be accessing the flow state very often when he's working, and so to him it seems like that's the answer.

John Sonmez:
And then you look at people like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos. Like how does Elon Musk do the… I mean the guy works an insane amount and he's sleeping on the factory floors. And as you're describing kind of the surfer, I'm thinking the same thing, it must be that Elon must be accessing, this flow state in order to be able to do this. So it's where it's like, I think, because you could look at these people and you're like, “Oh, they're super human. There's no way. It's hard for me to just focus and work for six hours during the day. How could he just keep on doing this day after day, year after year.” And it's because it's, I would assume, that he's accessing flow state, that he's got something that's drawing him, that's making it where it doesn't feel like work. It feels like skiing, like you said.

Rian Doris:
Exactly, exactly. And it's when you look at guys like that, that the 500% increase in productivity number seems totally reasonable as well. When you look at their output versus the output of the average person, it's not just 500% greater. It's many, many, many multiples greater than your average person. Like Elon Musk has accomplished, arguably, hundreds of lifetimes of output in thus far, and he's, I don't know what age he is, late forties or whatever already. And obviously that's down to not just him being in flow, but what he's doing in flow as well. It's not just a result of being in flow, but yeah.

Rian Doris:
But yeah, you're 100% right. And again, the point you made about the fact that you have to work to love your work is so critical. That's such a key mistake I think that people make is they think that there's this kind of arbitrary thing out there in the world.

John Sonmez:
Yeah.

Rian Doris:
[crosstalk 00:16:00] find that they love inherently rather than viewing it as a function of doing it, developing skill, developing a level of mastery around it, learning how to get into flow during it, and then having this kind of feedback loop being created where you get better at it, then you start to like it more, then you start to be able to get into flow with it, and this kind of thing tumbles, and then you grow to love it and then you grow to get into flow more consistently with it. Which just kind of turbo boosts the whole thing, creates this like aggressive sort of ability to progress effortlessly.

John Sonmez:
Yeah, no that makes a lot of sense. Because I've always wondered, I've always asked the question of why is it that if I'm going to work, if I'm doing something that I don't want to do, work, that's work, right? But if I'm playing a video game, that's fun, to my brain, right? To me it feels different, but to my brain it's the exact same signals.

Rian Doris:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

John Sonmez:
It's doing the same. It's working in either case, right? In fact it's probably working harder when it's playing a video game than it is-

Rian Doris:
Exactly. Yep.

John Sonmez:
It's having to process information and do that, so to the body it's exactly the same, but there's something else there. And I was thinking also about people like doing Sudoku puzzles, right? It's not really fun, right? I mean people find it fun, right? But all you're doing is you're just doing math puzzles. You know what I mean? I think it's because you get so sucked into it, right? Maybe you're kind of getting into that flow state, like everything else is kind of fading away. And so that's why, that's like…

John Sonmez:
I mean, when you think about like, again, like from just looking at it, doing something like Sudoku puzzles or crossword puzzles or logic puzzles or any kind of those things, that should be work. It should not be fun.

Rian Doris:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

John Sonmez:
But people enjoy it. Right? Whereas if they have to go to work and crunch numbers on an Excel spreadsheet, they don't like it, but essentially they're the same thing. One of them though, they must be, at least in some way, accessing that flow state. I would assume that's the difference. I don't know. What do you think about that?

Rian Doris:
I think for sure. Yeah, exactly. I think again, it's like just this key distinction between sort of activity and state, and what people want is the state.

John Sonmez:
Right.

Rian Doris:
They want to feel a certain way. They don't necessarily care whether or not they feel that way because of it being through a certain activity. It's just that certain activities have this almost like contextual wrapping around them where they're sort of labeled or plastered as fun or like this is leisure,.

John Sonmez:
Yeah.

Rian Doris:
… this is fun. And then, also by default, a lot of those things, games, obviously video games, sport are activities that are rich in flow triggers, so they are going to make people get into that state. Whereas work, firstly, doesn't have that kind of almost like cognitive framing around it, so people are already sort of coming in the gate without the presumption that they'll be able to get into the state of flow in work. And then also, I mean, the other challenge is that oftentimes for a lot of people, their work just does not have many flow triggers in it. And by the way, just to bring people up to speed, flow triggers are essentially pre-conditions that need to be in place for you to be able to get into flow.

John Sonmez:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Rian Doris:
And there's 21 triggers that have been identified in the research.

John Sonmez:
Oh Wow.

Rian Doris:
Yeah. And so, yeah, so when I say flow triggers, there are certain things that need to be in place within a given activity for it to kind of trigger a spark flow. And for a lot of people their work does not do that. But then for certain people, I think myself and you in many ways, someone like Sam Ovens, someone like Elon Musk, et cetera, et cetera, their work is also very rich in flow triggers, so they're able to get into it. But then when you learn what those triggers are, you can proactively, consciously, explicitly hook those into your work as well. There are ways to actually sort of manipulate your work and restructure your work to kind of artificially embed flow triggers in it, which is then again going to allow you to spark flow within your work. And again, you get the same feeling within work as you do within Sudoku or video games or surfing or skiing or whatever the case may be.

John Sonmez:
Okay. Okay. So, we can actually, definitely, like really do this and make it so as a programmer I could learn to structure these flow triggers so that I could actually get into this flow state like reliably without having to take myself to the edge of of death.

Rian Doris:
Yeah. Or without having to take pill ideally either.

John Sonmez:
Yeah, okay.

Rian Doris:
[crosstalk 00:20:42] absolutely. I mean that's what we do is we, again, flow is elusive thing that the way you get into it is also this kind of mysterious unknown thing, which most people aren't aware of. And by essentially kind of unveiling the curtain from that and deconstructing it all and saying, “No, actually…” Firstly this is what the state is from a neuro electrical standpoint and neurochemical standpoint and neuro biological standpoint and these are the 21 different ways that this state gets triggered. You can then again, deconstruct the whole thing and start taking steps to proactively build a life and a set of work processes that are going to orient you towards getting into that state with consistency.

John Sonmez:
Okay. Now I know we don't have time to discuss all 21 of the triggers here and obviously if people want to find out more, we'll have a link in the description here where they can find out some more stuff about flow and how to get into the flow state and specifically how to avoid one of the enemies of the flow state, which is friction. But maybe just toss out a couple of them. I'm just interested to… I'm sure some people would be curious that are watching to, what are some of the, just you know, a few of the flow triggers give us a taste.

Rian Doris:
Yeah, sure, sure. So, firstly there's a number of different categories of triggers at a high level. So you've got environmental triggers, these were developed by a guy called Keith Sawyer in his book Group Genius. And, excuse me, you've got group triggers which were developed by Keith Sawyer, and they are actually triggers that take place within a group of people or multiple people. And they can be extremely helpful to deploy within organizations, within meetings, and brainstorming sessions and things like that. You've got environmental triggers, which are a lot of what Steven talks about within Rise of Superman and they're obviously very relevant to things like action adventure sports. You've got psychological triggers, which are extremely helpful to be able to deploy within your workday as well, as are the environmental ones, they are crucial as well. There are creative triggers, there's a number of different categories of triggers. To give three quick specific examples of three that are pretty well known, and I would imagine people watching have come across one of these, but the three are the challenge skills balance, clear goals, and immediate feedback.

Rian Doris:
Just to break down challenge skills balance, I imagine there's some level of familiarity around it, it's been popularized by number of people. But essentially this is the idea that flow kind of sits at the sweet spot between boredom and anxiety.

John Sonmez:
Yeah.

Rian Doris:
So if the challenge level is too high for your skillset, you're going to get kicked up into anxiety. And if the challenge level is too low for your skill set, you're going to fall down into boredom. It's just going to be mundane and it's going to be a slog. And so what you want to do is you want to have the challenge level of the activity or the work that you're doing just about above your current skill levels. So you've got that kind of optimal level of challenge, and you're sort of being perfectly stimulated and you're kind of almost like riding that line between boredom and anxiety, perfect simulation engagement. And when you can do that, you can access flow more consistently.

Rian Doris:
We provide, again, very actionable, practical ways of being able to, we call it tune or manipulate the challenge skills balance so that you can ideally kind of have it be perfect and then spend as much time in flow as possible through doing that. And then, yeah, and then friction, I happened to mention a couple things about friction. So these are not sort of strictly things that you will hear about within the research, this is more kind of anecdotally gathered information. But yeah, I mean obvious blockers for flow are things like overwhelm, distraction, friction is a big one.

John Sonmez:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Rian Doris:
Doing this video that we're going to offer people as well like go into friction in detail and I think programmers in general and anyone who's sort of interested in optimization and productivity is whether they know it and are always trying to eliminate and minimize friction.

John Sonmez:
Yeah.

Rian Doris:
And so in that video, which people can watch, I believe in the description, I walkthrough four different ways that you can kind of extract friction out of your life, minimize friction with the goal being obviously to orient yourself towards flow as effectively as possible.

John Sonmez:
Okay, awesome. Yeah, I'm interested in checking out that video as well. So I will be checking that out. But guys, if you want to see how to eliminate the friction, definitely… I think we should have the link in the description. It'll probably be in the cards as well up here, but… So I've got another question for you and then we should probably wrap this up here. So how does this relate, I've got my Muse, my meditation thing here. How does this relate to meditation? It seems like there's a connection here between flow and meditation, but I don't know. What do you think?

Rian Doris:
Yeah, it's a good question. So there's number of answers. Firstly, we always say that as a general rule, and this is really helpful to remember and important to remember as well, is that flow follows focus.

John Sonmez:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Rian Doris:
So focus and flow are not actually the same thing.

John Sonmez:
Right.

Rian Doris:
But focus is a necessary precondition of flow. And you can almost think of it as like a meta trigger. You need focus as the first thing before any of the other triggers are even almost going to be able to do that thing. And meditation and mindfulness trains, broadly, the ability to focus, because that's what you're… You're literally, you're focusing on something, whether it be your breath, whether it be kind of your intersection and what's going on in your body, whether it be music with certain kinds of meditation. So it's going to contribute just generally to your ability to focus.

Rian Doris:
It's going to also give you an ability to kind of regulate your nervous system a little bit and then sort of bring down stress, which again, in terms of challenge skills balance is helpful in that it kind of brings that anxiety in a certain respect. But then in terms of the distinction between meditation and flow, meditation is a more passive state.

John Sonmez:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Rian Doris:
So in meditation you are not necessarily engaged in an activity beyond being aware of some kind of stimulus, whether again, whether it's breath or music or whatever it is, depending on the kind of meditation you're doing. Whereas flow is inherently an active and engaged state. You get into flow by doing something, again, video, gaming, working, whatever the case may be, it can technically be inactivity, but it is an active state by default. So that can be another helpful kind of distinction to bear in mind as a key difference between flow and meditation. But there again, there's a lot of similarities, especially in terms of things like the selflessness and the potential within meditation for timelessness and things like that. There is overlap between those states as well.

John Sonmez:
Okay. Yeah, that makes sense. I like that. So, I could use meditation as something that would help me develop the focus, which would make it, it's a prerequisite for flow anyway.

Rian Doris:
Yeah.

John Sonmez:
So developing that focus is good. Okay. All right. That makes sense. All right, well this is awesome. Yeah, thanks for spending the time and teaching us about flow. I'm super interested in it now. I really want to, I want to figure out how to do this. I feel like learning how to do this, especially for, I mean, I'm not programming as much any more myself, but man, as a programmer being able to tap into this, I feel like it would have been extremely valuable. But even just with the work I'm doing now, I certainly am able to tap into it from time to time, I know, but I don't have a way of making sure that I can. So definitely interested to find out more about this.

John Sonmez:
And guys, if you want to hear more about flow, definitely click the link in the description. We'll also have it in the card about how to eliminate friction and a, yeah. All right. Well, thanks a lot, man.

Rian Doris:
Super. Thanks, boss. That was just fun. Absolutely. And yeah, thanks for everyone for watching it. Yeah. As John mentioned, if you want to learn more, check out the video, you can go from there.

John Sonmez:
All right, awesome.

Rian Doris:
All right, brother. All the best.

John Sonmez:
Okay.

About the author

John Sonmez

John Sonmez is the founder of Simple Programmer and a life coach for software developers. He is the best selling author of the book "Soft Skills: The Software Developer's Life Manual."