S2 Episode 10: Getting Into the Flow

Can you train your brain to perform better, feel happier, focus more? Steven Kotler says you can. The bestselling author of The Art of the Impossible and Stealing Fire and founder of the Flow Research Collective, Kotler explains what’s behind “flow states” and how we can all learn to harness the power of biology to reach peak performance. Learn what’s going on in the brain when you’re firing on all cylinders, and how to reach emotional states that are “north of happy.”

Phil Stieg: Hello. Today I have with me Steven Kotler, author of nine bestsellers focusing on achieving ultimate performance.  He’s the executive director of the Flow Research Collective and leads research on the Flow Genome Project. He has studied Navy SEALs and world class performers, all in an effort to understand the neuroscience of flow or peak performance. Recently, in The Art of the Impossible, he has developed a stepwise formula to maximize performance. We all can use his wisdom and knowledge. Steven, thank you for being with us today.

Steven Kotler: It’s good to be with you.

Phil Stieg : So people understand what we’re all talking about. Can you define flow states? What is that?

Steven Kotler: Yeah, I’ll give you the technical definition and then I’ll break down a little further. We get take it from there. Flow is technically defined as an optimal state of consciousness. We feel our best and we perform our best. More specifically, it refers to any of those moments of rapt attention and total absorption get so focused on the task at hand that everything else just seems to disappear. That’s flow in a nutshell.

Phil Stieg: And do you equate then the flow state with being in a state of ultimate or high performance?

Steven Kotler: Well, flow is technically defined as an optimal state of performance. What that means is when evolution shaped human beings – actually most mammals because most mammals can get into flow – that was the state that was created for to enable peak performance to flow is a universal shows up in anyone, anywhere, provided certain conditions are met because it’s how we can all perform at our best.

Phil Stieg: And it’s both a mental and physical component. Right.

Steven Kotler: Yeah,  you get a significant boost in cognitive performance, which is a lot of the work that I focus on at the Flow Research Collective. That’s what we tend to study. But you also physically fast twitch muscle response increases, strength increases, our sensitivity to pain decreases, endurance goes up. A couple other things happen physically. So it does boost physical performance. But the bigger boost is cognitive. And that’s really where I focus on OK.

Phil Stieg: Is it a continuum? You know, there’s this or we’re all able to have a flow state. But then there’s this Ecstasis.

Steven Kotler: Ecstasis is just a — I mean, it’s a Greek word, like there’s not a catch-all term other than altered state of consciousness. We don’t have currently in the scientific literature a term for all the happy states, everything that’s north of happy. Right. This was a problem in positive psychology going back thirty years. We don’t study the north of happy experiences until very recently, psychology was about fixing what was broken, not about exploring opportunities.  There’s not language really around some of this stuff. So we went all the way back to the Greeks and stole Ecstasis, which is what they used to call these experiences.

Phil Stieg: So tell me then, what do you mean by, quote, “North of Happy”?

Steven Kotler: So there’s a whole bunch of altered state experiences, flow states, meditative states, trance states speaking in tongues, psychedelic states out of body experiences, etc., etc., etc., so-called mystical experiences that they all take place sort of north of happy.   Psychology itself evolved from Freud forward to fix what was broken. That was what Freud said psychology should do to take you from subpar back to normal.  Normal up to Superman nobody really looked at.   William James looked at it a couple hundred years ago, and then everybody stopped paying attention to it until really around the nineteen nineties. And then a whole bunch of went, “Hey, wait a minute, there’s this whole aspect of human experience we’ve been ignoring and maybe it’s important.”

Flow as you pointed out, is a spectrum experience. There’s a state of micro flow, right. Where a lot of the states kind of core characteristics show up. But they’re really quiet. Right. Like this is you’re writing an email at work and you get really sucked into what you’re doing and an hour goes by and you’ll look up and you’ve written an essay and maybe your sense of self didn’t disappear, but bodily awareness was gone.  When you pop back in conscious, you’re like, oh, crap, I got to go to the bathroom. That happens to all of us. That’s micro flow.  

Other end of the spectrum macro flow. This is often mistaken for a full blown, quasi mystical experience for a very long time .  So besides the spectrum of flow comes into varieties, there’s individual flow and group flow.  Now group flow could take place at scale.  Me and you talking to friends who get lost in conversation. Afternoon goes by.  And then there’s group flow at scale : “communitas”. Communitas is what you get at a rock concert when everybody merges with the band or a political rally. 

So how Flow works without going into too much science – flow follows focus.  It shows up on all of our attention is focused in the right here right now.  What we now know about flow is flow states have triggers – preconditions that lead to more flow. Right. You want more flow in your life? These triggers are your toolkit. Now, there are twenty-two of them. There are twelve that we’ve discovered so far on the individual side and there are ten so-called group flow triggers.  And so if you want more group flow or you want more flow, these triggers are how you get it. And they all do the same thing. As I said, they drive attention into the present moment.

Phil Stieg: If a person really wants to get their arms around this, Go to The Art of the Impossible. Is that where you go into more detail on that?

Steven Kotler: I’ve written seven books on Flow, The Art Impossible, the most recent, and it does give you the most how to detail if you’re looking for the thickest book on flow. I would read “The Rise of Superman”, but the how-to stuff – that’s the art of impossible. 

Phil Stieg: So the good news is that you think that everybody is hardwired for peak performance. Why is that?

Steven Kotler: You have to understand that peak performance is nothing more less than getting our biology to work for us rather than against us. That’s really anything you mean by performance.  Biology, while there’s a bunch of stuff going on, it turns out there’s a limited set of stuff you’re dealing with. There’s a there’s a category of skills you could file under the heading of motivation. There’s this category of skills that you file under the heading of learning skills.  There’s another category of you file under creativity.  And finally there’s flow. And the way I think about this is in peak performance; motivation is what gets you into the game. Learning is what allows you to continue to play. Creativity is how you steer, and Flow is how you amplify all the results. Our biology is designed to work in a certain way, in a certain order.  And if we can figure out how it’s designed to work and use it in that way, we just get farther, faster with a lot less fuss. Pardon the alliteration.

Phil Stieg: (laugh) I like to think that I’ve had a few flow states in my life. One was a tennis match about thirty years ago, but certainly in doing neurosurgery.  But I can’t help thinking that, you know, even within flow, there must be levels of flow.  You know? 

Steven Kotler; When psychologists define flow, you know, this they use six core characteristics. Right. How do we call a state flow?  Well, there was complete concentration on the task at hand, the merger of action awareness, time-dilatated, self-diminished, while we don’t measure the skill is going through the roof. Well, they do measure is did you feel a sense of control over the uncontrollable right?  That’s the performance benefits like translate into something we’ve experienced. And finally, the experience are, quote unquote, auto telic, which is a fancy way of saying an end in itself. Right. It means flow states are ecstatic. They’re euphoric. They’re probably the most addictive experience on Earth. And we love them. That’s what that means. So when all six of those characteristics show up, we call the experience flow. But as you pointed out, sometimes they show up and they’re dialed up to like one or two on the spectrum.  

Phil Stieg: Does everybody know when they’re in the flow?

Steven Kotler; I don’t think so at all.

Phil Stieg: No? 

Steven Kotler: So I could tell you that what’s really common is you always recognize macro flow.  Macro flows is the other end of the spectrum, right, is that you talked about that tennis match you had 30 years ago. We never forget the macro flow states right?  They’re burned into our memory. There’s research that shows that we spend five percent of our work life and micro flow, usually without noticing it. So at the Flow Research Collective we teach people  “How do I how do you identify this state”?  Psychologists say these six things show up, you’re in flow, right? When they’re dialed down to one micro-flow. Dialed up to 11 — macro flow. But one of the easiest ways to go from A to B is figure out when are you in a micro flow.  And it’s really hard to get from micro flow always into macro flow, but you can deepen and lengthen a flow state.

Phil Stieg: So let’s do a “101 primer” on the neuroscience of  flow. What’s  going on is that the frontal lobes really taking over.  Can you describe it succinctly and briefly and easily,

Steven Kotler: So why does time pass so strangely in flow? Why does your sense of self disappear?  Its time is essentially a network function. It’s calculated by a bunch of different parts of the prefrontal cortex working together. As we move into flow, there’s an efficiency exchange.  “Oh  ,” the brain says “you need all this extra energy to pay attention to the present moment, so let’s deactivate non-critical structures”, the prefrontal cortex, parts of it get shut down.  There’s not one deactivations signature is going to be same for me, for you, for everybody. It depends on who you are as a person and sort of what you’re doing and some other things, it seems like.   ..But so you get this deactivation of the prefrontal cortex, and concurrently you see four or five of the most pleasurable reward, chemicals the brain can produce seem to get dumped into our system, there’s dopamine in an adamiya, endorphins, it seems to be serotonin at the back end. There’s also a little norepinephrine on the front end. Group flow, of course, also includes oxytocin and some of the prosocial chemicals. The work I’ve been really involved in over the past two or three years is really a bit about the neural dynamics of flow. So what’s going on at a network level when the brain’s in macro flow? And that’s really sort of the cutting edge. I haven’t published, so I’m not going to talk much about it other than to say it’s coming. But we think we’re starting to get a handle on that, too.

Phil Stieg; I was really fascinated by it in the beginning of your stealing fire, you start with a story about, you know, working with the Navy SEALs.  The idea of getting 20 some people working in sync to me seemed impossible as I try to control my neurosurgeon’s in my practice, you know…(laugh)  So, what kind of training is going on to make that happen?

Steven Kotler: So. You know, the answer again goes back to –the group flow triggers. Because if you look at the group flow triggers, some of them are things you can do in a sit in the situation.  Right?  Like risk produces dopamine. So dopamine drives focus. That’s a flow trigger, right?  That’s really easy to sort of understand. When you build a high flow team, you need everybody to be at roughly equal skill level. Right? You know, the surgical team, you don’t want a nurse who doesn’t know what the hell they’re doing working with a bunch of top surgeons because they’re going to slow everybody down, keep everybody out of flow. So what really happens in flow that really enables group coordination so well is pattern recognition, meaning you’ve sort of memorized everybody’s tics and tendencies and you know what they’re going to do. When you work on a surgical team, you don’t just want to know that everybody’s good.  You want to know how everybody performs when somebody is dying on the table. Right. Because it’s a totally different world when things are bloody and messy and hard.  Seals want to know the same thing. You’ve got to know what is everybody going to do and what is it you’re going to do when the shit hits the fan? Right. Like that’s how you do it.  And you can see if the team’s in sync. Right, because of the teams in sync and the SEALs operate in very sort of not hierarchical flat ways, but it’s dynamic. They all know what you’re doing. You can see it. And when they’re not in sync, somebody get shot, And in the SEALs, that’s how you wash out, right? We can’t train you in this stuff, but we certainly can kick you out if you can’t do it.

Phil Stieg: The other thing that I found fascinating is I don’t know whether you made the comment, or you were   quoting somebody, but you someone had said that they didn’t know a billionaire that hadn’t tried hallucinogens for the Ectasis component.  And I’m interested in your viewpoint on neuro psychopharmacology. How do we get society to say, OK, some of these drugs have bad reputations, but they might be useful in medical scenarios?

Steven Kotler: So my personal feelings about psychedelics? We don’t do that work at the Flow Research Collective. But, for everything from PTSD, through addiction, through cancer, like from a therapeutic perspective, the research is amazing!  We did a really interesting study with Imperial College in London with Robyn Gardner Harris’s lab, who’s done most of the imaging work on psychedelics. And we were working with a guy named Mendel Kaleem and we wanted to know, what’s the overlap between flow states and psychedelic states?  What’s useful for what and that sort of thing? And overwhelmingly, unless you really are interested in trying to have so-called spiritual experiences or you want to experience synesthesia, from a performance, problem solving, creative, we could not find a reason.  The data seems to say that flow is better, though I have showed the same data to huge psychedelic advocates and they’ve said the exact opposite thing of me.  So I think it may depend on where you come from, but, you know useful. I’m glad the work is being done. I’m glad I don’t have to do it. I can’t stand psychedelic culture it == makes me frickin crazy. And I really don’t want to hear about your LSD experience with Norse gods…  

Phil Stieg; Tell me how you really feel…

Steven Kotler: Seriously! You want to do drugs, have a little vacation. Cool. But please don’t gussie it up and tell me about your spiritual experience of like people have been getting drunk and getting fucked up for a very, very long time. And I think there’s a performance benefit to shutting it down, to shaking the snow globe. But that’s sort of where it stops for me.

Phil Stieg: Where does the average American, go to find out about how they can achieve flow states?

Steven Kotler: Well flow. I mean, everybody is hard wired for flow.  

Phil Stieg: But you got to be taught, you got to be taught. Right? To a degree.

Steven Kotler: You can go to Steven Kolter dot com or flow research collective dot com. There’s umpteen number of free videos on both. On both places. I’ve got hundreds of articles about this stuff that are out there. I’ve done a fifty thousand podcasts at this point. So there’s a bunch of free stuff. If you really want to know “Art of the Impossible”, the new book is really  it’s I mean, it’s the first time I have done anything close to a how to play, you know, peak performance primer.

Phil Stieg: So give us the how to.

Steven Kotler: The first thing you have to say is if you’ve got too much anxiety in your system, too much norepinephrine, it’s going to block flow for a bunch of different reasons. So we’d like to start with positive psychology says, look, if you’re if you’re running hot, if you’re too anxious, there are three things that work better than anything for calming you down, either a daily gratitude practice, a daily meditation, mindfulness, breath, work, respiration, practice or exercise.  And it’s a gradual practice, takes about five minutes. The research shows eleven to twenty minutes of mindfulness will calm you down or about 20 to 40 minutes of exercise, basically until it gets quiet upstairs. Right. So that’s sort of gets you into the game. There’s also energy requirements. Flow is going to require high energy state, so and if you want more flow in your life, seven, eight hours of sleep, a night, hydration, nutrition and robust social support networks.  Y  you don’t need to know a lot of people, but you’ve got like you’ve got to maintain social ties because that affects energy levels.  So that’s sort of the basics, right?  I said earlier that they’re preconditions that lead to more flow. The first is the most obvious – flow follows focus. So to state a complete concentration. So what does the research show? If you want to maximize flow, try to start your day or start your work session with 90 to 100 minutes of uninterrupted concentration, just like we have a 90 minute REM cycle, we have a 90 minute waking focused cycle. Now you’ve got 90 minutes for uninterrupted concentration. You’re devoting this to the most important task of the day. How do you attack the task? 

Second flow trigger comes in play here what’s often called the golden rule of flow.   We pay the most attention to the task at hand when the challenge of the tasks slightly exceeds our skill set. You want to stretch but not snap or physiologically. This is the work stops and curve. Right, but. So whatever you’re doing in that 90 minutes of uninterrupted contrition, you want to push on your skills to the utmost. You  want to move yourself past the point of where we want to be a little bit uncomfortable, like you’re a little outside your comfort zone.  You’re pushing sort of that hard. That’s going to maximize the most focus. And by the way, here’s the thing Phil, that is is really difficult about flow work. Everything I’m talking about is simple, obviously.  I like to tell people that nothing I teach people about flow. I can make flow massively reliable and repeatable, but nothing I teach you about flow is going to get you laid when you talk about in a bar Friday night like it’s not sexy.  It’s just how the biology works. 

Phil Stieg: It’s simple, but it’s not because I mean, the one thing you haven’t talked about is the discipline of flow After the Super Bowl, they went into Tom Brady’s routine and I looked at his daily lifestyle and I went  “Crap!  That sounds pretty stinking boring to me!”  But, you know, he likes it. And I don’t think people realize or appreciate the discipline that it takes to be in these states.

Steven Kotler: If you want to maximize flow, maximize peak performance in general, there’s a bunch of things you have to do that are onboarding processes. You need all of your intrinsic motivators point in the same direction. You need three tiers of goal setting. There’s a whole bunch of onboarding stuff, right, blah, blah, blah. But once you get down to if you go if you read the “Art of the Impossible”, it’s about six things to do every day, seven things to do every week.  And some of the things you do every day are like 90 minutes for uninterrupted concentration. So you’re going to get to do whatever the hell you want in that 90 minutes. But, some of them are five minutes long, a five minute gratitude practice or an 11 minute breath work, because you have to keep your nervous system fairly calm, et cetera, et cetera, get seven, eight hours of sleep a night. It’s not a ton.  It’s doable. But you are absolutely right, because the thing about flow and the thing about peak performance that I always like to tell people is it works like compound interest; it’s a little bit today, a little bit tomorrow, a little bit the next day I think it’s getting really exponential months, months, years, years. Right. That’s when things get amazingly interesting. While flow is the best we get to feel on the planet, what motivates us the most? Our favorite high is mastery. People love mastery more than anything, right? That Stewart Brand once said the only reliable source of happiness is the satisfaction of a job well done. And the research seriously backs that statement up right over and over and over again. So mastery, especially if it’s underpinned by flow experiences, that’s the best high available.  Is the routine there? Yes.  Is the high so much better? Yeah, that’s true too.

Phil Stieg: So a person who lives a flow centered life, is it a combination of kind of the lows of preparation in the highs of mastery, or is there sort of a mid-range for the day?

Steven Kotler: So it’s that’s an interesting… God,  you’re asking a really complicated question.

Phil Stieg: But I know you can make it simple.  (laugh)

Steven Kotler: Yeah, I’m going to try I’m going to try a couple of things that are worth pointing out. Positive psychology that identify three levels of happiness that are available to almost everybody. The first level is happiness. It’s like that hedonic. Where are you right now? How do you feel right here, right now? Right. And what we know because of emotional set points, nature, nurture, stuff like.  You can get, as Dan Harris pointed out, 10 percent happier, but that’s about the best you’re going to do. The next level up is what they call engagement or enjoyment. This is literally   lifestyle. You could be a coder. You could be a neurosurgeon;  you could be a gardener. Like whatever it is, it gives you a lot of flow, that’s a high flow lifestyle.  The best we get to feel is what we call meaning or purpose. It’s a high flow lifestyle were the thing that produces the most flow is also tied to something greater than yourself. So if you’re saving somebody’s life as a neurosurgeon. Right. And that’s producing a flow, that’s the best we get to feel on the planet, it appears. 

So those are the three tiers that that much we know for sure. What’s interesting is when you have a high flow lifestyle, you’re not always happy. That’s what’s tricky. This is why question is difficult, because you’re pushing your skills to the utmost all the time. I am a huge skier and I’m a huge writer. And these both things produce tremendous amounts of flow for me. But when I’m really in flow and I’m skiing like you catch me while during the run I’m in flow and I’m happy as hell. You talk to me on the chairlift, my muscles are aching.  I’m like, oh my God, I got a frickin die. I want to go home. And then I ski again and I’m like I’m back in flow and all of this is amazing. Writing’s often the same thing. Like I’m in flow in the middle of paragraph and it’s amazing. And then I sort of pop back into my body.  I’m like, oh my God, it’s 4:00 in the morning. I’m exhausted. And I got such a crazy long day. And then I drop back and the flow is wonderful again. So you don’t have more happiness because you’re really pushing hard, but it is far more rewarding.  How’s that for quick? I did was three minutes by the way.

Phil Stieg: You timed it! (laugh)  But what’s also interesting is you say that you want to push yourselves so that you’re always a little bit on the edge, which in my mind is a code word for creating anxiety. Anxiety creates uncertainty.

Steven Kotler: A little bit, right?  You’re walking this really thin high wire with norepinephrine. You want it to stay in the curiosity excitement category. Right. But if it pushes up a little bit, you’ve got anxiety. Right. Same thing with dopamine. Right. You get a lot of dopamine in flow. You want to keep it in that sweet spot because you push it up too much. You start getting mania and schizophrenia. 

Phil Stieg: Right. So that’s where I was I was going with the question is a little bit too hard. And then then you get into the “what’s my way to control this anxiety”.

Steven Kotler: That’s the problem with progress also – like with skiing. You know this season I’ve had a great season. I’m making lots of progress. But that also means that every goddamn time I go back to the Hill, I’m a little more scared because I know what I did last time and now I got to beat it this time.  And OK I’ve managed to stay out of the hospital so far – But.  Yeah, there’s that. That’s true. I think you learn to live with that and you learn to like that.

Phil Stieg: So you’re a stress junkie? 

Steven Kotler: Well, stress is not a bad thing.  There’s you stress and distress. Right. And, you know, I like positive stress seems to be one of the secrets to longevity. Negative stress will kill you by Tuesday!

Phil Stieg: (laugh)  Steven Kotler, it’s been an absolute delight having you on the show and I recommend to everybody to pick up his books, Stealing Fire and the Art of the Impossible.  It will help you understand how through health it healthy living, you can actually achieve flow states. Thanks so much for being with us. 

Steven Kotler: Thanks for having me.