Hack Your Flow State Pt. 1 - How to Tap Into the Natural Form of Cocaine

Saying that someone is in “the zone” is such a common phrase that I had completely discredited its meaning. I was under the impression it was just that, a saying.  

At best a way to describe someone who was lucky enough to be on a roll or having a really good game.  It turns out that “the zone” is actually a literal definition of an alternate state of heightened performance. There has been years of research dedicated to explaining the science behind the state, eventually connecting it to almost all major athletic achievements in history. Only recently has someone been able to lay out a detailed road map to how the average person or group of people can get there.

The majority of this research was originally done by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced: me-HIGH chick-sent-me-HIGH-ee) who has spent more than 20 years on the topic and is actually responsible for coining the term “flow”. More recently Stephen Kotler and Jamie Wheal have been trying to open source the ingredients to a flow state and make it “hackable” for anyone. Between their flow genome project, which is a full blown lab trying to bring this state to anyone, and Kotler’s book  The Rise of Superman they are playing a huge part in popularizing the term

Any extreme action sport athlete would tell you their peers have been leveraging the state to make the impossible a reality over and over again for years. In turn, exponentially progressing sports in all different fields. For example, in a few short seasons the best trick in dirt biking freestyle has gone from a superman seat grab, to a back flip, to superman back flips, to double back flips.

After profiling 75 of these extreme athletes Kotler noted that it wasn’t necessarily the next best trick or the next record that these athletes were pushing for, it was flow. A state so powerful that some described it as the meaning of life itself. It’s a place where in many cases time slows down, the idea of self vanishes and the most intense sense of awareness and alertness anyone thought possible emerges.

Flow – 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.

It’s said that everyone has experienced flow at some point in their life. For me it wasn’t until Kotler described the steps of getting into this state when my own personal experiences started to stand out.

4 Stages of a Flow State

Two things I found interesting:

1. Cortisol “the stress hormone” being released into your bloodstream is part of the first step. This hormone is present in those famous fight or flight situations and also provides positive side effects such as increased pain tolerance, heightened memory function and quick bursts of energy.

2. Your brain activity actually slows down in this state. Similar to meditator’s who can reach flow through hours in their practice (depending on experience) adventure athletes can reach this state in minutes, sometimes seconds, because of one of the most powerful flow triggers; risk.

For context, what is actually slowing down is activity in the prefrontal cortex region of the brain..  removing your ability to conceptualize self and time, leaving you entirely in the present.

Kotler actually highlights 17 triggers of flow. You can find them all in this slide deck but I think there’s 5 important ones that helped me hack into the zone in a relatively short period of time.

1. Risk  

2. Challenge/Skill Ratio

3. Intensely Focused Attention

4. Deep Embodiment

5. Clear Goals

Most adventure athletes have the luxury of being able to jump from a plane or a cliff or get behind a race car to find their zone almost immediately. Although the Rocky Mountains weren’t far away I remembered what it felt like the few momentary times I had been in a flow state and decided to go after a more immediate solution. My path to flow was going to have to be physical exertion, luckily I had the perfect vehicle… the Jacobs ladder.

This unsuspecting beast is completely self propelled and in my opinion would be the fastest way anyone could ever shed 15 pounds if that was the goal. 5 minutes on this guy feels like half an hour on the treadmill. Similar to the now popular assault bike or assault air runner.

I had recently gotten to 30 minutes with the goal being to stay at 100 steps a minutes. At the time that felt like Everest (2 weeks ago) but after reading the book I decided I wanted to see how long it would take to get to flow. I knew there was a less intense version of the state where risk wasn’t really involved, more commonly known as runners high. Once you’re there you could seemingly run forever, probably not the same feeling as ski-base but this would have to do for now. My goal was 6000 steps in 60 minutes, figuring it would take me about 30 minutes to get to flow and hopefully that state would carry me through the last 30.

I prepared like I was in the NHL and this was the playoffs. Got a good sleep the night before, drank a ton of water that day and had a pretty big pasta dinner a few hours before I headed to the gym. I was actually nervous on the way there. The same feeling I remembered from driving to the golf course the morning of a high school tournament or on the way to an important meeting.

One thing highlighted in the book was that struggle was an important and necessary step to flow which I correlated to warming up. In hockey or golf I always thought warm-ups were kind of pointless but it’s clear now that the main goal is to try and get that cortisol flowing and get you closer to the optimal state as soon as possible. If you wait until the game gets started you might not actually get into it until the second or third period.

With that in mind I ran for about 10 minutes before hand, threw on one of the only albums I knew I wouldn’t mind listening the whole way through, Nothing Was the Same, and started climbing.

First 30 Minutes – If you haven’t tried this ladder I’d recommend it, it really is surprisingly hard. I’ve used it enough times to logically figure out that keeping the rhythm is one of the biggest hurdles. There is a strap that goes around your waist which adds tension to the machine. The more tension = the faster you have to climb. It becomes a problem if you’re jerking on the strap because the pace will be choppy and the whole process becomes a battle. At first I tried to not even look up at the time or pace just focusing on keeping the ladder flowing smooth with a short term goal of getting through the first 5 songs on the album. I figured by keeping this smooth rotation I was actually expending about half the energy I normally would, meaning I would hopefully be able to get to 40 minutes without too much trouble.

29:00 – Have you ever been running and your music just gets annoying or uncomfortably loud? Or you can’t catch your breath because you’re just getting completely flustered? I was so focused on the time that I had a mini panic attack here. I thought I should be able to calm my thoughts down by now to start getting into flow but I was far from it. I pulled out my headphones and decided to do the rest without music.

39:00: I’m starting to get some weird thoughts going on in my head. I remember running 20 km once and part way through thinking each of my feet had a collective team of little people making sure the muscles in my feet were working properly. In this case I pictured the ladder extending into the sky and not being able to see the end of it. I was trying to stop focusing so much on the time but I was obsessed with it, it was right in front of me..I couldn’t not look.

45:00: I’m staring at the rungs coming out from the top of the machine and all I can think of is the wheels from the train scene’s from those fly over Canada movies

Ridiculous I know, but at least it helped with tempo.

55:00:  Still no flow. I can’t escape the idea of time and it’s starting to drive me crazy. The last five minutes were a battle.

I finished at the same pace I started (just over 2100 steps in the first 20 minutes these were the last 40) with an intense feeling of confidence but not necessarily flow. At this point I was like oh well I did it and that’s all I was really thinking about. Starting to walk around after I realized I wasn’t really that tired. I was drenched in sweat but my legs worked fine, unlike the time I got to 30 minutes and collapsed on the ground after. It became apparent that because time was no longer a factor I was able to quickly pass through the release stage and into flow. It’s unmistakable. Literally an invincible feeling which is amazing. The thing that blew me away was walking back over to the weight room I looked in the mirror and to me I looked completely different. I usually carry deep wrinkles in my brow from frowning or squinting, they were no where to be seen. That was the first time I had realized that stress was in large part carried in my face and at that point it was completely gone. The only thing I was concerned about was how long it would last for and whether or not I would remember what it felt like.

When I got home I was trying to find interviews with athletes immediately after they had completed something remarkable, positive I would be able to physically see the difference in their appearance. It was harder than I thought to find an example but look at the pictures of Michael Phelps below and see if just by his face you can see what I mean.

I could be crazy but to me it’s obvious. He tends to carry “weight” above his eyes, not necessarily stress but in the second last image you can tell how alert he is. That’s immediately after winning the 200 m backstroke and setting the fastest time in the world for that year. Watch the whole interview here.

Three major things I learnt from this taste of “the zone”:

1. Don’t force it.  –  The analogies that make sense to me here are the first time you realize that letting your stick flex and release makes your shot infinitely harder or cocking and releasing your hands in golf gives the same effect. If you just settle into your feet and relax you will be in better control of your movement.

2. The present is the most powerful. – By focusing intensely on the task at hand you are literally taking energy you would have spent letting your mind wander or considering time or feel anything else and using it to increase performance/productivity.

You are quite literally removing the idea of self. This is why some athletes recant their stories as feeling one with their vehicle, or the mountain, or the wave.

3. Deep Embodiment –  This is an extension of the second point but to quote Kotler “Don’t let the gravity of the goal pull you out of the now”. Read that again.

I can easily see why that feeling is so addictive. The dopamine released in flow is literally natural cocaine. In the book Kotler also talks a lot about the dark side of flow. He explains how if people aren’t careful, continuing to push the limits of their ability in search of the next rush has a good chance of causing injury or death. That being said you don’t need to strap on a wing suit and jump off a mountain, it’s just a matter of getting out of your comfort zone and pushing yourself to do something that feels like a risk to you. That could be as simple as approaching a stranger or public speaking.

Lastly I think an important point he makes is that when trying to improve your abilities or searching for this high, 4% beyond your limit is the optimal number. Training at this level of flow could improve your skill acquisition rate by 200%, it did for new military snipers anyway.