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How to Get Back Into Flow

We are servants to flow.

There are moments when our work is effortless yet masterful. We’re not creating it so much as we’re guiding it on a journey whose destination was determined long before our involvement.

This is flow, a state of being granted at the discretion of the Muse.

As with any longstanding, steady-state system, there is an equal opposing force to the Muse, known as the Resistance.

“There is an enemy. There is an intelligent, active, malign force working against us. Step one is to recognize this. This recognition alone is enormously powerful.”

~ Steven Pressfield

Creatives embrace the balance of these forces as foundational to their existence.

“Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good writing day, and on the good writing days nothing else matters.”

~ Neil Gaiman

Flow is not a red-roped reward for those in the pursuit of creativity.

Flow is far more elemental. A reward is the wrong way to view flow.

Instead, think of flow as the highest form of practice.

Flow is a practice which creates the conditions for inspiration.

Whether you’re selling insurance, writing a book, teaching children, consulting a client, painting houses, or speaking in front of an audience in public, the Muse and Resistance battle within you.

One to distract and disturb. The other is to still and focus. Yin-yang.

I know this to be true. I’ve held all these jobs. I’ve been in and out of flow at each.

What is Flow?

If you’ve never heard the term “Flow,” then you’ve certainly heard a musician or professional athlete describe “being in the zone” or “being unconscious” while performing at an incredibly high level.

My experiences, first in sports as a youth and then as a writer and professional speaker in adulthood, were the impetus for my journey into peak performance.

Technically, flow is defined as a peak state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.

Biologically, while most assume flow equates to periods of higher-level of brain function, according to Arne Dietrich, flow is associated with decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex is an area of the brain responsible for higher cognitive functions such as self-reflective consciousness, memory, temporal integration, and working memory.

Essentially, in flow, the rational parts of your brain shut off to provide room for the creative parts of your brain to operate freely.

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, there are 8 characteristics of flow:

  1. Complete concentration on the task;
  2. Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback;
  3. Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down);
  4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding;
  5. Effortlessness and ease;
  6. There is a balance between challenge and skills;
  7. Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination;
  8. There is a feeling of control over the task.

When in flow, you are your most productive, creative, and happy.

This is why high performers (whether consciously or not) seek to maximize their time in flow.

Getting in Flow is Hard

Regardless of your profession, the work is mentally effortless when in flow.

As Wikipedia describes, “flow is characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.”

In a 10-year McKinsey study, top executives reported being five times more productive in flow. This means spending Monday in flow equates to a week’s work for your steady-state peers.

How often do you find yourself completely absorbed by a task?

Not often (or at least not often enough).

Most of us spend less than five percent of our work life in flow.

This makes our ability to get into flow more consistently an undeniable competitive advantage.

I can attest to this from my own experience writing this article. It’s taken me three times longer than normal to complete. Why?

I recently bought and have been renovating a new home. I’m completely out of my routine and habits. It’s been months of constant distractions from contractors to cable guys. Not to mention, I can’t find anything because all our stuff is still in random boxes throughout the house.

Flow feels so far away…or that was the case till I slowed down and remembered how to get back into flow.

3 Steps to Get Back into Flow

While habits and routines are certainly a big part of flow, according to Steven Kotler, entrepreneur and author of The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, there are as many as 17 different flow triggers.

The Rise of Superman is a tremendous book; unfortunately, many of the flow triggers it outlines are either science-y or take work, which means most of you reading this will give them a shot.

NOTE: if you want to go even further down the rabbit hole with Kotler, check out the Flow Genome Project, where Kotler is the head of research.

So I’d like to offer you a simple, albeit nonscience-backed method for getting into flow based on stoicism.

While my understanding of Stoic philosophy is rudimentary, in my examinations of the work of Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Ryan Holiday, it has become clear that at least part of their work was to establish a more consistent flow state.

The following three steps outline a process I’ve developed to regain flow as quickly as possible (like when trying to get work done during a move) without all the time-tested science-backed methodology.

Step One — Be Present

The inconsequential melts in flow, leaving only the essential to draw our focus.

“An artist is present. And from this stillness comes brilliance.”

~ Ryan Holiday

Who are you to allow the trivialities of life to outweigh the valuable work the Muse demands of you? The trivial and inconsequential flood our minds with data points meant to paralyze our connection to flow.

It is Marcus Aurelius, in Meditations, who says, “Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’”

It’s cliche at this point, but how many times a day are you checking social media? Text messages? Email? I don’t care what type of work you do, no one, for any reason, needs to check these focus thieves as many times as the average smartphone user does.

Stress, anxiety, fear, etc. trigger this action. You may not be able to quiet your mind completely, but be aware of the distractions and return to the present as quickly as possible.

Also worth mentioning, forgive yourself for being distracted. You’re not “bad” or “wrong” or “a loser” for getting distracted. Just get back to the present as quickly as you can. Meditation or heavy exercise can help if you’re really struggling.

You can tap into flow only by being present and experiencing the stillness that accompanies it.

Step Two — Conform to Nature

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is this the work I’m supposed to do?
  • Am I doing this work for the right reason?
  • Does the work conform to nature?

“…if you shall seem to some to be a person of importance, distrust yourself. For you should know that it is not easy both to keep you will in a condition conformable to nature and external things: but if a man is careful about the one, it is an absolute necessity that he will neglect the other.”

~ Epictetus

The founder of Stoicism, Zeno, broadly defined nature as “the way things work,” and wisdom as acting in accordance with natural laws.

Think of “conformity to nature,” as Epictetus puts it as alignment or harmony between the physical world and your soul.

There is no force more adept at pushing us out of alignment with nature than the pursuit of things. The pursuit of money, fame, bling…things…is a toxic disruption to flow.

“Confidence is the freedom to set your own standards and unshackle yourself from the need to prove yourself.”

~Ryan Holiday

Focus on how you conform to nature.

What is it you were meant to do?

Start doing more of that.

Step Three — Do the Work

Regardless of whether you are present or conforming to nature, the work must still be done.

“Work done for a reward is much lower than work done in the Yoga of wisdom. Set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward. Work not for the reward; but never cease to do thy work.”

~The Bhagavad Gita

Do the work.

Even if you never achieve flow, do the work.

The Muse will never put you into flow while sitting on the sidelines, bemoaning your lack of focus, indecision, or general place in the world.

In fact, if you want to hack flow, skip the first two steps and get to work. Focus on one task at a time and do the work. You’ll be amazed at how easily you find yourself in flow.

READ NEXT: The Uncomfortable Part of Leadership

The Rub

You cannot will yourself into flow.

You must prioritize flow in order to wrestle with big questions, tackle big ideas, and stretch your understanding.

You must work at it.

Prepare yourself for the inevitable resistance your mind and body will experience from exposure to hard work. Then persist.

While this article took me three times longer to write than normal, I finally sat still, focused on the task, and pushed through to the finish, completing 80 percent of the article in the final 20 percent of the time.

…with the help of a little hard-earned flow.

How do you find flow?

This is the way.


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