Find Your Flow State to Access Peak Performance

As elusive as the flow state might seem, there are defined avenues to help you get there.

The flow state. Some people think it’s a myth, an urban legend, a rumor that top athletes and performers spread to throw others off of their trail. But for those that have experienced this phenomenon, it is something that is all too real, all too powerful, and all too game-changing.

The flow state. Some people think it’s a myth, an urban legend, a rumor that top athletes and performers spread to throw others off of their trail. But for those that have experienced this phenomenon, it is something that is all too real, all too powerful, and all too game-changing.

You could think of the flow state as a naturally occurring drug that makes you faster, stronger, smarter, and increases your reflexes and acumen. This mental state is scientifically documented, and achievable by anyone who puts their mind to it. But it takes work. Hard work. It takes dedication, sometimes years of it. And it takes “pushing the limits” to an entirely new level.

The Scientific Phenomenon of Flow

Steven Kotler defines flow as “the term used by researchers for optimal states of consciousness, those peak moments of total absorption where self vanishes, time flies, and all aspects of performance go through the roof.” Flow is a scientific phenomenon in which the brain operates at a higher level in all aspects.

Whether during a physical or mental task, flow is accessible to anyone and everyone. The feeling is almost indescribable, and because there has been very little awareness spread about this phenomenon, many people may have experienced flow without even realizing it.

The effects of the flow state may vary slightly from person to person, and from task to task. If a physical task is being undertaken, then the flow state may seem as if the mind and body are truly connected. Many runners who have experienced the “runner’s high” were actually experiencing flow. But if a mental task is being undertaken, such as computer work or writing, the flow state may feel as if the mind is connected to the screen or the paper. The body becomes nothing more than background noise and the mind takes over everything else.

How can you activate the flow state? The answer is complex because everyone will enter their own flow state in a unique way. However, by utilizing the following three methods, you can force your body and mind into overdrive, and accomplish feats you could never have imagined. But these methods require that you are physically and mentally challenged with complexities and hardships first.

Flow From External Circumstances

Counterintuitive though it may seem, the flow state can actually be forced upon you. Take for example my experience in the Naval Special Warfare Preparatory School. Physical training exercises were a near-everyday occurrence, and I actually began to feel comfortable giving it all I had in whatever test of endurance was on schedule for the day. I knew what to expect and what was expected of me, so it was simple for my mind to shut off and let my body do the work. These are not optimal conditions for flow, but they did work.

Then one day I badly injured both of my knees during a workout on the beach. Suddenly, I was thrust into a state of complexity, where routine physical training was no longer routine. It was a strange and challenging world for me. I could no longer perform in the way I had become accustomed. During rehabilitation, I spiraled into a deep and dark depression. As self-pity took over my mind, I began self-medicating with alcohol, isolating myself from friends and co-workers. I thought that I would never again reach that peak of performance that I had worked so hard to attain. I had officially hit rock bottom.

But it was in that instant, at that rock bottom, that the flow state was triggered. It was literally forced upon me, and I needed to make a choice: I could either be the cause or the effect in my life. I chose to be the cause of everything that happens in my life, take the lessons learned from it, and create the actions to achieve my desired outcome. As I drug myself out of that hole, I began to experience flow in my rehabilitation sessions. Flow allowed me to rehabilitate faster and more aggressively than I had thought possible. Soon, I was back on my feet, in both a literal and figurative sense.

I owe the rest of my life to finding that state of flow, as my Twelve Labors Project was born from that state. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the leading researchers of the flow state:

“When a challenge is bigger than one’s level of skill, one becomes anxious and stressed. On the other hand, when the level of skill exceeds the size of the challenge, one becomes bored and distracted. Since the experience of this [flow] state is just in the middle, the balance is essential.”

In my experience above, the routine physical events were the equivalent of my skills exceeding the challenge. My rehabilitation was equivalent to the challenge exceeding my skills. Only when I realized that I had it in me to overcome the challenge of rehabilitation was the balance struck, and the flow state engaged. If you want to find the flow state, you need to find that balance as well, in whatever you are doing in life. Find a challenge that is just barely out of reach, but don’t settle on one that you know you can accomplish with ease.

Flow From a Mentor

Another trigger for flow can be found in a person that is close to you. Parents, teachers, coaches, and mentors are people that, although it may not be explicit in their job description, are there to help you reach the flow state. The reason for this is simple. These people have the ability and authority to push you to your limit.

When left to their own devices, most people are going to choose what is most comfortable, or the path of least resistance, and therefore the least challenging goal to attain. But when those same people are pushed by someone they respect to achieve all they can, there is an incentive to not let that mentor down, and so that person digs deep; sometimes deep enough to trigger flow.

I was once fortunate enough to be taken under the wing of a mentor, Rob Stella. Rob is a retired Navy SEAL. After 24 years of service, he became one of the founding partners at Acumen Performance Group (APG), where he and his team help clients “develop the mental toughness, leadership and team building skills needed to thrive in demanding environments.” Rob has always been there for me, but his presence was not always greeted with a smile because he was constantly pushing me to my limits. I knew that when I was working out with Rob, I was in for complete and utter physical exhaustion.

After a particular night of raucous partying, I knew that the following morning I had to “pay the man.” As punishment for inevitably showing up late to work, I was told to do a 14-mile timed run in boots. I was on an empty stomach and, needless to say, the physical screening test which consists of a timed 500m swim, max push ups, pull ups, sit ups and a 1.5mi timed run that preceded the consequential 14-miler didn’t go very well, either.

If that wasn’t difficult enough, Rob then organized a 3-hour workout on the beach. Just as the beach session got started, I felt my limit was reached. I could physically do no more. It wasn’t for lack of trying. My body began to cramp and seize in places that I didn’t know I had. I really wanted to prove to myself, Rob, and the other guys around me that I could have fun and still perform. It was Rob’s words in that moment that revived me in a sense and triggered one of the most glorious flow states of my life. Rob said,

“I know you’re having a rough day, but if you quit here, you’ll be a quitter the rest of your life. In life, there’s only results and excuses. Get rid of the excuses, and all you’re left with is the results. Might not be the results you want, but if you take ownership of it, then you have the power to create the outcome you want. So, you need to make a choice right here and right now. I’m not your Mommy and I can’t choose for you.”

I didn’t want to be a quitter or to disappoint Rob or my team, and I certainly didn’t want anyone to confuse Rob as my mother. The flow state was engaged, and I overcame what remains to this day one of the most exhausting workouts of my life.

I still hear Rob’s words whenever I am feeling at my worst, and the memory of the outcome of his words is enough to recreate that inner strength. The flow state can be accessed by many different triggers, but each trigger is unique to each person. If you wish to trigger flow, try utilizing a mentor or a coach, or anyone that can help push you above and beyond your perceived limits.

The Independent Flow State

While the above examples rely on outside forces to engage the flow state, the third trigger is completely internal. It relies only on the person working towards flow. If mastered, this approach can allow nearly unlimited access to the enhanced mental state. Triggering flow by yourself requires intense training, immense focus, and just a tiny amount of luck. By learning how your mind and body interact with each other, and using that information to your advantage, you can ultimately learn how and when to invoke flow.

But it is not as simple as flipping a switch. In fact, triggering flow for yourself may be the most difficult method; but that difficulty and complexity is a necessity for entering the flow state.

My Twelve Labors Project pits me against some of the most challenging tasks known to the human body and mind. Whether it be 24 hours of nonstop pull ups, rope climbing the equivalent of Mt. Everest, pulling a truck across Death Valley, or running 20 miles for 100 straight days, some would argue that I have achieved much more than most people, at least on the physical spectrum. But regardless of the feat and regardless of the labor, there is one thing that got me through each and every task: flow state.

There comes a moment during each one of these tasks where my mind recognizes that the pain, the agony, and the suffering cannot possibly reach a higher point. While the pain may be blinding, it is at this point that my mind takes over, in a sort of purgatory between hell and nirvana. And it is at this moment that the pain subsides, the suffering vanishes, and the agony diminishes. Somehow, my body and mind connect more than they ever have, and I am able to clearly visualize what it is I must achieve. That visualization, a completely mental concept, becomes a physical manifestation.

My senses become hyperreal, yet somehow, simultaneously nonexistent. It is as if I am in a dream, where my mind takes over any and all concepts of physicality. It is at this point that the flow state has been triggered, completely by my own volition. Once this mental state has been triggered, everything but the task at hand is tuned out; my own breathing, my surroundings, my thoughts, the pain in my limbs, all dissipate into the ether. When people say “live in the moment,” this is the most literal sense of that saying.

Flow can be accessed by yourself, regardless of the activity. You don’t have to be doing a day’s worth of pull ups to access flow. You simply need to be doing something you enjoy, but which is challenging enough to require you put forth your full effort, and doing something that requires an intense amount of focus, perhaps more than you’re normally used to giving. You could be sitting at your desk working on a difficult math problem, you could be running in a straight line, or you could even be cooking a difficult three-course meal. The circumstances do not matter, which is what makes flow such a unique concept in and of itself. As long as you are working towards a goal that you absolutely need to accomplish, and as long as that goal presents a veritable amount of challenge, you can trigger flow state without any outside help.