The Elusive Flow: Finding Ultimate Human Performance

Despite being widely touted and sought after, this peak state of performance can seem undefined or inaccessible to many.

One moment you’re grinding it out on a long run, and then suddenly something shifts. You find yourself at one with your body, your breathing relaxes, and your mind focuses. At this moment, your running feels almost effortless, and time seems to stand still. In a similar state, a jazz musician enters into a melody, then changes the rhythm and creates a new one. He breaks the rules in perfect harmony, almost as if at one with the music.

Artists and athletes in this state are said to be in the zone. Others call it flow. Flow is commonly associated with athletics, artistry, or even spirituality. But in the book The Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler describes flow as an optimal state of consciousness that is available to anyone, not just artists, athletes, shamans, and monks.

Despite being widely touted and sought after, this peak state of performance can seem undefined or inaccessible to many. When you talk about the zone with non-athletes or novice exercisers, some might look at you with incredulous eyes as if you are speaking a foreign language.

Those who don’t meditate may look upon those who do as simply people who are sitting still for 20 minutes thinking about nothing. But regardless of your own opinion or experience of such a state, there’s no denying the existence of flow. While some of us have experienced it, almost all of us have seen it. Ironically, the place you are most likely to find it is the place you’d least expect to see it—in life’s most extreme circumstances.

What Is Flow?

Perhaps one the most astounding aspects of flow is where it seems to be most pronounced: in the extreme margins of human experience, namely in physically dangerous situations. There are countless examples of the manifestation of flow state; the surfer riding effortlessly in a 30-foot wave, the downhill skier gracefully carving her way down the mountain at 80mph, or the martial artist who seems to be performing a relaxed dance while fighting for his life and livelihood. How is any of this remotely possible? All of these examples are ones where the margin of error can be death, yet to the human eye, some participants can seem completely present and almost… relaxed. 

While mysterious and at times elusive, flow is a very real thing. Simply defined, flow is an optimal state of performance distinguished by certain pronounced characteristics. The flow state requires total and complete concentration, and yet at the same time occurs where there is sense of detachment from self. Flow involves creative problem solving in the moment, and often at blistering speeds, or conversely can happen while immersed in complete stillness. Flow is the experience of being in the moment, and is highly correlated with a sense of time dilation.

Flow is essentially a relaxed, yet focused state where your intuition and creativity take over, allowing for peak performance. Physiologically speaking, flow is defined by a predominance of alpha and theta brain waves. In flow, your neocortex is prominent, allowing you to almost ‘predict’ the future with a heightened sense of anticipation. This psychic confidence is what allows athletes to ‘see the field’ and anticipate their opponent’s next move. In terms of neurochemistry, flow is defined by the release of certain chemicals in the brain, including norepinephrine, anandamide, dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin. Interestingly enough, these chemicals are the very same chemicals associated with elicit drug use. Thus the term ‘runner’s high.’

But the high experienced in the zone isn’t just for runners. All human beings, from athletes to artists to businesspeople, have the capacity to experience such situational awareness and heighted state of human potential. This natural high is defined and measurable from a biological perspective, and corroborated by scientific literature in its positive effect. Of course, defining it is one thing; experiencing it is another. Let’s talk about how you can find your flow.

The Elusive Search for Flow

As opposed to when we’re pursuing pleasure, flow only happens when we’re in pursuit of performance. But whether it’s speaking in public, getting physically uncomfortable, or putting yourself out there creatively, fear of performance is about as scary as it gets, for many. This conundrum is the crux of flow’s elusive nature—finding flow inevitably necessitates facing fear and getting uncomfortable. This involves overriding two of the brains hardwired circuits: the primitive ‘fight or flight’ reaction (sympathetic response) and overriding the innate human desire for comfort. Doing so can follow one of two opposite paths:

Up the Ante

Find an activity that involves risk, demands physical focus, and necessitates facing your fears. The problem with traditional exercise is that it can be everything but focused. Loud music blares, screens distract you with statistics, and the end goal is often extrinsically motivated, rather than intrinsic. With bigger biceps, burning excess calories, and toned abs as the objective, the zone will be hard to come by. But in facing the fear of attempting complex and dynamic tasks, or even potentially dangerous physical activities, flow is more accessible.

Fortunately, such outlets (in particular action and adventure sports) are more readily available these days. While some professional sports are changing rules in an effort to get safer, more people than ever are risking their necks in sports like extreme skiing, big wave surfing, and rock climbing. Such sports have undergone unprecedented growth in the past 30 years, pushing the bounds of impossibility further and faster than ever before. Such activities demand complete focus and being at one with your environment.

Risk heightens focus, and flow follows focus. Ultimately, such high stakes coupled with intense focus are the perfect recipe for entering the zone. Flow author and researcher Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes this result as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake.”

Seek Extreme Stillness

Clearly, not everyone has the desire or the DNA to be a competitive ski jumper or thrill-seeking skydiver. Risk is risk, and plenty of folks would rather sit out anything that has the potential for injury or harm. Fortunately, there are other ways to find the zone without facing danger.

But less dangerous doesn’t mean easier. As terrifying as base jumping or hang gliding may sound, sitting completely still and fully emptying one’s thoughts for extended periods of time may be equally difficult, for some. It turns out that such stillness, whether through a breath-focused meditative state or restorative yoga, may also trigger a hyper-focused zone-like experience. If jumping off or scaling up something isn’t your jam, finding periods of focused stillness might be.

Find a Master of Flow

The best way to learn any skill is to seek out a mentor and learn from a master. Since it’s established that the zone is a very real thing and is even at times visible to the onlooker, what better way to access the zone than by finding someone who excels in finding flow and following their lead. While the zone isn’t exclusive to artistry, athletics, or spiritual realms, those arenas are still likely the best places to look.

I knew I wanted to start boxing when I saw the intoxicating rhythm on display during my first visit to a boxing gym. Losing myself in that rhythm and finding the zone in boxing came about through repetition over time, but also through the emulation of professors, gurus, and top coaches. The same narrative can be applied to countless modalities, from boxing, to ballet, to adventure racing.

Set Clear Goals

When you hear those words, I’m guessing the one that stands out is ‘goals.’ Unfortunately, as important as that word is culturally, it’s the wrong word to emphasize when it comes to finding flow. The problem with the word ‘goal’ is that it tends to have a future connotation, as in ‘when I lose 30 pounds,’ or ‘when I win the race.’

Living in the future means living in the then or there, but by setting clear goals that focus you on the immediate present, you heighten your ability to perform and sense of flow. Learning to be in the here and now means breaking down goals into tiny, bite-size pieces, or ‘chunking.’ Chunking simply means clearly defining the next immediate step. By breaking tasks into chunks, you’ll live in the here and now, instead of the there or then.

Hack the Zone

Because flow requires facing fear and the willingness to step outside ourselves, it may prove to remain elusive for some. That said, there are other ways in which we might achieve this optimal state without requiring such daunting effort. Floating, or sensory deprivation, has been shown in studies to produce parasympathetic response and a flow-like sensation.

Surprisingly, online gaming has also been shown to produce a similar flow state in some participants. The idea isn’t that floating in an Epsom salt bath or becoming a gamer is analogous with being a pro surfer, but flow state is flow state. Whether you organically hit your flow, or you hack into it, the chemical response is the same. The bottom line is that the more you experience flow state, the more accessible it can become.

Flow is Found on the Other Side of Fear

Flow is not some new-age concept found in only in the movies and comic books. Flow is very real. But it’s easy to lose sight of flow, and get sidetracked in our pursuit of fitness, wellness, and sport. Instead of pursuing flow or purpose, our quests can simply become a means to an end, to win a competition or build a better body.

While such goals are admirable, real meaning isn’t found in an end point, but in blissful moments of oneness. Flow is that oneness, and the key that unlocks flow is mostly found on the other side of fear. In the quest to achieve flow, perhaps the ultimate question isn’t ‘how do I find it,’ but ‘what am I afraid of?’