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Flow Chasing Monkeys
Accessing Flow States | Transient Hypofrontality | Do you Flow?
What do you have in common with a teenager playing video games, a surfer catching a wave, and me?
We’re all flow-chasing monkeys.
If you’ve felt hours fly by like moments or even marveled at a sunrise, you’ve experienced flow. In these beautiful states, we lose our self-consciousness, selfishness, and sense of time. This well-documented secret is not well known.
High-performing groups have engineered flow for decades and people find their flow states in many different aspects of life.
Google has exemplified this in the workplace, intentionally keeping me in flow the past 2.5 years. I wouldn’t dare leave their premises when working. By eliminating distractions and allowing my full mind to stay on task, they keep me in flow.
People laughed at Google’s free food and the zaniness of its campuses, but it’s all intentional. I’d be a fool to spend an ounce of my mental energy (and $) to bring food to the office or grab my own coffee. I’m able to flow and be a more productive employee because of its choice architecture.
The Navy SEALs are in on this secret too.
They’ve learned how to reduce the time to learn a foreign language from 6 months to 6 weeks with this voodoo. How?
By combining sensory deprivation tanks with next-gen biofeedback, eliminating distraction, entraining specific brainwaves, and regulating heart rate frequency.
For a specialized unit deployed across five continents, shutting off the self to accelerate learning has become a strategic imperative - Steven Kotler, flow guru
What about us?
What do us non-Navy SEALs civilians have to learn from flow?
Finding flow in your meaningful vocation is the highest order of why we’re here on this earth. It helps us inject effort into things that matter. It helps us feel fulfilled. The best moments in our lives occur when our bodies or minds are voluntarily pushed to their limits to accomplish something worthwhile and difficult.
Highly creative people get this. They understand this is an active practice. Not one that happens upon snapping their fingers.
In one of my favorite books, Essentialism, Greg Mckeown reported that “most creative individuals find out early what their best rhythms are for sleeping, eating, and working, and abide by them even when tempting to do otherwise.”
As comedy legend Jerry Seinfeld explained:
“You’ve got to treat your brain like a dog you just got. The mind is infinite in wisdom. The brain is a stupid, little dog that is easily trained. Do not confuse the mind with the brain. The brain is so easy to master. You just have to confine it. You confine it. And it’s done through repetition and systematization.” - Jerry Seinfeld, outlining his systems and methods for success.
This checks out… by getting life essentials on autopilot, the most prolific creators understand their biology and free up their time and headspace to flow.
You flow, bro?
You ever had one of those moments where you feel “one with everything”?
I fondly remember these moments as a baseball player, digging into the Hoy Field batter's box, or stalking the dirt pitcher’s mound when I was “in the zone”.
Surfers intuitively get this, describing it as “being one with the wave”.
Mountain climbers must become one with the mountain to avoid missing dinner with their family in the evening. Buddhists might describe it as “cosmic unity”, becoming one with the universe.
What actually happens in flow?
Becoming one with everything is a byproduct of something called transient hypofrontality.
It’s all about temporarily slowing down or shutting off the prefrontal cortex of your brain. This is the portion of your brain that contributes to your self-talk/chatter, your overthinking, your racing thoughts… your monkey mind. It’s the decision-making part of the brain and shutting it off allows you to not process making a decision, but be fully present in one.
By shutting down this portion of your brain, you no longer generate awareness or sense of the self. You no longer separate yourself from others. You can’t distinguish between the two. And as a result, you feel one with everything.
We have 150 years of flow psychology and flow science going back to the 1870’s and in the past 25 years, our brain imaging tech has gotten better and better. Flow states are states of consciousness where we feel and perform our best, and with the rate of innovation in these spaces, view it as inevitable that we’ll unveil parts of human consciousness.
Are we flowing though?
We have a much deeper understanding of the brain than our ancestors did, and we certainly have more flow triggers at our disposal…
But we’re a distracted society tethered to our devices.
The average American touches his or her phone 2,617 times daily and spends 2.5 hours staring at the tiny screen. The iPhones in our hands murder our innocent flow states and contribute to our absent-minded culture.
Instead of becoming one with meaningful tasks at hand, we’ve become one with our devices.
Take TikTok for example. It’s too easy to get sucked into the app and do nothing with your time.
This is supported by a key dimension of flow states, “Timelessness”, as Steven Kotler outlined to me 4 years ago when reading Stealing Fire.
We’ve never been more disconnected from our bodies in our lives. We’re a distracted society that’s lost our connection to our physical bodies, and we need to be saved.
In working environments, the average manager spends 2.1 hours in distraction, and researchers from University of California Irvine showed it takes ~25 minutes to refocus after distraction.
There’s countless distractions that hold us back from more deeply pursuing ideas, passions, and life activities on a daily basis. We’re being held back from flowing.
How I’ve enabled flow into my life
I believe every successful person has found a way to overcome the distractedness and use these states to propel them into levels they didn’t know were possible. Conquering my mind and overcoming previously-imposed self limits when running long distances has done this for me.
Physical exercise enables consistent endorphin-rushed flow states where I get to temporarily access the genius within me.
(I’ll share more later on how you can find flow in your life too)
Helping new runners flow
I’m hoping to show others this hidden secret with RunWithMe. I have this vision where we empower the next generation of runners to be their very best, where we help the world find freedom and confidence through physical fitness. We’re in the business of shattering mental and physical barriers through coaching, community, and knowledge… but what are we really doing?
Helping people across the globe find flow through running for the first time.
Ending thoughts + what’s my (ever evolving) flow strategy?
Most of our lives we swim against the current of our own lives and we don’t even realize it.
Though I value a relentless work ethic, the pursuit of continuous improvement and more, I’ve been challenging myself to let go in a way. We’re constantly reminded to be ambitious, to take control, and endlessly strive. This idea of “effortless” flow clashes with the Western ideal of forcing and working harder and harder to get results.
Resist less, flow more. If you want to accept your fate as a flow-chasing monkey, welcome to the club.
Discovering your flow strategy will give you the gift to shift. Which will leave you with several questions… like how can you enable flow more easily into your life?
Other than protecting your attention like you would your firstborn child, here are 6 other tips:
Reduce notifications: Or remove them entirely. Default to “do not disturb” mode except for loved ones, and recognize it can likely wait. Anybody reading this (myself included) needs to improve this. Notice how many dings, buzzes, and alerts you get daily. We’re blundered by notifications.
Default to asynchronous work. This isn’t always possible, but it’s a huge benefit that I’m still surprised more people don’t realize. “Asynch” work allows me to maximize productive hours and take breaks when I’ve hit my limit. Clearing out my calendar and reducing synchronous meeting time frees up more time for me to flow. If set up right, asynchronous systems can allow teams to work across time zones and structure days around time-sensitive commitments at home or in the community. It requires incredibly thoughtful and clear communication, but I think it’s the future of work and might need to explore this in a separate piece.
Work with tech, not against it. Here’s your friendly reminder that nobody taught us how to use this stuff (technology)!
Even Steve Jobs didn’t think through how to wield the true power of the iPhone. It’s our job to take a step back, ask ourselves questions, analyze, and make changes to integrate tech into our lives accordingly. Visualize this: your life is an ocean, and each wave crashing against the shore are different pieces of tech in your life. How integrated are those pieces of tech? Are the waves violently crashing, swirling against each other? Are they crashing peacefully, in even synchrony with the environment supporting it?
Understand that the struggle is real. No really… the struggle of getting into flow is a natural part of the process. Nobody can snap their fingers and start flowing. Become attracted to the struggle to get into flow and realize that it’s meant to be this way.
Use tech to enable flow. I use an app called Shift when running that propels me into flow. It automatically switches between music and podcasts. Because I’m entrenched on the fascinating content and high-cadence beats that mock my running cadence, I lose myself in the activity and time flies. Periodically
Do nothing at all. Our brain needs breaks too, especially in our always on digital world.
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