The Proving Grounds For Hacking Flow
It’s as if flow sits somewhere near the heart of learning and evolution itself.
Halfway up the small mountain side, I pause to check in on my body. Around 15 minutes in, this is the point where I turned back just one month ago. Shockingly, I feel completely fine. In fact, maybe too fine for the experience to even begin to make sense. The temperature is topping out at -12C, and I’m the only one on the mountain wearing nothing but trainers and shorts. The extremely rare individual who passes by on this normally popular hiking trail looks like they’re dressed for exploring Antarctica.
Clearly, there’s no time for a wandering mind in states like these.
Each time the effects of the cold ramp up, I focus a little deeper, feeling the frosty impact fully, and my internal thermostat kicks in. Heat seems to rush through my veins right when I need it most.
Two things are keeping my mind silent and focused: motivation and survival. Motivation to get to the top, to go beyond my overly rational view of the world, and maybe to confirm what I’ve always hoped, that we can do more than we think. That’s what the top symbolizes for me.
Then there’s the case of surviving. Either out of confidence or sheer foolishness, I decided to leave behind any spare clothing or emergency gear. It feels like one of the few times in my life that I’ve burned my ships. And it feels good. Full commitment. I have to survive. I have to keep my limbs. I have to stay calm. I have to know that I can do this. I have to adapt right now, not tomorrow or next week.
Each abnormally heavy breath, which I adapted from Wim Hof (known around the world as the “Iceman”), sends a shroud of arctic air in front of me.
Following one breath and one step at a time, I manage to reach the top. This reality seemed like an impossible task a month ago, yet here I am, gazing out at snow-caked peaks in the distance.
At this point, I can’t help but wonder how such adaptation and strengthening of willpower could happen so quickly. It looks like I’ll reach the bottom at around the 1-hour mark. Using this time-frame, the simple math shows that my body is nearly 4 times more effective at dealing with the cold than just one month earlier.
A sense of pride burns within. It seems my ego has finally arrived at the scene.Before setting off back down, one guy rushes out from the warmth of the top visitor center.
“Hey! Are you okay?” he cries. It’s all I can do to not shout back with, “Do I look like I’m okay?”
In another time and place, something similar is going on. Tonight, though, I happen to be sitting on a bed in my pajamas—in a heated apartment—with a musical instrument across my knee.
My right and left hands correlate in seamless unison across eight strings of a mandolin. It’s 1am, and I still can’t stop. Playing music right now is more nourishing than sleep.
For musicians, the terms “Bach” and “easy” usually don’t belong in the same sentence. The intricate Bach passage I’m playing feels like I’ve know it inside-and-out all along. The reality is, I just learned it some hours ago.
When moving from one clear-struck note to another, the back of my mind is filled with a certain sense of awe. It almost seems like I’m playing mandolin for the first time again after 15 years. And what’s funny is I don’t feel like “I” am doing anything. Music is happening while “I,” or my ego, is sitting back, just listening and taking it all in.
A year ago, or more like a couple of months ago, learning a Bach passage so quickly would have seemed insurmountable, let alone the ability to execute it at this level.
When I finally come back to reality, the late night feeling starts sinking in. Before drifting off to sleep, I run through a mental review of the experience and find one thought particularly interesting: I could no more describe how I was doing it any more than I could describe how I am able to walk. In terms of playing the mandolin, much of how I play is the same as in the past. My left-hand technique is still frankly average at best, and my right-hand technique hasn’t been adjusted in years.
So, what’s going on? What happened?
As someone who has always been a seeker, these two recent apparently unrelated events have weighed my mind with questions ever since. Did they somehow feed off of each other? Is there an obscure connection? Is everything I thought I knew about learning and evolving wrong?
Based on the activities themselves, these two experiences couldn’t be further apart. The striking similarities of how they feel internally, though, are too prominent to ignore. Both times, there is an immersive focus. The only thing largely occupying my mind is the experience itself. There’s also a certain level of risk in each instant. In the case of the cold, the risk is primarily physical. In performing music, whether for yourself or for an audience, the risk is primarily mental and emotional.
But one of the more obvious commonalities between these scenes is the idea of merging with obstacles. In other words, taking on challenges that go beyond our perceived limits bring out the best in us, and in a way, they then become part of our identity, as long as they don’t break us first. Challenges of nearly any type can literally force us into a new approach, as it becomes very clear very quickly that business as usual doesn’t cut it. That’s when a desire to adapt and change takes root. That’s when a merging with obstacles happens.
Behind both scenarios is an identical, clear-driven purpose and goal. The purpose is to show myself and others that we are all capable of doing more than we think. The goal is to reach a new level of personal understanding, awareness, and performance. Such clarity provides a deep will to make it happen. When there’s a boundary-pushing task that we’re passionate about, we can finally push aside most of our troubles and worries and just let life flow.
In fact, it appears that the true underlying current connecting these two experiences is what modern society refers to as “flow.”
Steven Kotler, co-founder of the Human Flow Genome Project, refers to flow as an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best,”….In flow, every action, every decision, arises seamlessly from the last. In this state, we are so focused on the task at hand that all else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Our sense of self vanishes. Our sense of time distorts. And performance goes through the roof.”
One of many revolutionary aspects of flow is its ability to potentially improve every single area of our lives. Many who consistently experience flow states see radical increases in creativity, learning, and of course, performance. As a result, cultivating flow benefits treks into the cold in shorts as much as it does playing music in a heated den.
We hear, perhaps too often, the old cliché, “less is more.” But sometimes clichés catch on for a reason. In flow, instead of an expected increase in brain activity, there’s actually a decrease. This shows that there’s a fine line between rest and relaxation and high energy output.
Interestingly, this mirrors my minimalist approach to the obstacles at the beginning of the article. Rather than exhausting energy by taking practice and obsession to extreme levels, as in past instances, I sought out ways to delegate energy more efficiently. In other words, the practice rate didn’t increase past normal levels. If anything, it decreased. The extra time left over was put into activities such as mindfulness, focus, conscious breathing, physical exercise, and traveling. With the help of all of these techniques, I was somewhat unknowingly searching for the ability to tap into flow.
If we spend less time on something, though, then we lose effectiveness, right?
It turns out, research suggests flow can enhance human effectiveness and productivity up to at least five times more than normal levels. The number sounds strikingly familiar. If flow really was at the center of my cold hike, it’s no wonder that I found myself up to 4 times more effective at adapting to the cold than just one month prior. And I haven’t even scratched the 5x surface yet.
Imagine the enormous implications of a work culture where 3 days a week results in much more activity and productivity than the normal 5 day 9 to 5. Another intriguing aspect surrounding the nature of flow states is its ability to speed up the learning and adaptive processes. It doesn’t matter if it’s golf, painting, chess, or human relations. Name it, and flow brings about a new level of ease and understanding, even in instances where we’re complete beginners.
It’s as if flow sits somewhere near the heart of learning and evolution itself.
Sometimes, it can be difficult to know why we naturally excel in some areas of learning but struggle in others. What’s more, it can be frustrating when lessons acquired in one subject don’t seem to carry over across the board. An education that gravitates around flow strikes at the core of learning. It connects the dots. It not only helps us to discover our passions and ace school subjects, but it also equips us to deal more effectively with the changes life throws at us outside of the classroom.
With so many potentially tremendous benefits, some of the world’s leading organizations, companies and individuals are already making flow an integral point of focus. These include one of the world’s most effective task forces, the Navy Seals (who call the ability to tap into flow “flipping the switch”), innovative companies Google, Pixar, and Facebook, and individual success giants Richard Branson and Larry Page.
Flow is a revolutionary framework modeled to decrease our workload and optimize productivity at the same time. It’s what might allow us to effectively deal with the information overload and frantic pace of modern society. If we are able to 5x our output, we can spend less energy and less time while getting more done. And honestly, 5x feels like a modest number to describe the potential.
As a matter of first-hand experience, the more we push our limits physically, mentally, and spiritually, merging with challenges and personal goals that connect with us individually and collectively, the more we cultivate flow and find what we are truly capable of. Happiness, creativity, and health naturally rise when we efficiently delegate our time and energy in ways that matter to us.
When we continually become aware of just how far we can take it, momentary flow “states” start turning into lingering flow “traits”, as Jamie Wheal puts it. Flow traits ultimately lead to an expansion of consciousness and a transformation of character.
To simplify with numbers, building a life around flow means this: 1 hour is as nourishing as 5 normal hours. 1 day is as effective as 5 normal days. 1 week amounts to 5 weeks. 1 year amounts to 5 years. 10 years amounts to an incredible 50 years.
Did I mention that flow can improve our lives? Find out. Flip the switch.