As the second installment in our Flow Series, we look at the Flow Cycle, its function, and potential in our lives.

There are four stages in the Flow Cycle – struggle, release, flow, and recovery. All are equally important in achieving the third stage and the goal of the cycle, Flow. The Flow definition is an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best. The aim here is to create a sense of intense engagement in our lives, enhancing a sense of meaning, purpose, and well-being.

It is important to understand the Flow Cycle to understand why Flow is not always achieved. For example, without knowledge of what is required during Recovery, Flow may be blocked. With a balanced and well-understood sense of the cycle, a more impactful, productive, and enjoyable state of Flow is possible.

Stage #1 – Struggle

Frustration! Anger! Failure!

You don’t start out in Flow. We have to work our way through a period of struggle, adversity. Whether researching for a Ph.D. dissertation or learning how to ride a bike as a young child, struggle is a state in which we are all intimately familiar.

Struggle can’t be avoided in this cycle. It is the challenge that must be overcome that sets the stage for future stages. Neurobiologically, the prefrontal cortex becomes overwhelmed with information and we become frustrated1. The brain is doused in Cortisol and Noradrenaline, stress hormones. The brain waves are fast-moving Beta waves, allowing for quick information processing. We are pushed by our biology to focus. We feel stress.

Common examples of struggle include training for a marathon. The first runs (and perhaps all) are difficult, challenging. Another example may be learning a new instrument. In the initial stages, there is a lot of struggle. The brain is overloaded, often to the point of exhaustion. The mind can process roughly 120 bits of information each second. In the struggle phase, this capacity is maxed out2.

It is important to learn just how much struggle we as individuals are able to tolerate. Everyone is slightly different. Overdoing it can have a detrimental effect on the next stage, Release.

Stage #2 – Release

I can recall taking a test during MBA schooling. I was pushing, striving, begging my mind to recall the information that was just out of reach while taking the test. I left class. I got in my car to drive home, and released the search for the answer. Then – it appeared!

Though not intuitive, often solutions show up once we take our minds off of the problem. According to Lee Zlottoff, researcher and creator of the MacGyver television show, frequently when facing struggle all you need to do is write the problem down and walk away3. The solution often reveals itself once the body is freed from stress hormones, cortisol, and norepinephrine. This task is completed by nitric oxide. Nitric Oxide helps relax the inner walls of the blood vessels getting oxygen to the body more efficiently4. This process flushes the body of the chemicals causing stress.

Alpha waves inducing a state of “wakeful rest”5, are present. The state of deep embodiment, being connected to your body, and your physical experience is activated. We have an increased ability to learn through doing.

Walking, meditating, and gardening are examples of activities that may trigger Release.

Stage #3 – Flow

The main event, Flow arises in consciousness in stage three. We become laser-focused on the task or activity at hand and begin to perform and feel our best. We’ve struggled through the challenge, released it. We now have a sense of rising to the challenge with renewed energy to defeat the obstacle and source of struggle.

Many refer to the experience of Flow as a moment where ‘everything clicks’. It is described as ‘experiencing a magic moment’8. There is a feeling of selflessness, effortlessness, and timelessness. Transient hypofrontality occurs, or the deregulation of the prefrontal cortex9. Our inner critic, the voice in our head shuts off. Typically, this event is associated with altered states of consciousness present in meditation, distance running, and psychedelics. Brain waves settle between the alpha and theta range, increasing creativity.

Dopamine and Anandamide flood the system. Dopamine provides the focus as well as the seeking system, initiating the parts of the brain that cause us to do the best work11. Anandamide provides a pain-killing effect. The same effect allowing distance runners to cope with the pain of thier craft. It’s no wonder the word anandamide comes from the Sanskrit word for “bliss”10.

  • Serotonin is released towards the end, providing a sense of calm contentment.

    Stage #4 – Recovery

    Just as important as the other stages, is recovery. Sometimes this is referred to as active recovery or active rest. The body uses significant resources during Flow. This depletion of resources requires recovery to renew these resources. It is important to consider not only physical, but the mental, emotional, and spiritual recovery.

    It is important to note that active recovery is different from passive recovery. Passive recovery does not include movement. Sleep is the most important passive recovery. It is important to get 7-8 hours of sleep each night. On the other hand, active recovery involves movement. Hiking, yoga, tai chi, massage, and walking are examples of Active Recovery12. This will help the body replenish the resources depleted during the Flow stage.

    How to Use the Flow Cycle

    When attempting to get into Flow, consider: what will be the challenge of the day?

    Perhaps your work will bring struggle. We typically don’t have to go out of our way to introduce ‘struggle’ into our lives.

    Once the senses tell you “I’m done” with that struggle and you’re overloaded, release.

    Write down the obstacle, then walk away.

    Let it go.

    Don’t think about it.

    It may not be in that instant, but a solution will present itself. You’ll be able to reengage the obstacle with renewed energy and focus. The perception of time and self will fall away once transient hypofrontality kicks in. Soon you’ll feel and perform your best.

    Like most things, the more we practice the better we become. This is true for Flow as well.

    The flow cycle should be a rough blueprint to understand at a meta-level what is happening in your neurobiology. However, it is not enough to simply know this cycle to regularly access the flow state. For this, we’ll need to understand Flow Triggers.

    Next, in our Flow Series – What TRIGGERS Flow?


    11. Alive At Work: the neuroscience of helping your people love what they do. Boston, Massachusetts : Harvard Business Review Press, [2018].
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    BA in Psychology and MBA from Kent State. ENTJ Myers/Briggs and my love language is acts of service. However, I don’t think any of those things should provoke you to read my blog. Hmmm. I want to talk about things we all think about but, can’t freely talk about.

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