At this point, we know what Flow is and understand the importance of the stages of the Flow Cycle. (If not, click here.) Now, let’s look at what TRIGGERS flow.
The triggers exist in two categories, internal and external. There are twelve individual flow triggers, six in each category.
Flow triggers work by either increasing neurochemicals that cause flow or by lessening the cognitive load allowing for focus3. Recall that the flow state activation hinges on focus and attention
Let’s start with the internal triggers.
Internal Flow Triggers
Internal triggers impact cognition in our minds leading to a Flow State.
When we set goals, we are deciding where to put our attention. The clearer the goal, the more concentrated our attention. The awareness of our clear end, our goal, allows us to differentiate between what is and what is not important. The key to Flow is attention and the eventual attainment of transient hypofrontality (the deactivation of the frontal cortex). Our executive functions go offline and we are completely immersed in the activity.
An example of a clear goal may be to train for a race by running four times a week. In this example, the goal clarifies what is meant by training. The clearer the better. A level deeper (or clearer) may be to define the individual runs involved. IE Day 1 – 10 miles, at medium pace. Day 2 – Run 5 miles at race pace etc.
Immediate & Unambiguous Feedback
When feedback is received about the activity we take part in, we are able to further hone our focus and attention. The more consistent the feedback, the better. As we receive the feedback we’re able to know in real-time how we are performing and make adjustments to enhance our performance4.
Continuing with the running example, if we’ve made the clear goal to run ten miles at an eight-minute pace we might monitor our pace using a GPS monitor. As we receive the “in the moment” feedback from the GPS device, we can make adjustments to our performance to achieve our eight-minute mile goal.
We like to do things that we are good at. In other words, we do what we have skill in. Yet, the activity needs to be a bit challenging to keep us engaged. This is the challenge/skill balance. We don’t want to take on a challenge out of range of our level of skill. Conversely, we don’t want the activity to be too easy.
The research suggests that we should push at least 4% past our skill level. However, many peak performers may push themselves 20-30% past their skill level.
This trigger requires a recipe of nuance, self-knowledge and awareness to be properly applied.
If you are running, perhaps you push your pace 4% faster than your normal pace. If you normally run an eight-minute mile, you might shoot for twenty seconds faster, a 7:40 mile. Thus initiating your challenge/skills balance.
Concentration on Task
Flow is all about attention. When we are focused on a task, we lower our cognitive load. By default, this triggers Flow. By ensuring that we are concentrating fully on a task, we also must minimize distractions. It is thought that a distraction knocks us out of Flow, taking fifteen to twenty minutes to return if at all.
Anything an individual is interested in has a passion for or receives a sense of purpose from releases dopamine – the neurochemical causing focus and seeking. Due to curiosity, passion, and purpose, many have a primary flow activity. An activity in which we naturally lose ourselves while doing. For many, this can be sports, for others reading. There are countless examples
Flow is often easiest to trigger around an activity aligned with our passions and purpose.
Author and flow expert Steven Kotler refers to autonomy as “…the desire for freedom required to pursue your passion and purpose.”5
When we have the ability and the freedom to pursue what we WANT to do, we experience autonomy. Without this freedom, the curiosity/passion/purpose trigger is often blocked.
A real-world example of the power of autonomy exists in Google’s giving freedom to its engineers to spend 20% of their work time on projects in which they are personally interested. This has resulted in some of Google’s biggest innovations.
External Flow Triggers
External flow triggers exist outside of ourselves. These circumstances increase the likelihood of Flow.
A high consequence could have a social or physical risk. The risk involved causes us to focus attention. We’re designed to survive. When the consequences may be severe, our survival instinct automatically redirects our energy to focus on the task at hand6.
Action athletes use this trigger in mountain climbing, surfing, skateboarding, as well as other activities. Speaking in public often causes risk of social embarrassment, which is why it is both a flow trigger for some and a top fear for others7.
Other examples of high consequence triggers are creative, financial, and emotional risks8.
Novelty is the quality of being new, original, or unusual9. When we come across something novel, an experience, item, or idea, our consciousness is fixed. Attention and focus are paid in generous amounts. Novelty turns on the dopamine, causing the drive to seek to understand and experience.
This may be a beautiful piece of art, a song, meeting a new person or potential mate, or even a video game.
When we encounter complexity in our environment, it requires our attention to navigate. Our focus is moved towards the understanding of the complexity in which we are faced. Sometimes referred to as rich environments10, when dynamic situations arise, our focus is switched on and reoriented.
Unpredictability, like the previous triggers, jolts our awareness towards the who or what that is unpredictable. We are drawn to pay attention to assess, risk, understand, or experience fully.
Deep embodiment is a “full-body awareness”11. Your actions and awareness become one. In a state of Deep Embodiment feel we have control over our environment (perhaps more than we actually do) as well as control over our physicality and what we are trying to achieve.
Surfers, for example, report the ability to put themselves in a certain part of the wave without thought or effort12. They become one with the wave, so to speak.
Several tools and practices can enhance the ability to experience deep embodiment such as yoga, meditation, and breath work.
Creativity and Pattern Recognition
Pattern recognition releases dopamine in the brain, producing flow. Putting together a puzzle, for example, can create this effect. Flow produces creativity.
Kotler recommends reading 25 to 50 pages per day, feeding your pattern recognition system13. This way, you are enhancing the cycle of pattern recognition and creativity. When the brain links old information to new, this is the recipe for creativity. The brain rewards this cycle with a plethora of feel-good neurochemistry released.