How Entrepreneurs can Leverage Flow State
By Mike Pietrzak
Author Steven Kotler has been stalking me. No, not in person, but all over my social media feed. His Instagram ads tell me why I need to take his course: so I can experience flow state, and peak performance.
Now, before I spend more than $5,000 on any program, I want to know what I’m getting into. I went to the source: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and his seminal 1990 book, Flow.
What is Flow State?
You might know flow state as “being in the zone”. It’s that mental state where you are fully absorbed in the task in front of you, and the rest of the world seems to fall away. You’re excited and energized about the task, even when it’s difficult, or even painful. You forget to eat and sleep.
Csikszentmihalyi called this mental state “optimal experience”, because it’s a joy to be in this place. Most people who know this feeling say they would prefer to spend time in these activities than to do anything else.
This optimal experience isn’t just enjoyable, but it’s incredibly productive. Entrepreneurs who work in “the zone” drastically increase the quality and quantity of their work. I’m sure you see how this might be a valuable skill for you to master.
What Does Flow State Feel Like?
As described in the book Flow, optimal experience feels like this:
“Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems.”
“Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted.”
“An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous.”
You and I have certainly had many of these joyful experiences in our lives by accident. But how can we consciously put ourselves into this blissful state more often, to help us build our businesses?
How Do You Trigger a Flow State?
Can you consciously create this experience? The answer is a resounding yes! There are six steps that can lead you into optimal experience:
1. Set a clear goal
Peak performance happens easily in sports and music because there are clear goals to strive for: score a touchdown, or play a piece of music flawlessly. But there are characteristics of “good” goals, which you can pursue, that will help you enter “the zone”:
Match your skills to the challenge. If a goal is too easy you’ll get bored. Too hard, and you’ll give up. If you’re growing, you’re flowing.
Figure out which skills you need to learn to attain your goals. When skills and challenges match in that “Goldilocks zone” of difficulty, you’ll need to expand your capabilities.
Enjoy the inherent challenge of chasing goals. If you’re not having fun in your pursuit, you’re unlikely to experience peak performance.
2. Set up the “rules of the game”
Sports have rulebooks and referees. Pianos have sheet music, technique, and theory. Movies have plot structures.
Without rules, an activity would be impossible to understand and control. And it is in controlling our experience that we find flow. Here’s how entrepreneurs can “set up rules” for building a business:
Set key performance indicators (KPIs) that will tell you if you are moving closer to or away from your goals. E.g. dollar revenue, number of subscribers, and average order value.
What are “good” rules? They are those that cause you to grow your skills by working within their confines.
3. Eliminate chaos
Optimal experience is virtually synonymous with controlling our psychic energy. If our consciousness is like scattershot, we are in the state of psychic entropy. Not good!
To experience peak performance, you must first subdue your mental agents of chaos; the saboteurs. This is why Tony Robbins says that making any change in your life always starts with changing your state.
If you’re in a poor state—frustrated, depressed, angry—don’t just dive into work. Change your mood first! Listen to great music, play a game, talk to a kind friend, eat a good meal. Then work.
Paradoxically, controlling consciousness means eliminating self-consciousness, or our awareness of our self. If you’re worried about how your hair looks or what others think of you while doing the task, you can’t get into the zone.
4. Become immersed in the activity
The secret to entering flow state is to intentionally direct your consciousness. This is hella-hard to do if you’re being distracted.
Shut out all external distractions: hide your phone, shut Gmail, and tell your partner you’re entering the zone. Noise cancelling headphones are your best friend here.
Give operating instructions to your mind. Tell your brain, “we’re going to work solely on this for 1 hour”.
Learn to enjoy being in the Now. Optimal experience only occurs when the mind is firmly moored in the present moment; not the past or future. Practicing daily meditation can help you cultivate the superpower of focus.
To quote Csikszentmihalyi, “To be distracted against one’s will is the surest sign that one is not in control.”
5. Make the activity distinct from everyday existence
Why do sports teams wear uniforms? Why do dancers wear costumes? Why do concerts involve light and pyrotechnic displays? Because they intend to transport the participant into a place of new discovery. Once there, flow becomes easier to achieve.
Leave your familiar environment. I often experience this state while walking in new parts of the woods, and especially when traveling. As an entrepreneur you can work in a new coffee shop, or even a new part of the house. Get lost.
Learn a new skill. When you pick up skeet shooting, or ballet, or learn HTML; when you go to a strange play or hear new music; all of it plucks you out of reality and encourages peak performance.
6. Monitor feedback
One beautiful feature of optimal performance is that you will receive immediate feedback: while rock climbing you are either rising or falling; in email marketing you get low or high open rates; in love your partner is pulling closer or pushing away.
Install mechanisms to ensure relatively quick feedback. If you have a project that will take one month to execute, break it into smaller tasks that let you know whether you are making progress each day.
Again, set up KPIs that will become the “dashboard” of your business goals.
Pay attention to external cues: are clients happy? Am I attracting investors?
Finally, remember that, “Occasionally flow may occur by chance, because of a fortunate coincidence of external and internal conditions,” writes Csikszentmihalyi. However, “it is much more likely that flow will result either from a structured activity, or from an individual’s ability to make flow occur, or both.”
That means taking care to cultivate both positive external and internal conditions.
Want to learn how to spend more time in flow state? Book a Grow Your Business Session with me now.
What Prevents Us From Entering Flow State?
The research is clear about which conditions set us up for an optimal experience. But Csikszentmihalyi also had some cautions about what blocks us from getting there:
Worried about how others are judging you? About creating a bad impression? About messing up? Then you’ll block yourself from entering the beautiful state.
Someone who is self-centered asks, “how can this activity benefit me?” But many optimal experiences don’t have an end in themselves—games, music, sports are all done for their inherent enjoyment and are resistant to questions like “how can this make me money?” Fixating on an activity’s outcome is a great way to kill flow.
3. Being Passive
Why does so much leisure time feel empty and wasted? This happens when we choose a passive pastime: TV binges or scrolling Instagram comes to mind. Optimal experience requires that we get involved, and challenge ourselves.
4. Psychic Entropy
If this state requires that we consciously focus our psychic energy, then psychic entropy (or disorder) is anything that degrades that focus. Frustration, pain, fear, anger, anxiety, depression—or any of the other greatest hits. These saboteurs divert our finite attention away from optimal experience.
How Long Can You Stay In Flow State?
Anecdotally, I’ve spent full workdays back to back in this optimal state; that time I built a website in a weekend comes to mind. When I’m deeply interested in the work, enjoying it, challenged but not stymied, free from external distractions, and my mind cooperates—i.e. it decides NOT to think about that insult I received in 7th grade—I experience peak performance.
But you can’t force yourself into it. Flow is like meditation: the more you try to control your focus, the more it wanders. It can’t be “tamed”. You can only create the conditions that will help it ensue. My unscientific observation is that you have a pretty good chance of remaining in the beautiful state for as long as those conducive conditions exist.
Can you be in the flow state 24/7?
The short answer: no. Even if you can maintain optimal mental/emotional and external conditions indefinitely, your biology will intervene. Eventually hunger or the need to relieve yourself will take you off the mountain. Don’t beat yourself up about this.
Is it good to always be in flow state?
This is a value judgment, but I say no. Should you create room to have these experiences each day? Yes, why not? But any good thing taken to extremes devolves into a nightmare, as King Midas can tell you.
There are plenty of cautionary tales of chess masters, golfers, or video gamers who spent inordinate amounts of time in their “optimal experience kingdoms” only to destroy their marriages or their health. Use your own good judgment here.
Final Tips on Leveraging Flow
Csikszentmihalyi’s book presents the concept of the “autotelic personality,” the kind of person who enjoys an activity for its own sake, and not for some hope of future reward.
Optimal experiences are by definition activities that are ends in themselves.
It follows, then, that you can become a flow master by cultivating an autotelic personality. How can you create an autotelic personality as an entrepreneur?
1. Forget about the money
If you’re building your business to get rich, you’ll have an optimal experience drought. Instead, dig deep to find a sturdier reason for being an entrepreneur. Paradoxically, when you prioritize working for joy, the money will find you.
2. Give up the unhealthy hustle
Constant busy-ness and long, grueling hours of “pushing” your business will lead you right into stress and burnout. Peak performance doesn’t live there.
3. Do less, but better
Another paradox is that when we focus on only one or two priorities, our overall success grows. Trying to do everything will scatter your focus and block flow. Give yourself a hard talking to about what you’re doing that’s not working, then stop doing it.
4. Let go of expectations
The Stoics advise you to focus on what you can control (your thoughts, words, and actions) and ignore what’s outside of your control (literally everything else). Attaching to outcomes—my customers should buy this product; my employees should work harder—creates psychic entropy: frustration, anger, and disappointment. By all means, have goals, but disconnect them from your emotional needs.
Now that you know how powerful this state can be, and how to create it, how will you leverage it for YOUR business? Let me know in the comments.
Want to spend more time in optimal experience? Book a Grow Your Business Session with me now.