Hack Your Flow (Psychological Triggers)
Flow states have triggers—psychological, environmental, social, and creative.
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Psychological, or internal triggers, are conditions in our inner environment that create more flow. They’re psychological strategies for driving attention into the now.
Back in the 1970s, pioneering flow researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified clear goals, immediate feedback, and the challenge/skills ratio as the three most critical:
#1 Clear Goals The first trigger tells us where and when to put our attention. When goals are clear, the mind doesn’t have to wonder about what to do or what to do next—it already knows.
This also tells us something about emphasis. When considering “clear goals,” most have a tendency to skip over the adjective (clear) to get to the noun (goals).
But if creating more flow is the aim, then the emphasis falls on “clear” and not “goals.” Clarity gives us certainty. When goals are clear, meta-cognition is replaced by in-the-moment cognition, and the self stays out of the picture.
Applying this idea in our daily life means breaking tasks into bite-size chunks, and setting goals accordingly. A writer, for example, is better off trying to pen three great paragraphs at a time, rather than attempting one great chapter. Think challenging, yet manageable—just enough stimulation to shortcut attention into the now, not enough stress to pull you back out again.
#2 Immediate Feedback The term refers to a direct, in-the-moment coupling between cause and effect. Clear goals tell us what we’re doing; immediate feedback tells us how to do it better.
If we know how to improve performance in real-time, the mind doesn’t go off in search of clues for betterment; we can keep ourselves fully present and fully focused and thus much more likely to be in "flow".
Tighten feedback loops. Put mechanisms in place so attention doesn’t have to wander. Ask for more input. How much input? Well, forget quarterly reviews. Think daily reviews. Studies have found that in professions with less direct feedback loops—stock analysis, psychiatry, medicine—even the best get worse over time. Surgeons, by contrast, are the only class of physicians that improve the longer they’re out of medical school. Why? Mess up on the table and someone dies. That’s immediate feedback.
#3 The Challenge/Skills Ratio Arguably the most important. Attention is most engaged (i.e., in the now), when there’s a very specific relationship between the difficulty of a task and our ability to perform that task.
Flow appears near the emotional midpoint between boredom and anxiety, in what scientists call the “flow channel”—the spot where the task is hard enough to make us stretch; not hard enough to make us snap.
This sweet spot keeps attention locked in the present.