What do entrepreneurs and surfers have in common?
They’re at their best when they’re in “flow state”.
The “flow State” is like “runner’s high” for creative people. When you’re in the flow state, you’re entirely focused and creative; you feel productive and successful.
The flow state is created when the work you’re performing is challenging enough to demand your full attention, but not so challenging that you can’t complete it.
Entrepreneurs, surfers and painters do their best work in a state of flow. That mental state is fleeting, but proper training can help anyone enter the flow state more quickly; stay in the flow state longer; and regain the flow state when it’s interrupted.
A primary principle of training for flow state is “thinking body, dancing mind.” When we perform a repetitive physical task, our bodies are busy but require little conscious attention from our brains. In other words, we perform on autopilot. This is why we often have our best ideas while showering, or driving, or mowing the lawn: our bodies are busy, but we don’t have to devote any focus to what we’re doing. Our movements are automatic. It’s also why walking meditation is easier than seated meditation: when you sit for hours on end, you can easily be distracted by the aches and pains of tightening muscles. Yoga was created as preparation for long periods of physical stillness. I believe we can achieve the same meditative results by performing repetitive physical motions, which will keep instinctive areas of the brain occupied but leave the neocortex free to “dance”.
Achieving flow state requires an elevated heart rate. But the level of physical challenge can’t be too great, or it will require all of your attention. Longtime surfers can enter a state of flow while surfing; novice surfers can’t, because they have to expend too much attention trying to stay upright. The easier a skill to learn, the easier it is to master, and physical mastery is required to enter a state of mental focus. Running is simple to a runner, allowing them to achieve runner’s high; running is painfully complex to a non-runner, so they must maintain focus on their stumbling gait, ragged breathing and sore muscles.
Go Long, Not Hard
Surfing is a complex task to master. But walking isn’t. Cycling isn’t. As soon as a base level of fitness has been achieved in either, flow state can be triggered. Newcomers to exercise will require more time to enter a state of flow, but a person who cycles every day will be able to focus within minutes on the bike.
This doesn’t mean that training for the Tour de France is necessary. To the contrary: when a cyclist rides on flat terrain for an hour, they can stay in flow state for most of the ride. But when they approach a tough climb, all of their attention must be refocused on the effort required to get up the hill.
A Learned Skill
The more often you practice meditation, the faster you can enter a meditative state. Call it “mindfulness” or call it “flow state”, but practice makes you better. Most first-time meditators fall asleep, or stop after a short period because they cramp up. As their physical fitness improves, they can spend longer periods in stillness. And as their cognitive fitness improves, they can “go deep” much faster, optimizing the time they have.
Long-term practitioners of mental training can enter the flow state within five minutes. If they lose focus due to fatigue or boredom, they can re-enter the flow state quickly (just a walk around the block, or a few minutes’ worth of pushups and squats. Novices take longer.
Peaks and Valleys
Of course, many people require a big eraser to clear their slate. They must perform a physical activity that requires their full attention to block out distractions and reset their focus. This is where CrossFit training (going hard, not long) can help. Exercise with a heavy load, or requiring high-level technique, has a “blocking” effect. Snatches require all-encompassing focus, leaving no room for distraction. This can clear the board mentally for a short period.
For example, a CrossFit athlete might do a very hard “WOD” (workout of the day) in which they fight to keep moving for 12 minutes at a time. All of their attention is required to do the next squat, or take the next breath, or to avoid falling off a high box, or to fight through one more pull-up. The distractions from work are temporarily forgotten. After the workout is completed, the distractions will slowly re-enter the athlete’s consciousness, but not all at once. And the hormonal response to a tough CrossFit workout will also leave the athlete in a better frame of mind to deal with the distractions.
During a normal workweek, 3-4 CrossFit workouts are an excellent strategy for maintaining focus and managing stress. Long-term, CrossFit can prepare the brain for maximal cognitive power. But during an abnormally high period of work or stress, CrossFit workouts might be too much; in those cases, opt for less intensity and more cyclical duration.
The Value of Manual Labor
Remember the scene from Karate Kid when the old man asks Daniel-san to wax his classic cars? That’s where the phrase “Wax on, wax off”–one of the most famous movie lines of all times–comes from. The movie explained the need for the movement as “strengthening Daniel-san’s muscles” or “building discipline”. But what Daniel-san was really building was his ability to focus. It’s a classic thinking-body-dancing-mind exercise. At first, Daniel is pretty bad at waxing cars. But as his skill improves, he’s able to “zone out” and focus on other things. Many would report the same benefits to tai chi or yoga. But we can achieve the same value without special clothing by performing repetitive manual tasks.
For example, washing the dishes. Or piling wood, or shoveling snow, or cutting the grass. Each ticks all of the boxes necessary to achieve flow state:
An elevated heart rate
No high-level attention required
The value of working in your “Flow State” is tremendous. It’s easy to fill a day being busy; it’s hard to fill a few hours with actually being productive. There are countless self-help books on the topic, but there’s ONE easy-to-follow PLAN. And you can get it FREE.