Hunting Mammoths: Flow State Factors
“It takes nothing to join the crowd. It takes everything to stand alone”
―Hans F. Hansen
Research has shown that your brain wave pattern shifts from ordinary Beta waves (those associated with waking consciousness, the average state) to the slower Alpha/Theta borderline if you are in a flow state.
Trouble understanding this? Have you ever been in a state of flow and agitated? Have you ever been in a state of flow and reacting to input? The answer to both is no: those are contradictory and mutually exclusive states of consciousness.
The brain displays alpha waves (8 to 12 Hz) in flow states, translating in a clear but hard focus. In this state, you can absorb information more efficiently. You can think, create, produce and transform more than in any other state.
Theta waves (3 to 8 Hz) occur during a dream-like state close to sleep.
Super hack time: most great inventors hack this system by falling asleep several times a day. Tomas Edison used to fall asleep in his chair several times a day with keys in his hand that would then fall onto a plate. The keys would only fall after being quasi-asleep (hand muscles relax) for a couple of minutes but would wake him up so he could capitalize on the peak of theta waves without falling totally asleep and thus losing powerful creativity. If he knew about the theory for this back then or if he naturally did this and it helped him produce major breakthroughs is the proverbial hair that needs splitting.
Back to flow time. Flow states are incredibly powerful if you want to memorize, learn, or create. In addition to shifting brain wave activity, flow induces an effective change in neurochemistry. Anandamide, serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, and endorphins are released during a flow state. This is the perfect cocktail of chemicals to make you super effective and make you actually have pleasure while doing the work.
It’s like a runner’s high but for productivity.
As Steven Kotler once more pointed out: “Flow is the only moment in which the brain can produce all five neurotransmitters. This results in a state of being that are pleasurable, meaningful, and – literally – addicting.” Well… I guess the term workaholic is not that big of a stretch now, is it?
At this point, and given the nature of my profession, it would be a good time to point out that there are more than 60 neurotransmitters in the brain. This takes nothing from the essence of Mr. Kotler’s quote, though.
Despite its power, the flow state is quite rare nowadays. The same McKinsey’s 10-year study found that most knowledge workers’ best individual hours come in at just five percent of the entire working day. This means that most people operate at a lower level of performance for approximately 95% of the time (38 hours of a 40-hour workweek!).
Unfortunately, we usually spend only 5% of our workweek in a flow state. We need more of this and less of the other crap (pardon my French). One thing is evident, operating in a flow state provides significant benefits. It allows deep concentration, information processing quicker, and you attain your maximum mental capacity. It’s the pathway to peak performance.
The Bane of Flow State: Distraction Overload and Junk Information
“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”
One of the main reasons people don’t spend a lot of time in this state is that we are being flooded with information more than ever before. You know how there’s junk food, junk noise, junk light (blue light in the evening, for example), well it turns out that the biggest junks of all junks – the grandmaster junk – might well be junk information.
Remember Milton Friedman: “what hurts us is not what we know, but what we know that ain’t so.”
One study published in the Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems showed that people get distracted every 6-8 minutes, and the constant stream of notifications is preventing them from getting in a flow state . This is why people work full 8-hour workdays and achieve nothing.
A Microsoft study found that people’s average attention span has decreased by 33% since 2000, resulting in more difficulty completing tasks. Working in a flow state – which requires a distraction-free environment – is more complex than ever.
Remember: avoid the grandmaster of junk that is junk information for increased flow states.
Flow State Mastery: The Quattro C Method
“No king rules forever, my son.”
―King Terenas Menethil
There are many techniques and skills to develop to protect your flow states. I’m not going to cover them all here. Yet, I’m going to give you the ones that will yield the most juice per single unit of squeezing energy applied, easy peasy lemon squeezy.
The Quattro C Method consists of:
- Controlling your environment
- Controlling your mind
- Controlling your sleep
- Controlling cognitive performance
You’ve got the gist of it. C stands for control.
Controlling Your Environment
You can have more focus and high-quality mental performance by blocking out all distractions.
Mental energy is required to maintain a deep focus, and mental energy gets drained by shifting focus from A to B and back to A.
As a result of information overload and constant distractions, it’s rare for people to operate at maximum mental capacity due to how energy-draining it is. To achieve a flow state for two or more hours per day, preferably when your mental energy levels are at their peak.
Early in the morning is usually a good time for uninterrupted work. Remember, solitude is the cradle of flow states. Yet, many people spend their mornings dealing with low-value tasks and distractions. When you’ve already completed several easy tasks, your brain is no longer able to focus as intensely on high-performance work.
As my productivity is highest in the morning, I make sure to prioritize it during that time. What works for me, for example, I spend 2-3 hours of deep work on my priority (singular use intended) task for the day, whatever that is. In the afternoon, I manage my other projects, have meetings, etc. As the day progresses, I do more and more tasks that require low brainpower and are more repetitive in nature.
To reiterate this crucial point, the number one enemy of flow is a distraction. Distractions like your smartphone, email, notifications, or social media can leave you with attention residue. Attention residue indicates that some of your attention was lost during the previous distraction.
It takes about 22 minutes for this attention residue to fade, according to research . This means that the brain can’t shift from a distraction to a task without some form of penalty, which we call switching costs.
Think of it as the transaction cost of trading focus from one place to the other.
Switching costs will lower your productivity immensely each day as they block you from entering a deep state of flow. To succeed in this type of work, create an environment that is free of distractions so that you can focus on what needs to be done.
A distracting environment prevents an uninterrupted, deep state of flow. To produce the ideal distraction-free space and experience prolonged periods of focus, you should do this:
Close all unrelated tabs (use tools and apps like UnHook for youtube, for example).
- Disable all notifications for emails, smartphones, and other devices.
- Don’t look at your smartphone, or better, don’t have a smartphone. If you must have a smartphone, use color filter grayscale. I promise you that your phone being all grey and old looking instead of all colorful and flashy will do you good.
- Have nothing but work stuff in the room you work: i.e., no plant you need to water, no picture that reminds you of that time you did that cool thing).
- Become unjoinable.
Side note time: ever wondered why high-impact people wake up early in the morning like they’re going to bake croissants? Is the morning magical? Or is it simply because everybody else is asleep at this time and there’s no distraction? You could also argue that there’s no distraction late evenings. That is true. Yet putting your most important work as the last item of the day, when you have less energy, is ill-advised.
You also should let your family and coworkers know when you will be available for their requests and when you will no longer be available.
The Monkey Mind: Control It
Eliminating these distractions has eliminated external distractions, and now it’s time to focus on internal problems. If you’re successful enough with minimizing your external distractions, then your monkey mind will start getting really loud.
Our environment may be free of distractions, but our thoughts and ideas often distract us from what we are doing. I really struggled with this. When I removed distraction from my life, it became undeniable that I had a lot of work to do regarding controlling my thoughts. I’m not going to annoy you with my struggles but rather paint broad strokes and give you more general advice that surely will apply to you. You can work out the details.
Buddhists refer to a racing, uncontrolled mind as a monkey mind. Have you ever had thoughts of getting swept up in worry or falling down the rabbit hole? Like an actual monkey, our minds are constantly swinging from one tree to another, always finding something new and exciting or fearsome for us to think about.
We all spend a significant amount of time in that uncontrolled state; estimates range from 30 to 50% of productive time spent abandoned to the monkey mind. It is crucial to control this monkey mind not to cause one’s concentration and focus on diminishing. Thus, causing mental fatigue to refocus.
If you want to control your monkey mind, these are the steps I recommend.
Reduce Reactive and Racing Thoughts
Limit your daily consumption of information. I haven’t read or watched the news in years. Some people would say I’m uninformed… Well, I’d rather be uninformed than misinformed. At least the former takes less time. Also the way I see it, if i’m watching the news, I’m following a news outlet business model instead of being busy with my own.
Have a System
Keep a system handy (for example, a notebook) when working in deep focus so you can capture pop-up thoughts, ideas, or tasks. The purpose of your mind isn’t to store ideas and thoughts; it’s to create high-quality ideas and thoughts. Have a look at this list of productivity tips if the spirit moves you.
Don’t Eat Like a Kid
Consume sugar and caffeine in moderation or best not at all (there’s a reason my company’s cognitive formulations don’t contain caffeine), as this leads to a busy, uncontrolled mind. Consider intermittent fasting. If that’s not an option, consider reducing calories during work time. Digestion takes a lot of energy.
Develop the habit of daily meditation, as it helps you maintain a calm, focused mind. This is not spiritual meditation, although if you want to, I’m sure it won’t hurt. This is mind-strengthening meditation. This is the kind of meditation you use to train your mind to bite on a task like a raging pit bull and not let go until it’s done.
Every day, keep a journal to jot down your most dominant thoughts, ideas, or worries: once they are on paper, they are gone.
Total prescribed posology: 15 minutes a day (10 for meditation and 5 for journaling). The rest is actually more about removing than about adding.
I haven’t used an alarm clock in years. The reason is that I don’t have a set time to wake up. But I do have a set time to go to bed.
Sleep is a vast topic and also one that most people don’t want to consider as it involves mainly willpower and discipline. Both of those are in short supply.
I don’t want to turn this into a “you should do this, you should do that” sermon. But if you want voodoo productivity tips, here’s the gist of it: nothing will have more effect on your productivity than your sleep quantity and quality.
You can sleep 4 hours in 8 hours, or you can sleep 8 hours in 6 hours. In most people, behavioral factors are what determine which side you’re on. This is nothing new. It’s a concept called sleep efficiency.
You want to increase the quality of your sleep per unit of time you spend in bed. Now how do we do this?
Without getting into the super tedious side of biohacking, there are a couple of things that yield superior results for low effort. All those things need to be tested for yourself as there is biological variation. How do you test it? By feeling? Absolutely not. Relying on feeling to assess those things is a poor method. It’s like choosing the most effective training regiment by how you feel about it or assessing if omega 3 fatty acids are beneficial for you by what you feel.
You use a reliable sleep tracker like the Oura ring, and you split test one variable at a time long enough to get a significant test power.
Without further ado, here are quick tips to improve sleep efficiency dramatically
Invest in Your Bed
Do you think spending an extra $2000 on a MacBook Super Elite is going to increase your productivity as much as the same extra $2000 spent on a quality bed, with super soft sheets and pillows and a top-shelf mattress? Call me crazy, but for me, money spent on bed quality is an investment, not an expense. I wish tax accountants would agree.
Cut Junk Light
It doesn’t cost too much money to replace your standard light bulbs with softer lights or dimmable lights for the evening. More soothing lights emit less blue light, which is the main culprit in delaying endogenous melatonin production. Invest in some funky blue-light-blocking glasses like the TrueDark Twilight if you must look at screens before bed. You’ll look like an obnoxious tech multimillionaire, but nobody needs to see you aside from the people living with you. Also, needless to say, that your bedroom should be so dark that you wouldn’t be able to see your hand 2 centimeters (1 inch) away from your face.
Cut Junk Communication
Cut junk communication all the time or particularly in the evening. You don’t need a Ph.D. in neuroscience to understand that chatting on Whatsapp or Social Media a few hours before bed activates your brain. Social media and communication in nature are not soporific. Non-soporific activities are not smart activities in the evening. Protect your sleep.
Control temperature and humidity in your bedroom. The best temperature for sleep is around 20 degrees Celcius or 68 degrees Fahrenheit (split test it for yourself), and the ideal humidity is around 60%. The nice thing about humid bedrooms is that they also reduce wrinkles. If you can’t control temperature fully, playing around with socks thickness will dramatically influence your core body temperature and induce the much desired soporific effect. Also, portable humidifiers are quite affordable and low weight.
Alcohol Does Hurt
Avoid alcohol 6 hours before bed or at least limit it as much as possible. Alcohol consumption delays REM sleep and prevents you from achieving high sleep efficiency.
Control Cognitive Performance
There are billions of dollars spent annually worldwide on supplements. Estimates range from $125 to $150 billion annually. The vast majority of it is to make either your biceps hard or your penis hard… those are fine endeavors by themselves.
Yet, how can anyone’s budget for pre-workouts and protein powders be higher than for cognitive supplements? What outcomes are these people expecting from a 3% bigger biceps?
I would say it’s by various degrees of magnitude easier to become great at business than it is to become great at sports, even if you have the genetics.
You’ll notice that I’ll talk exclusively about cognitive supplementation in this step as we’ve covered the Godzilla of productivity in the step above, i.e., sleep, and you already know you should exercise reasonably often and you should eat properly for cognitive performance.
Let’s drill down on cognitive supplementation. Essentially, cognitive optimization is boosting your mental performance through a variety of techniques based on neuroscience.
These cognitive boosters help you to reach the most profound states of flow for more extended periods.
My recommendations for optimizing your cognitive performance are as follows: