In the zone: Why the world’s most successful entrepreneurs are embracing ‘flow’

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Virgin Group founder Richard Branson.

More productivity, more effort, more results — the list of advancements in business seems to never end. Executives now face an enormous amount of pressure every day just to keep up with the status quo.

So how can executives keep up with the endless demands without burning out? Put simply, and to conclude decades of research: flow.

‘Flow’, a term you may be more accustomed to hearing surrounding money, charts or from avoidant slogans such as ‘just go with the flow dude’, is the scientific term for operationalising optimal experience. A ‘flow’ experience encapsulates our most optimal level of functioning. 

Within elite performing circles, flow is seen as the holy grail of mental states. It is credited to underpin the performances that have won Olympic medals, World Championships, and spearheaded scientific breakthroughs. It is an underlying meta state that sits at the heart of innovation and peak performance.

It is why Richard Branson said: “In two hours in flow I can accomplish tremendous things.” It is why The Mckinsey Global Research Institute reported from a 10-year study that executives are five times more productive in flow. And why the University of Sydney report a 430% increase in creative problem-solving.

We may know this psychophysiological state intuitively, indeed research posits 25% of the population report being in flow regularly, with only 10% having never experienced it.

We may have heard people talking about ‘being in the zone’, ‘hitting the sweet spot’, or ‘being on fire’ — sub-cultures have endless colloquial names for this state of immersion in which we become so focused into an activity that we lose all self-consciousness, then emerge surprised by how we have just applied our abilities.

At first glance, these experiences can seem mysterious, elusive and even ‘wishy-washy’. Its paradoxical nature of effortless action leaves many intelligent people perplexed and even suspicious this state could ever be reverse engineered.

Flow science has seen unprecedented growth in the last five years. Thanks to technological advancement and the efforts of dedicated scientists, flow has a psychophysiological blueprint that is nothing short of mind-blowing. Unlike our usual physiological signature of when challenged, flow experiences activate different parts of our brain, efficiently utilise our neural networks, and turn our body into an optimal functioning vessel.

It is why flow feels so great.

The level of internal congruency makes us feel empowered like nothing else. The cortico-muscular coherence and synchronicity between mind and body results in an unusual level of fluency in our action and words — hence why this ‘flowy’ experience was termed flow.

In flow, our mind and body are in total harmony, all our usual monitoring centres in the brain, such as those scanning for threats, take a break. We experience reduced activity in our amygdala and limbic system causing a pleasurable reduction of stress in our body. Our self-awareness networks that are ordinarily continuously establishing barriers of self subside, allowing us to discard the annoyingly present inner critic. And for a few incredible moments, we get to feel deeply connected to the task, like when the pen we are writing with feels like an extension of our hand or when the wing mirrors of a car feel like our own ears as we speed through a tight gap. 

 How does this happen?

In flow, our brain utilises our more innate and efficient cognitive system to process incoming stimuli and manage our reactions. This has the net effect of drastically speeding up our ability to process information, enabling us to make quicker and more informed decisions. In flow, anything that’s not relevant to the moment and the task is ditched, giving us extra energy and capacity to rise above an ordinary performance into an extraordinary performance. All of this incredible engineering makes us highly efficient and productive. We experience a level of self-trust that is rarely allowed to govern our experiences. Instead of reacting to our thoughts and emotions like we have become accustomed, in flow, we act with intuition getting the best of our intelligence centres. Collectively, this internal experience is so intrinsically rewarding it neurochemically fills our mind and body with endorphins and dopamine that leaves us feeling alive and elated — in fact, studies from the University of Harvard report that we can feel creative for days after a flow experience.

This exact psychophysiological chain of events is exactly why flow is empirically linked with enjoyment, engagement, mastery, competence, productivity, retention, wellbeing, active coping, creativity, innovation, and amplified performance in the workplace. More importantly, its neurochemical impact on our psyche creates a growth principle. Meaning, it feels so good that it urges us to face new challenges in order to return to this experience. This cyclical process provides a natural and intrinsically motivated pathway to learn and grow. It increases our abilities and allows individuals and teams to amplify their performance sustainably.

The secondary upside for companies is loyalty. Pride, gratitude, and identity are attached to the activity that facilitated the experience. Which is why it comes to no surprise that successful businesses such as Google and Patagonia use Flow inducing methods to elicit this behavioural pattern and add value to their company.

Experiencing flow regularly at work is the difference between ‘just another day at the office’ and a great day at work. It is the difference between an ordinary team that does enough to get by and an A team that drives the business forward. Flow is not a new fashionable concept that is temporarily creating New York Times best-sellers — far from it. Researchers such as William James, Abraham Maslow and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi have been examining this optimal experience since the early-1900s.

Though progress from the academic to the public domain has been slow to date, thanks to the examples of DARPA, Google, Navy Seals, Virgin and Red Bull (and the list goes on), today and tomorrow are different.

Thanks to these bold and courageous high performers, flow is now firmly at the zenith of peak performance training and certainly a pivotal ingredient to high-performing teams.

NOW READ: Your emails can wait: Why you should stop squandering the first two hours of your day

NOW READ: Conventional wisdom is killing your team’s creativity — but it doesn’t have to


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