“Starting a company is like eating glass and staring into the abyss of death”. – Elon Musk
There is perhaps no better person than Elon Musk who understands the hard truth that entrepreneurs inevitably must face.
starting a new venture is not the glamorous, fun experience many have tried to sell us. Entrepreneurs are continuously outside of their comfort zone, putting in huge amounts of effort and risking time and money knowing that their project might end up failing anyway. Definitely not for the faint-hearted.
However, some people are willing to go through this arduous process not just once, but many times during their lifetimes. “Serial entrepreneurs” start the hard process all over again, and again, and again. Why is it still worth it for them to repeatedly confront such difficulties?
Researcher Keith Sawyer makes the case: “Serial entrepreneurs keep starting new businesses as much for the flow experience, as for the additional success.”
But what is a “flow experience”? Flow is defined as an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best, and we perform our best. It happens in those moments of rapt attention, when we are so focused at the task at hand, that our sense of self vanishes, our perception of time is distorted and we just merge with the activity we are undertaking. Most major breakthroughs in the arts, sports, and science are attributed to flow states.
Well, it turns out that despite the miseries entrepreneurs must face, they also get to access the flow state very often. Many founders report times when they were able to achieve astonishing results that seemed to be beyond their abilities. Due to the fact that flow experiences can be amongst the most rewarding and significant of a person’s life, entrepreneurs are consciously or unconsciously very motivated to “get back to that place”.
In his seminal book “Flow”, researcher Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi explains: “The key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself. Even if initially undertaken for other reasons, the activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding”.
Besides the positive feelings we experience during flow, it also functions as an extraordinary performance-enhancer. How extraordinary? Studies show an increase in performance of up to 500% during flow. Following these findings, it means that if we manage to increase time spent in flow by just 20%, our productivity will double. It is a complete game-changer.
As entrepreneurs, we are constantly facing life-or-death situations for our company. In such hazardous conditions, learning to access flow reliably might be the only way to perform at our highest level and overcome the obstacles that arise.
Fortunately, the flow state need not be an elusive experience that we occasionally stumble upon by chance. In recent years, scientific advancements have allowed us to learn the neuroscience behind the state and reverse-engineer the mechanics of getting into flow. Let’s see how you too can access the flow state reliably.
Use Flow triggers
One of the best ways to prompt flow is by using “flow triggers” – circumstances that precipitate and accelerate the access to the state. By including them in our day-to-day activities, we’ll access flow more often and enjoy the associated benefits.
Flow trigger 1: High consequences
In order to survive, our ancestors learned to pay attention to dangerous situations that threatened their existence. Be it encountering a scary bear, climbing up high trees or getting kicked out of the tribe, they learned that situations with high consequences were worth paying attention to.
After many years of evolution, our brain developed so that it automatically focuses our attention whenever exposed to a threatening situation, thus increasing our chances of survival and procreation.
Besides, research shows that flow follows focus. Without a high degree of concentration and focused attention, flow simply cannot occur. This is why taking risks and exposing oneself to danger (in an astute way) is a wonderful focus mechanism that we can harness if we wish to access flow. The risks need not be physical; any type of social risk, emotional risk or creative risk will also trigger the state.
In practice: ask yourself: Where am I playing it safe at work? Am I avoiding a scary situation? How can I take more risks in my work? Make a conscious effort to identify how you can increase your risk-taking in a sensible way.
For example, if you’re nervous about asking for help to a mentor or getting feedback from your colleagues, just go ahead and do it anyway. Similarly, if you’re shy and feel uncomfortable answering client calls, again, just do it. By taking the risk, you’re more likely to enter flow. Once you get into flow, you can then harness that momentum and tackle other challenging situations in which you were stuck; you will find that seemingly impossible tasks become suddenly very possible.
Remember: no risk, no fun.
Flow trigger 2: Immediate feedback
The second flow trigger involves proactively seeking out regular feedback about your performance. In order to keep high concentration levels, the brain needs to know if the efforts directed towards completing a task or goal are in fact resulting in the desired outcome.
This is why many videogames are so addictive and can cause low-grade flow states: at any time, you know exactly how well you’re doing, because the game provides constant feedback.
Other types of sports and games humans have invented also have this characteristic. For example, if you rock climb (a very flow-prone activity), your body and brain receive immediate feedback about your performance. In other words, if you fall off the wall, you’ll know straight away. Feeding the brain with updates allows it to keep processing the new information and correct course based on it without losing focus.
In practice: Make sure to give and receive feedback from each member of your team on a daily basis. Check your KPI’s more often. Bottom line: Tighten the feedback loops. Put systems and procedures in place that let you and your team know very frequently whether you’re reaching your objectives or not.
Flow trigger 3: Clear goals
Another way that we can precipitate flow is by setting clear goals. Specifically, it is especially important to leave no ambiguity when defining goals. It must be absolutely clear what hitting the target means. The specificity element is key, because in this way the brain knows exactly what must be done, and is therefore able to let go of everything else and focus exclusively on accomplishing the task.
In addition, breaking down big goals into small, bite-sized tasks is also essential to pull this trigger. This is because every time we accomplish a small task, the brain receives a small hit of dopamine, which is a reward chemical. Accomplishing several of these small tasks in a row means that we’re linking hit after hit of these dopamine “rewards”, so that our attention keeps focused throughout the work session. As an example, instead of writing a full blog post, think about writing just two paragraphs.
In practice: At the end of your workday, define your 3 MIT’s (Most Important Tasks) for the next day. Try to set them challenging, yet feasible. The next morning, during the first 90 minutes, commit to tackle the 3 MIT’s you set out to accomplish. Leave out all distractions. As usual, the key here is consistency to be able to form the habit.
Flow trigger 4: The Challenge/Skill equation
Arguably the most important trigger of all, the challenge/ skill equation explains how flow occurs when the skill level and the challenge level of the activity are in balance. Let’s take a look at the following graph:
In 1, both skill level and challenge level are low. Low-grade flow can occur here, and it is one of the reasons why novices of any skill can have fun and experience a rapid rate of improvement in the beginning. However, flow experiences tend to become more remarkable once you move upwards along the flow channel.
At 2, flow won’t occur, because the challenge becomes then too easy to accomplish and therefore boredom is likely to arise. The way to come back to flow is simply to increase the difficulty of the task. Moreover, at 3, you also won’t experience flow, because the challenge is too hard for your skill level.
Ever played a chess/tennis/football match against someone way beyond your skill level and felt frustrated as a result? Me too (sucks, right?). Luckily, here too there’s a solution: increase your abilities; practice more until you feel confident enough to confront that challenge.
Finally, situation 4 is the most conducive to flow. With high skill level and a difficult challenge, we exert ourselves fully and put our abilities to the test. Finally, flow occurs: the prefrontal cortex is able to shut off and our subconscious mind takes over, with its advantages in speed and pattern recognition.
In practice: This trigger sounds great in theory, but implementing it is not easy, because it is necessary to acquire enough self-awareness to recognize the stage one is in before being able to adjust the skill level or difficulty level accordingly.
A good way to train this awareness is by practicing mindfulness (the app Headspace is a great way to start). In addition, try to consciously identify the level of skill and challenge you find yourself in. Ask yourself regularly: is this task/project too easy for me? Am I feeling bored? And also: is this task/project too hard for me? Am I feeling stressed, anxious or overwhelmed? The answer will vary from person to person, of course.
What might be easy for someone could be hard for another. Be honest with yourself, and don’t be ashamed of admitting both non-flow situations (boredom and stress/anxiety). Making the necessary adjustments and reaching flow as a result is well worth the effort.
Flow Follows Focus: Protect Your Attention
Even if you implement these four triggers in your work, flow is unlikely to occur if you get interrupted. As we mentioned earlier, flow follows focus. This is the reason why distractions are your kryptonite when it comes to accessing flow.
Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine, found that a typical office worker gets only 11 minutes between each interruption, while it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task after an interruption.
Study after study show that any kind of repetitive interruption such as app notifications, text messages, email, etc. while working affect profoundly our ability to concentrate, and so being in flow becomes almost impossible.
While many of us know this intuitively, we still let ourselves be constantly distracted by our devices, and here’s why: companies like Facebook, Google or Amazon are spending millions of dollars figuring out how to gain our attention; they’ve hijacked our attention spans by leveraging our neuronal reward systems so that we constantly keep coming back to check news feeds and click the ads that appear there. In doing so, they’re monetizing the time we spend on these platforms.
This is the reason why it is not enough to merely wish not to get distracted by our digital devices. It is not enough to have your phone upside down on the table. Instead, we must reclaim our ability to work without interruptions by proactively putting systems in place that will forcefully prevent us from mindlessly following our ingrained habits of email/text/newsfeed checking. Only in this way do we stand a chance to enter flow and produce our best work.
In practice: There are many software applications for your phone and computer specifically designed for this purpose. Start by installing “Freedom” for Mac and Windows. For your phone, install the app “Offtime”. Alternatively, buy a simple kitchen safe, put in your phone and lock the safe for a specific amount of focus time. Simplicity for the win.
Taking the time and effort to implement these changes will result in an increased amount of time spent in flow, which will dramatically increase your productivity, creativity and success in business. By going off our way to train ourselves in flow, we can then leverage the state to propel us much further, reaching new levels of performance.