In a flow state, you become so absorbed in whatever you’re doing that inner chatter, anticipatory anxiety, and boredom fade. You accomplish more in an hour of flow than in eight hours of scattered, unfocused work.
Flow state is more than a performance hack: it’s a lifestyle choice that brings you higher levels of fulfillment. But our energy levels, enthusiasm, and stamina can vary widely. Some days, you can access the flow state with very little effort. On others, it feels like a gated garden only the most elite performers have the keys to.
Fortunately, positive psychology researchers have identified ‘flow triggers,’ or conditions that can speed our entry into flow states.
Flow triggers: Subterranean doorways into flow states
Using flow triggers, anyone can optimize their environment, mindset, and work approach to reliably and consistently access the flow state.
Author and speaker Steven Kotler wrote about flow triggers in his book, The Rise of Superman. Kotler and colleagues extended the original flow state research spearheaded by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Conducting large-scale interviews, Koetler found commonalities in the way athletes, adventurers, and other high performers drove themselves into flow states.
His findings indicated that what Csikszentmihalyi classified as dimensions of flow were actually triggers of flow that anyone could use to enter the flow state at will  From a combination of neuroscience research and interviews with high performers, Koetler and colleagues broke flow triggers into four categories: psychological, social, environmental, and creative.
Why flow triggers plug you into the deep now
Flow triggers work by immersing us in the present moment, also known as the “deep now.” Flow triggers cause the brain to release performance- and motivation-supporting neurochemicals like dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, endorphins, and anandamide , accounting for why flow states feel intrinsically rewarding, and why they strip away performance anxiety or excess focus on external rewards like money or prestige.
Flow triggers also reduce our cognitive load, limiting the number of things we’re paying attention to. The less scattered our attention, the more energy and focus we bring to our work.
While you may only need one or two triggers to access flow on a given day, you can strategically introduce additional triggers when you need a boost or when a project demands an unusual amount of creativity. Pairing triggers across categories (i.e. a psychological flow trigger with a creative flow trigger) can be especially useful.
Psychological flow triggers
Using psychological triggers, we can draw on habits and perspectives that sharpen our focus and promote deeper immersion into the now. Psychological flow triggers include:
Clear and immediate feedback
When you seek concrete evidence of your progress with a given task, it creates enjoyment and intrinsic motivation to continue.
One way to incorporate feedback is to set time constraints before starting each thing you do within a day, whether they’re work tasks, chores, or hobbies. Though it can seem strange to set time limits on hobbies, these limits can be containers that improve your clarity, sharpen your focus, and strip away habits that complicate your process or needlessly stretch it out by adding distractions or inefficiencies.
When it comes to work-related tasks, you can set constraints using a time-tracking app (like Clockify) to see how long it takes you to initially finish a task. Then, when you do it again, you can gamify the process by working to beat your previous time.
Sharp, narrowly focused attention induces flow because it improves the quality of the focus you bring to what you’re doing.
By contrast, task switching is a common way people lock themselves out of flow states.
When you ask your brain to focus on many different types of tasks within a short window, your performance degrades : in the process of switching, you lose the energy, focus, and willpower you could devote to your primary goal.
Instead of task switching, try task batching: group tasks of a similar nature together, and do them all at once. For example, instead of answering emails while you eat breakfast or get ready, take a single 30-minute window for answering all the day’s emails. Batching any category of tasks that require similar skills will sharpen your focus, improve your efficiency, and help you enter the flow state.
The curiosity-passion-purpose trio
It’s easy to overestimate the extent to which extrinsic rewards actually motivate us. Many people miss out on flow because they tell themselves they want financial freedom, success, or prestige. But these vague, extrinsic goals don’t motivate them to take the necessary daily actions to get there.
To use the curiosity-passion-purpose trio as a flow trigger, ask yourself how each item on your to-do list relates to your long-term vision for your life. Go beyond external rewards like money or success and focus on why you’d still do the task regardless of the rewards it brings to you.
This habit can help you develop an ‘autotelic’ personality (as it’s called in flow state research ). Autotelic people access flow states the most because they stay connected with the intrinsic rewards of their tasks (rather than attached to their outcomes).
Reflect on your answers, write them down, and keep them at your desk, so you can revisit them whenever you get bored or discouraged.
Ideal challenge-to-skill ratio
Flow states happen in the sweet spot between challenge and skill. You don’t want your work to be so easy that you become bored or so difficult that you grow frustrated.
One way to strike this balance is to blend novelty with familiarity. For example, if you’re presenting ideas on a familiar topic, can you present them on a platform you’ve never tried before? What about using familiar concepts or frameworks to present complex ideas?
Environmental flow triggers
You can also induce flow by strategically altering different variables in your environment. Environmental flow triggers are:
Consequences can be physical, social, or emotional. Whatever shape they take, consequences create a feeling of having something to lose, which immerses you in the present moment.
You might take a social risk by strategically placing jokes into an information-dense presentation. Or a productivity risk by working in public (leaving your laptop charger at home), while you challenge yourself to complete your work before it dies. Though these risks aren’t sky high, they’ll introduce a sense of urgency likely to induce flow.
After reaching the flow state, one of the most common reports is the feeling of becoming one with a task. Your actions and your awareness are more likely to emerge when doing something that engages several of your senses at once.
Try this: when you find your attention drifting, regain focus by tuning into your senses, one by one. You might practice tuning into the way the keys feel when they touch your fingertips or listening to the hum of the tea kettle in your kitchen.
Like a body scan, narrowing your focus to one sense at a time anchors your attention into the present. The more in touch with the present you become, the less susceptible you are to overanalysis or overthinking, enemies of the flow state.
An overly rigid routine can prevent flow because our brains automatically tune into novelty. A rich environment is complex, varied, and unpredictable (but not so much so that you become overwhelmed).
This can be concrete, like working in a new space or rearranging your work setting, or psychological, like venturing into a new skill or career path.
Creative flow triggers
Pattern recognition, linking two familiar, unrelated ideas to create something novel, is a creative flow state trigger.
Consuming a wide and eclectic range of information can be an engine of pattern recognition. When you listen to podcasts or read books about topics that feel worlds apart, you’re likely to find innovative and unheard-of ways of combining them. This will make your creative process feel more engrossing, while simultaneously setting your work apart from your peers.
Social flow triggers
The same triggers that help us get into the zone internally can also raise group performance.
In his book, Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, creativity and learning expert Keith Sawyer extended the original flow state research , exploring the conditions that help people enter flow states as a group. A few examples of social flow triggers include:
Shared clear goals
To achieve collective flow, a group needs clarity about their shared intentions. Effective shared goals strike a balance: these goals are transparent enough so group members know when they’re moving in the right direction. But they’re not so rigid that team members can’t introduce novel ideas or solve problems innovatively.
Close listening and affirming
One of the cardinal rules of improvisational acting is to respond to every idea by building upon it rather than negating it. This is typically called the “Yes, and…” rule.
A group will be more likely to access flow if each member accepts and expands upon their team members’ ideas. Close listening and affirming usually involves a commitment to letting go of preconceived notions and prioritizing in-the-moment, group-driven problem-solving.
Familiarity and equal participation
When team members share skill and knowledge levels, they’re more likely to enter flow because they’ll need similar challenge-to-skill ratios. For example, two chess masters competing against each other are much more likely to reach a mutual flow state than a master playing a novice.
Collaborating with people just slightly above your skill level can shorten the time it takes you to master something.
When egos blend, individuals aren’t acting solely in response to their personal interests: their choices reflect the needs of the group as a whole. Part of why ego blending serves as a flow trigger is that it forces you out of your head and into the flow of the group dynamics.
To promote ego blending, make a practice of shifting attention away from yourself and toward others in your group. Instead of worrying about what the other person’s thinking, direct your focus to the other person’s words or body language. The more heard another person feels in your presence, the more they’ll share, and the more you’ll learn.
The overlooked, yet foundational flow trigger
Beyond the triggers outlined in the flow state literature, a single factor underlies them all: your nervous system.
Have you ever gotten into a flow state while stressed? It’s unlikely. We can’t access flow unless we feel safe–from a physiological and psychological perspective.
When we’re in survival mode (also known as sympathetic or a “fight-or-flight” state), the body focuses on the bare minimum–keeping us alive–bypassing higher-order processes that make life comfortable and meaningful: rejuvenating sleep, refreshing social connection, and deep focus and flow.
To feel safe at the physiological level, we need what stress psychologists call “signals of safety,” or sensory inputs that tell our nervous systems we’re not in danger, and that it’s safe to move out of survival mode and into rest-and-digest.
While there are many ways to signal safety to your body, including a healthy, balanced diet, meditation, and exercise, all of these require persistent effort.
By contrast, the Apollo wearable strengthens your stress resilience on autopilot. Apollo is a wearable device that sends silent, soothing sound waves that the body recognizes as safety cues. Over time, the Apollo wearable trains the body to adapt to stress more fluidly , as measured by improvements in heart rate variability (HRV), one of the most reliable biomarkers of stress resilience.
When our nervous systems are resilient, we’re able to consciously respond when life gets painful, rather than unconsciously react. By supporting the body’s capacity to adapt to stress, the Apollo wearable is a flow state trigger. As we become more stress resilient, we also become more equipped for high performance and attuned with the present moment (that place where all the fun and meaningful parts of life hang out).
- Kotler, S. (2014). The rise of superman. New Harvest.
- Kotler, S.[Big Think]. The neurochemistry of flow states. [Video]. Bigthink.com https://bigthink.com/videos/the-neurochemistry-of-flow-states-with-steven-kotler/
- American Psychological Association. (2006, March, 20). Multitasking: Switching costs. https://www.apa.org/topics/research/multitasking
- Baumann, N. Autotelic personality. (2021). Advances in flow research. In: Peifer, C., Engeser, S. (eds) Advances in Flow Research. Springer, Cham. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-53468-4_9#citeas
- Sawyer, KR. (2007). Group genius: The creative power of collaboration. Basic Books.
- Rabin, D., Siegle, G. Toward emotion prosthetics: Emotion Regulation through wearable vibroacoustic stimulation 2018. I83(9): S380-S381. doi: https://www.biologicalpsychiatryjournal.com/article/S0006-3223(18)31080-1/fulltext