Do you lack passions? Or have trouble mastering a skill?
Working from home and lack the ability to focus?
Want to learn how to code, write, or design but struggling to grasp the fundamentals?
A wide range of problems can be solved with a single solution.
I’ll let you in on a method used by peak performers, leaders, CEOS, navy seals use to unlock true potential, master their craft, and hack their biology into a state of laser-like focus and effortless action.
Flow is a state of high performance.
Flow is when you bring together multiple skills you’ve mastered while executing without conscious intervention.
Flow is the magical intersection of action and awareness. Our sense of self and self-consciousness dissipates. We’re completely immersed in the task at hand.
Flow is a powerful state that can be neurochemically draining, but when approached properly, it enables you to achieve the seemingly impossible. To future-proof your mind and access these peak flow states, it’s essential to understand the flow cycle.
What Is The Flow Cycle
Flow can be mapped out as part of a four-phase cycle so we know where are in the cycle and can initiate the next step, maximizing our time in flow.
The flow cycle is a roadmap for harnessing our abilities and channeling them toward peak experiences. Each phase offers unique neurochemical dynamics and psychological characteristics that shape our performance, and well-being, and helps us get things done.
Time is money.
From the initial struggle that sparks motivation and goal-directed behavior to the release stage where we let go of conscious control, paving the way for automatic processing, and finally reaching the flow state itself, where our skills and focus align effortlessly, before deploying active recovery, the flow cycle guides us towards exceptional performance.
Flow is the fine balance of skill and challenge so you stretch, not snap. Understanding the flow cycle prevents you from snapping.
You’re learning to use your neurobiology to work for you, instead of against.
Phase 1: Struggle
You know that feeling of discomfort when you’re starting a new task or challenge but you don’t have a full handle on it yet? You may feel frustrated, anxious, and insecure as your brain is brimming with beta waves. This struggle is real.
For example, a writer starting a new book and struggling to get the initial words and ideas out. A student learning how to code. An aspiring surfer’s first time in the ocean.
This phase may seem counterintuitive to flow but it’s required for growth. Your brain needs to be kicked out of its comfort zone— triggering that fight-or-flight response will put you into high gear needed for momentum to learn.
Crawl, Walk, Run
The right amount of stress will help tighten your focus to cultivate deeper learning.
The challenge-to-skill balance is a flow trigger: activity needs to be challenging yet within your abilities so anxiety doesn’t paralyze you from the action, yet it can’t be below your current skill level otherwise you’ll get bored. When you are bored, you’re not paying attention.
Neurochemically Speaking: How To Struggle Gracefully
The struggle can be scary. Learn to label your emotions and know that between stimulus and response, there is a space. Get into that gap, and tell yourself it’s going to be okay.
Anxiety and excitement are the exact same neurochemical signatures: in the struggle phase, cortisol surges and norepinephrine spikes as your body prepares for action.
Use cognitive reframing to help your brain understand what’s going on and turn anxiety into excitement.
A Harvard Study showed that just by simply repeating, “I’m so excited”, three times can shift your mental state. I personally used this technique to fall in love with a grueling local hike. Your mind is incredible and listening to everything you say and think.
Herbert Benson, a renowned researcher who made significant contributions to understanding the struggle phase of the flow cycle emphasized the importance of reframing the challenges encountered during the struggle phase as opportunities for growth and transformation.
Breathwork for parasympathetic activation using techniques such as box breathing (4-4-4-4) and psychological sign (double inhale and long exhale) can also help you navigate your fear and anxiety.
Pro-tip: Upgrade Your Mindset
People with a fixed mindset won’t expend energy to even try so they’ll fail during the struggle phase. People with growth mindsets are excited to learn, open to constructive criticism, inspired by the success of others, and persevere in spite of failure.
Embrace a growth mindset by determining if you have a fixed or growth mindset, explore where your fixed mindset may stem from (eg. upbringing, environment, friends), and understand that we are forever evolving creatures (neuroplasticity). Now you’re aware, you can begin to set your environment up for success by surrounding yourself with like-minded and positive people that will inspire you to change.
Cognitive reframing: learn to reframe every challenge as an opportunity. When you have to do something that scares you, say to yourself, “I can’t wait to solve this problem!” Because on the other side is growth.
Phase 2: Release
We have limited memory processing capability as our brains can only hold about 7 bits of information at all times.
When you feel you’re hitting a wall in the struggle phase, you need to know when to stop to avoid burnout and completely drain your cognitive reserves.
Peak performers know when your mind is quiet, that’s when the magic happens; insights, aha moments. In the release phase, your subconscious goes into an incubation phase.
Neurochemically Speaking: Strategies for Effective Release
Pay attention when you’ve crossed the line because it takes discipline to release.
Your brain undergoes a shift as it releases nitric oxide, a signaling molecule***,*** flushing stress hormones (cortisol and norepinephrine) from your system, marked by a decrease in prefrontal cortex activity (problem-solving, decision-making, and goal-setting).
The release stage is crucial for entering the flow state as it allows the brain to let go of conscious control, facilitating a transition from deliberate thinking to automatic, subconscious processing.
The best way to release is embodied physical activity where you don’t exhaust yourself with intensive exercise but take on light movement to quiet your brain. These activities release calming alpha brain waves, associated with being calm and relaxed. Research shows alpha waves can facilitate creative insights, clarity, cognitive flexibility, and the ability to overcome challenges.
Pro-Tips For Release
- Use the MacGyver Method and delegate to the subconscious: physically write down your problem, deploy a release method in the points below, and come back to the problem later.
- Break the pattern. Take a breath and do something different, preferably with light movement, outside for the best results (eg. cycling, walks in nature, gardening, stretching) → Einstein used to sail his boat to the middle of Lake Geneva
Phase 3: Flow
When you return to your activity, you may drop into flow.
How do you know when you’re in flow? Steven Kotler described flow with these four states:
- Selfless: loss of self-consciousness or ego.
- Timeless: altered perception of time.
- Effortless effort.
- Richness in experience.
Neurochemically Speaking: A Creative Brain
When you’re in flow, your brain waves shift to a combination of:
- alpha (relaxation, visualization, creativity)
- theta (meditation, intuition, memory)
- gamma (eureka moments, meditation when your inner critic is silenced)
Your brain is flooded with a powerful combination of feel-good chemicals:
- endorphins, a natural painkiller
- anandamide aka the ‘bliss molecule’ (joy, focus, and clarity)
- dopamine (motivation and drive)
Strategies To Hack Flow
- Remove distractions. Before you drop into flow, set yourself up for success by removing all distractions including going to the bathroom, getting water, noise-cancellation headphones, etc.
- Create a ritual. After your release, anchor your flow block with a habit. For example, My pre-game routine for a block of deep work: make coffee, sit down, tidy desk, breathwork for a state change → begin work.
- Set extremely clear goals. This eliminates distractions and helps maintain focus. “In this session, I am going to write 1000 words.”
- Set a timer. I recommended working in blocks of 90 minutes (Ultradian Cycle).
Pro-Tip: Peak Exits
Drop out of flow when you’re fired up to create momentum for your next flow block.
Writers such as Hemmingway and Gabriel García Márquez like to stop writing when they’re the most excited so when they start writing again, they’re pumped up the next day.
Phase 4: Recovery Is Necessary
Flow is extremely taxing on our central nervous system, brain, and body. Don’t overdo it and honor the most important phase of the flow cycle— recovery, otherwise, it may result in injury or burnout.
Do a maximum of 3-4x rounds per day but you MUST deploy active recovery methods before initiating another struggle.
Active Recovery Is A Non-Negotiable:
In a world where we’re always on the go, recovery is a ‘grit skill’ because it often takes high-achievers more discipline to do less, than more.
There’s also a difference between active recovery and passive recovery. Passive recovery may be Netflix or scrolling on social but the true type of recovery— is active recovery is what you need to rejuvenate your mind and body.
According to Steven Kotler, here are his six non-negotiables for recovery:
- Protect Your Schedule. Be a calendar nazi so you don’t overlap work, play, and recovery.
- Sleep Hygiene. Dark, cold rooms, phones off, or airplane mode.
- Active Recovery. Cold showers, saunas, meditation, float chambers, foam rolling, aimless play, laughing.
- Hydration. Tip: electrolytes and minerals.
- Light movement. Walks, yoga, and tai-chi.
- Don’t take emotions seriously. Emotions are signaling you to take action. You may get anxiety but remember it comes from the same signal as excitement.
Neurochemically Speaking: A Happy Brain Is A Rested Brain
Serotonin and oxytocin flood your brain for deep recovery. Your brain slows down to delta brain waves for healing and regeneration.
Pro-Tip: Post-Flow Visualization
Visualize and feel everything that happened during that flow state whether you were writing a chapter of your book, surfing, skiing, or riding your bike. It may amplify your learning while you were in flow.
Re-entry will be easier because somatic memory of that state will be anchored into your subconscious
*Bonus-tip: Check your work at the end of a recovery phase (but no editing!).
Warning: Don’t become a flow junkie.
Flow is addicting because it releases a rush of neurochemicals that create a pleasurable sensation in the brain, including dopamine, norepinephrine, endorphins, and anandamide.
You don’t want to be in flow all the time but treat it as a cycle to allow your brain to recover.
You must master the art of self-regulation to become a peak performer.
You may feel depressed in recovery, coming down from a flow of flow but it’s natural. Train your brain to sit with the feelings. Label them. Cognitive reframing and mantras works best in situations like this. Say to yourself: “I’m supposed to feel this way.”
To avoid being a bliss junkie, honor the 4 phases of flow as a cycle.
TL;DR: Flow State 101: The 4 Phases Of The Flow Cycle
- We struggle with a new task until despair,
- Phase 1: Struggle – the struggle is needed to initate a fight-or-flight response to get you excited to solve a problem or learn a new skill. Learning how to struggle gracefully using techniques such as reframing is the key.
- Phase 2: Release – When you feel you’re hitting the wall, this is a sign to release. Your brain goes into an incubation phase, absorbing everything you’ve done subconsciously. Do light physical activity such as a walk, yoga or gardening. Plus one if done outside with nature therapy.
- Phase 3: Flow – The legendary state of peak performance you’ve been waiting for. When you’re in flow, effort feels effortless and all sense of time disappears. Clarity and focus is heightened. Creativity flows allowing for divergent thinking and deep work.
- Phase 4: Recovery – The most important phase of the flow cycle which must not be neglected. Deploy active recovery where your brain is completely shut off such as walks, saunas, sensory deprivation chambers, yoga, massage, epsom baths, nature immersion, laughter, and aimless play.
- There are a few ways you can work in flow: Blocks of 90 minutes with a 20 minute break (based on our body’s natural and quantifiable ultradian work/rest cycles). Max 3-4 blocks per day to prevent burnout. If you’re familiar with your task at hand, you may go to recovery and skip the struggle phase in the same day.
- Flow has a dark side— it’s highly addictive and taxing on your brain and nervous system because it releases the same feel good chemicals (endorphins, dopamine, and anandamide). Some become ‘bliss junkies’ because they use it to escape reality.
- By repeatedly practicing the flow cycle, you’ll get better and raise the baseline.
- Knowing when to quit is important to prevent burnout. Reframe the discipline to quit as a muscle that can be strengthened.
- The flow cycle teaches you to work smart and play smart.