Get Your Flow On

In The Leading Brain: Powerful Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance, authors Friederike Fabritius and Hans W. Hagemann apply the latest research in brain science to leadership—to sharpen performance, encourage innovation, and enhance job satisfaction. This excerpt explores flow—a powerful state that’s hard to describe but easy to recognize when you’re in it. Read on to learn how you can harness the power of flow, achieve it on demand, and make the most of it.

The power of flow

Achieving Flow

To achieve flow, you need a well-defined goal, an optimal challenge, and clear, immediate feedback. The goal supplies acetylcholine to help maintain your focus, the challenge triggers noradrenaline, and the feedback provides you with a rewarding burst of dopamine.

Well-Defined Goal

Simply working is unlikely to put you in a flow state. You have to be working toward something specific, and you need to have a strong sense of where your efforts are leading. A group of application developers who are challenged to make their software easier to use may have a noble goal, but it’s also pretty vague. But when that goal is reframed as something more specific, such as taking an operation that once required five clicks and reducing it down to just three, they will suddenly find themselves “in the zone.”

Visualizing your goal can sometimes make a huge difference. A team given what seems like a straightforward task, such as “double revenue within two years,” may still struggle to focus until they go beyond those numbers and visualize themselves in a photo labeled “team of the year” in the CEO’s office. That’s when the flow kicks in.

Once your goal is clear, it becomes easier to differentiate between distractions and those things that are essential to reaching your target. According to author Steven Kotler, “The point is this: when the brain is charged with a clear goal, focus narrows considerably, the unimportant is disregarded, and the now is all that’s left.”

Having a clear goal not only sharpens your focus, it also improves your mood. According to Csikszentmihalyi: “Without a task to focus our attention, most of us find ourselves getting progressively depressed. In flow there is no room for such rumination.” Nor is there room for multitasking. The divided attention that grows out of attempting to accomplish two or more things at once robs the productivity and satisfaction that come from pursuing a single purpose.

Optimal Challenge

Although skills and challenges should be in balance, the best situation for flow is when you are feeling slightly overchallenged. When your challenge and skill level are well matched, you should be able to stay focused on the task at hand.

If the challenge outweighs your skills, then you are likely to feel anxious. After all, it’s difficult if not impossible to feel in control when you are feeling like you’re in over your head. When you shift out of flow and into the threat response, levels of noradrenaline will push you beyond the peak of the performance curve, and the resulting stress will wrest control away from the moderating influence of the PFC [prefrontal cortex].

On the other hand, when your skills outweigh the challenge, you lack the noradrenaline and dopamine you need to reach your peak and are likely to grow bored.

It’s important to note that your chances of experiencing flow increase in proportion to your abilities. The higher your skill level, the more likely the occurrence of flow. Therefore, the concert pianist will experience more flow than the first-year piano student—even if both are feeling slightly overchallenged. The more skilled you are, the easier it becomes to have fun!

Clear, Immediate Feedback

It is highly encouraging to know how well you’re progressing and whether you need to adjust or maintain your present course of action. Video game manufacturers have long used this principle successfully. Note how the most popular games are almost always divided into levels. Each time you achieve another milestone you receive another rewarding burst of dopamine that helps you to stay focused and encourages you to keep going. As Erik Gregory, executive director of the nonprofit Media Psychology Research Center in Boston, once explained, “Placing players in flow is the key to video gaming’s universal appeal.”


Excerpted with permission from The Leading Brain: Powerful Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance by Friederike Fabritius, M.S. and Hans W. Hagemann, Ph.D. © 2017 by Friederike Fabritius and Hans W. Hagemann. TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Friederike Fabritius, M.S. is the head of the Neuroleadership Practice Group and a neuropsychologist who has extensive expertise working with top executives at multinational corporations, leveraging her scientific background to create actionable insights. Friederike started her career at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt and continued her career as a management consultant at McKinsey before joining the Munich Leadership Group in 2010.

Hans W. Hagemann, Ph.D., is managing partner/co-founder at the global leadership consultancy firm Munich Leadership Group and he is a global expert on leadership and innovation who has led seminars, coaching sessions, and in-depth workshops with top executives in more than 40 countries.

Learn more here.The Leading Brain book cover

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  • sprachlust

    Thanks for this excerpt. Looks like a fascinating book. I just wanted to comment on this passage “To achieve flow, you need a well-defined goal, an optimal challenge, and clear, immediate feedback”. When I used to be crazy about playing guitar back in my university days, I don’t believe I really had a clear, well-defined goal. I just played because I loved it. Or perhaps my goal was more subconscious, i.e. I knew what I was going for, but it wasn’t stated outright or it didn’t materialized in my conscious mind. Must one always have a well-defined goal to achieve flow?

    • Hasuyaa Flux

      It looks like that. Because it’s about focusing the attention and then gradually getting immersed in it, until something distracts the mind. That’s the cue for manipulating the focus again and reaching into that state. Everytime that happens, it provides a sense of accomplishment. I hope you get a better amswer to your question.

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  • Phillip Fine

    It’s important to note that your chances of experiencing flow increase in proportion to your abilities. The higher your skill level, the more likely the occurrence of flow. Therefore, the concert pianist will experience more flow than the first-year piano student—even if both are feeling slightly over-challenged. The more skilled you are, the easier it becomes to have fun! Well, yes. The more skilled you are, the more likely you are to have fun. But getting skilled isn’t usually fun. It usually takes hours and hours of drill, drudgery and practice. Definitely not fun!

  • Phillip Fine

    Oh, gawd, yet another article about achieving flow — a concept, like emotional intelligence, may be vastly overrated.

  • jrlipkowitz

    Great article! I’ve known about flow for a long time now, but never really thought much about the aspect of having a well-defined goal as being a critical component part. This really helps with something I’m working on right now (writing). I’ve been trying to get into a flow, but haven’t quite been able to the last few days, and I JUST realized it’s because I don’t have a specific goal. I finished my last goal a few days ago. Time to think about the next well-defined step! Thanks!

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