Have you ever had that feeling when you’re working on something, maybe writing or a woodworking project in the garage, and time just disappears? You blink and two hours went by? That’s the flow state. It’s the state where we’re maximally primed for learning, acquiring new skills, knowledge, and productivity. We all want to be in the flow state.
I recently read a book called “Gnar Country: Growing Old, Staying Rad” by Steven Kotler. I knew nothing about him or the book. The description talked about the authors desire to improve as a 50+ year old skier. I am both a skier and 50+, so I was sold. What I didn’t expect was that the book was more about general self-improvement, motivation, and using the flow state to gain physical skills than it was about skiing. Skiing just happened to be the activity he was trying to get better at.
I was instantly intrigued by this idea of the flow state. I didn’t realize it at the moment, but I’ve had it a few times this season skiing – and it was identical to what the author described. About to drop down a line that’s slightly steeper and more technical than my skill level. That little feeling of nervousness/fear in the pit of your stomach. Launching down the run and having 100% concentration on every move. Finishing and having that little moment of elation as you realize, holy shit I did it! Suddenly you’re super excited to do it again or find another hard run. Flow state.
That nervousness, concentration, and final little hit of dopamine is what primes the pump for learning. Looking back, I realized that there were only three other activities where I’ve legitimately been in the flow state. The first was way back when I was a software engineer. Every once in a while, while trying to solve a hard problem I’d find time would simply disappear. Three hours of coding could easily go by before I’d look up and realize what time it was. The second has been trying to teach myself video editing. Hours can go by as I master one transition or effect after another. The final scenario has been as a nurse. Dealing with an intense trauma situation, focus gets incredibly concentrated, and time disappears.
Learning video editing is a great example. I’ll see someone’s video and wonder; hmm how did they do that? Do some research, trial and error, and you have something that sort of looks like what you saw. More tweaking. More polishing. Suddenly, whoa I did it! The key is that little bump of dopamine. You want more. You try another effect. And all of a sudden, it’s hours later.
As a sidebar, I recently read that social media is one of the main reasons our younger generation has such a profound lack of curiosity. Broadly speaking they’re not interested in exploring, going outside, or risk taking. The reason is that the endless scrolling on TikTok or Instagram keeps giving them little bumps of dopamine. They don’t need to find another outlet for that min-rush. Having an entire generation numbed by constant scrolling on a screen is a disturbing trend long-term I suspect.
Anyway, I was intrigued by this idea enough that I researched the author’s other books. Turns out he’s also written a book called “The Art of the Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer“. This one delves into the neurophysiology of how and why the flow state happens, and how to cue yourself to get into the flow state. I’m about halfway done and find it fascinating.
The author has a level of discipline and motivation that I don’t think I could achieve… but if I could adopt even just 25% of what he does, my productivity would massively improve. Now, I’m not looking to build the next great start-up company or launch a non-profit to feed the hungry. But I am looking to have more focus and purpose with what I do with my time. The ideas the author has around routine and finding that flow state seem ideal to help me direct my energy.
And going back to that first book, while I may not (will not) ever be hucking off cliffs on skis – I would like to make that next big transition in my skiing ability. Just like the author did in Gnar Country, starting the day after this ski season ends (which is next week) on a program to be ready to enter the flow state next season is a worthy goal.
The problem is it involves squats. Lots of squats.
I hate squats.