On Flow States

Inducing Flow States

There’s no one way to get into a flow state, and it varies a lot from person to person. So here, I’ll simply tell you the things that seem to matter in getting me into a flow state.

First and foremost, I have to be at least more or less comfortable. I’ve noticed that if I’m sick with something as mild as a common cold, I cannot get into a flow state even if I teach, which is when it usually happens for me. Insomnia also makes flow states a lot harder to achieve as well.

From there, and this is a common one among many people: master the material. If you still have to think about which control does what, your subconscious cannot take over the easy parts of flying a plane to get you into a flow state, for example.

Finally, a little pressure helps. For me, the knowledge that there is a classroom full of people who have also read the material and want to argue about it prepares me to engage at a high level.

The Benefits of Flow States

There are three major benefits of flow states, depending on the circumstances.

First, you can get excellent outcomes. A flow state might well be the thing that wins the championship game in any sport, gives the world an excellent musical performance or, in my case, has the chance at inspiring a young mind.

Second, they can be great time-savers. If I can get into a flow state while reading or writing, then I can do in an hour what would take me half a day under normal circumstances. I don’t like to count on myself to do that, but the days when that does happen are some of the best days I have as an academic.

Lastly, I have a feeling that flow states are where real innovation takes place. A lot of folks chalk up moments of inspiration to some outside source, but, in my study of high-performing academics, a lot of it seems to come from being in a flow state.

Overall, these states are highly individual and hard to get into. If, however, you can learn how to trigger them yourself and use them on a regular basis, I think you can get a lot of excellent things done if you harness flow states.

With all of this said, a word of caution: you can’t force a flow state. I first had one when I was about fifteen in the context of performing with a small group of musicians. I did not know what they were, let alone how to get myself into a flow state, for about another five years after. And, after each one, I am more or less mentally spent for the day and am noticeably less sharp for a few hours thereafter, so they’re not without costs, either.

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