Hacking Flow State (Part 2): Mental Health and Sport
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Flow is a psychological edge.
Identify what flow is to you.
Find the Eintstein, Mandela or Federer in you.
If you want to be good at anything, you need flow. It's 'pure ecstasy without drugs'. Time stops, senses are heightened and your mental and physical abilities go through the roof.
Formally described as 'the optimal state of consciousness,' flow is the secret to peak performance. Running, boxing, developing new excel formulas, tantric sex or yoga... anything can benefit from this mental hack. It's north of happiness, addictive, contagious and albeit, life changing.
I've been obsessed with the concept and practice since listening to this podcast with Stephen Kotler, author of Rise of the Superhuman. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (aka. the flow godfather) credits flow as the secret to happiness and optimal creativity. Jason Silva embodies flow as his life philosophy. Jamie Wheal and Stephen Kotler, authors of Stealing Fire, describe it as some sort of ecstasy inducing peak performance. Me? I think flow helps you experience life in another dimension. TBH, I just want more magic in my life (god that sounds wanky). If flow can help me access my best performance in anything that I do... then sign a sister up!
Why it's good for your Mind and Body
Flow is essentially a higher state of consciousness. An intrinsically rewarding process, people who regularly experience flow tend to have more stable mental health. Psychologists believe it's a state of self-actualisation. Which in english, refers to a moment in time where we are reaching our full potential. Self-actualisation is often personified as Nelson Mandela or Albert Einstein. It's this sense of fulfilment, knowing we are doing something at our best, giving us purpose and confidence.
Regardless of your athletic ability, we've all experienced flow in exercise or sport. It's when you're 'in the zone.' You could've been running an extra mile, transcended into another world during yoga or spent 3 hours shooting basketball hoops when you were only going to duck out for 20 mins. Two flow experiences stand out for me: a gymnastics uneven bars routine from when I was 13 and more recently, skipping double unders.
“The experience of flow is still one of the least understood phenomena in sport. And yet it is one of the richest, most memorable experiences an athlete will ever know.”
-Dr Sue Jackson.
Sport psychologist Dr Sue Jackson, who has worked closely with Mihaly, believes flow is a psychological edge. It's a sense of effortlessness which gives you the ability to perform your best. When I'm in flow I go from skipping 3 doubles unders in a row to 30... its almost like I go from skipping to flying.
How I hack flow
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says the key to hack flow is to identify what flow is to you. Flow is not exclusive to physical activity, it could be art, carpentry, sewing, literally anything that makes time disappear for you. It took me some time, but mine are conversations with like minded people and skipping double unders.
Mental health: Conversations
I find flow with people. I love getting lost in conversation. When I connect or vibe with someone, when we talk philosophy, pop science, technology, childhood disciplinary war stories, donuts or sport, I get a high. I love to engage and be challenged by people around me. For me, social stimulation helps me reach self-actualisation. Whether it's talking about life philosophies and laughing with my dad or talking about holiday boyfriend stories with a girlfriend, I find conversation flow addictive.
Here's a list of questions or triggers I've put in my life to hack conversation flow.
- Ask yourself, when did you last lose time with someone?
- Identify what you were talking about (ie. philosophy, values, specific book genres, dating fails etc).
- Mentally note which people in your life give you this high (ie. friends, colleagues, family members).
- What communities can you join? (ie. toastmasters, football clubs, co-working spaces, World of Warcraft meet ups)
Sport: Skipping Double Unders
Skipping is my version of runners high. When I was 14, I broke my ankle in gymnastics and haven't been able to get back into long distance running. However I honestly got into skipping after I watched Adriana Lima.
I remember the first time I did consecutive double unders, I felt like an ATH-LETE ha. Since then I've incorporated crosses, side open semi squats and traditional boxer skips. Here are some principles on how I incorporate physical flow:
- I'll always start or finish a workout with 15 minutes of skipping.
- Identify what exercise you actually enjoy eg. running, lifting, cycling. This is your staple exercise, something that you can do on a regular basis and one you can build or improve on.
- Challenge yourself to do 5% better. (ie. If I do 10 double unders, my next set I'll aim to do 15.)
- Incorporate your physical activity at least 3 times a week. The more you get into physical flow, the more you improve your fitness levels.
Flow lifts any experience from ordinary to extra ordinary. It's in these moments we truly feel alive. But the important thing to remember is that people vary in how easy it is to get into flow and much value it provides them. For me, flow is the closest thing I'll experience to magic. So go and find your version of magic, euphoria or ecstasy. Who knows, you just might reach the top of Maslow's hierarchy of needs... you might be able to dig out the inner Einstein, Mandela or Federer.