Finding Your Flow: 6 Triggers that Enhance Creativity and Productivity

If you've done any sort of creative work at all, you've probably come across something called your flow state. Flow state is a mode of work that you enter on occasion (seemingly randomly). You begin working rapidly and with great success. You know the next step before you even get to it. Your mind is rapidly fusing ideas with one another and generating a level of quality and efficiency in your work that seems superhuman.

Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, in their bestseller, BOLD, describe flow this way:

Flow is an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best. If you’ve ever lost an afternoon to a great conversation or become so involved in a work project that all else was forgotten, then you’ve tasted the experience. Flow describes these moments of total absorption, when we become so focused on the task at hand that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Time flies. Self vanishes. All aspects of performance - mental and physical - go through the roof.
— Peter Diamandis & Steven Kotler, BOLD

Research has revealed that flow isn't as random as it might seem. It's triggered by many different variables that, in concert with each other, can help you enter and maintain flow throughout the creative process. It might only take two or three to trigger flow but the more triggers you can incorporate, the better.


1. High Consequences

When you're shooting for a goal that is inherently risky, your brain kicks it into overdrive in a last ditch effort to survive. On the other side of the equation, when the risk is large, usually the opportunity is similarly large. The combination of a risk of failure and high rewards triggers flow. Be willing to look foolish or fail while shooting for the moon. It's very hard to fail completely when your goals are large.

If you’re not incentivizing risk, you’re denying access to flow.


2. Rich Environment

Novelty engages the mind by breaking it out of its routines and patterns. Embracing a new scene, a new task, a new idea or a new person can encourage a creative state because your mind's receptors are taking in new information and making rapid connections with loads of other constructs within your mind. This rapid-firing of your synapses is triggering flow. Novelty may exist within unpredictability, complexity, opportunity, risk or newness.

How to employ this trigger on the job? Simply increase the amount of novelty, complexity, and unpredictability in the environment.

3. Deep Embodiment

Imagine deep embodiment as learning through multiple mediums at once. A total immersion in what you're focused on. Visual, auditory, hands-on engagement. It allows your mind to fully focus on the task at hand and understand the environment and context of the problem from a deeper perspective.

By working with your hands alongside your brain, you’re engaging multiple sensory systems at once, grabbing hold of the attention system and forcing focus into the now.


4. Clear Goals

Clear goals provide both direction and present state of mind awareness. It removes the need to worry about which way to go and allows you to focus on the immediate next step. While goals are wonderful, they're useless unless they're clear.

Clarity gives us certainty. We know what to do and where to focus our attention while we are doing it.

5. Immediate Feedback

Short circuiting the feedback loop allows you to receive input immediately (or quicker than usual) so that the creative process is rapid iteration based on multiple data points (those giving the feedback) that helps provides a better outcome.

Tighten feedback loops. Practice agile design. Put mechanisms in place so attention doesn’t have to wonder. Ask for more input.

6. The Challenge/Skills Ratio

If you're familiar with the process, you're more inclined to let your mind slip into autopilot. It doesn't engage the creative process. Flow is triggered by pushing just beyond that point - somewhere in between boredom and anxiety. If something is too far beyond your abilities, rather than find flow, you'll become overwhelmed and unable to function at peak performance. Finding that balance of "just hard enough" is key to entering flow and producing your best work!

If the challenge is too great, fear swamps the system. If the challenge is too easy, we stop paying attention. Flow appears near the emotional midpoint between boredom and anxiety, in what scientists call the flow channel - the spot where the task is hard enough to make us stretch; not hard enough to make us snap.

If you're working in a creative environment, try implementing several of these triggers where possible to help pull you - mind, heart and body - into the work. Even if you can't always control things like rich environment or deep embodiment, you can certainly make strides toward developing clearer goals and asking for feedback sooner. If you're brave, you should also try stretching yourself a bit - go for the moonshot and solve for the impossible. I think you'll find the rewards (even of failure) to be great.

 Jacob Jolibois is a writer and life coach helping others to craft a simple, yet impactful life. He’s the author of ARROWS | a primer on missional lifestyle design, a contributor to Lifehack and a photographer/designer at MESH.