TL;DR – Video Version:
Flow State, also known as being “in the zone”, is that magical feeling when time fades away and you’re able to perform at an optimal state of consciousness.
It’s a state that’s achieved most frequently when a high level of skill meets a high level of challenge.
Imagine an NBA player sinking consecutive free throw attempts at a pivotal moment of a game. A snowboarder perfectly executing a 720 down a half pipe for a gold medal. A golfer shooting his or her personal best score on the final Sunday of a big tournament.
In gaming, this looks like an FPS player pulling off a massive clutch in a crucial moment of a best of 3 matchup. Or an RTS player orchestrating a symphony of economy management, defense, and offense simultaneously during a heated moment of the tournament grand finals.
In Destiny 2, this could be winning a make or break 1v3 scenario on the 7th game of a trials of osiris card. Or keeping your cool during the final boss of a worlds first raid race.
Kevin Maney, author of several books on achieving maximum performance, says:
“When someone is in a state of flow, that person's brain is not thinking about anything – it's just processing things through chunks at a total instinct level. Athletes in a state of flow describe knowing what will happen just before it does – knowing how a defender will react to a certain move an instant before doing it. Of course, if you know what will happen, you can succeed at doing it, so an athlete in flow has a stand-out game.”
We’ve all felt moments of flow state in our day to day lives. Sometimes you’re working on a project and everything just seems to click. Time fades away and your brain feels like it’s connecting the dots effortlessly.
Most of the research we have today in flow state consciousness stems from the work done by a Hungarian-American Psychologist named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (let's call him "Dr. C")
In his seminal work titled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he outlines his theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow—a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation.
It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.
The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove. The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what they are doing.
One of the core components of his theory is that Flow State is most likely to be achieved when a high level of challenge is matched with a high level of skill.
Take a look at this chart that plots challenge level on the vertical axis vs skill level on the horizontal axis.
His theory states that where you land on this chart determines your experience.
A task that is too easy, combined with a low level of ability or skill will make you bored and apathetic
While a task that is too hard for your current level of skill will make you anxious and stressed.
The sweet spot to achieve flow state is when you have developed a high level of skill and are met with a high level of challenge. This leads to being focused and happy. It’s a magical pre-condition for entering flow state.
Researchers have been working to prove the existence of this flow state for years and have been working to understand exactly what triggers it.
In a recent paper published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, a team ran an interesting experiment where they tried to trigger flow state intentionally by electrically stimulating a particular area of the brain.
Now I’m not a Psychologist, and won’t pretend to be one. Luckily though, one of my best friends since grade school just happens to have his PhD in Neuropsychology and studies this field professionally, so I have to give a big thanks to him for helping me dig through this topic and putting together this project.
The TL:DR version is that they split up participants into groups to test performance in both Tetris for untrained players and FPS games like CSGO and Battlefield for players with a lot of FPS experience.
Each participant was hooked up to a transcranial direct current stimulation device (or tDCS for short) which was connected to specific areas of the brain.
Participants were then split into a stimulation group and a placebo group, where half of the players received true brain current stimulation and half were only hooked up to the machine and led to believe their brain was being externally stimulated.
Essentially the idea behind the experiment was to see if you could externally influence the brain in order to quiet the frontal areas of the brain – which are typically associated with executive functions such as… planning, adapting, multitasking, monitoring, and working memory in order to allow other regions of the brain to operate more efficiently while playing games.
This executive function is responsible for decision making and planning for tasks like how to make a multi-course meal that has all of the different courses finished at the same time.
Cognitive flexibility is also a part of executive function, in other words, being able to adapt what you're doing in a given scenario.
For example this might be quickly rerouting your driving navigation in your head if you encounter a traffic jam… or going to a different grocery store with a new layout and finding all of the same items that are now in different locations.
This part of our brain is essential for everyday living, and we’d be in big trouble without it. But the idea behind this experiment was that if you could suppress the areas of the brain responsible for this executive function while stimulating the areas of the brain responsible for skill execution, you may be able to more easily enter flow state while tackling challenging activities.
And it WORKED! The results are fascinating.
The study showed that after suppressing neural activity in the prefrontal cortex, and enhancing activity in the parietal lobe, non-gaming participants (in other words, those playing tetris) performed significantly better, completing more Tetris lines than the placebo group.
Meanwhile the FPS players showed a small increase in number of kills but it wasn’t a strong enough correlation to be considered statistically significant.
However, the subjective feeling of being in the "flow state" was enhanced for the participants who received electrical brain stimulation in both gaming groups.
So even beyond the actual game performance, the study showed that limiting extraneous activity in brain regions that house these "executive functions", such as maintenance, multitasking, set switching, and working memory, made it easier for people to enter a flow state.
Making flow state more accessible likely also has effects on performance regardless of the activity (in other words, playing a game vs doing anything else that requires skill).
While kill performance wasn't significantly increased in the FPS group, you can imagine other parameters that may be sensitive to flow… things like reaction time, or time required to learn a new strategy, may also be improved.
This is exciting news for performance nerds like myself who want to squeeze out every bit of efficiency possible…. BUT it’s probably not realistic to have electrodes connected to your brain just to improve your gameplay capabilities on a regular basis.
So the question becomes… how can we trigger flow state more naturally WITHOUT the external brain stimulation?
Dr. Michael Gervais from the flow genome project says that “Getting to that state is incredibly challenging. It’s not like we can just wake up and say, “today im going to be in flow”. It requires a fundamental commitment to embrace risk, matched by the required skills to thrive in those conditions”
In order to regularly experience flow state, you need to have a growth focused mindset and believe that you have the capacity to improve.
This leads to having a more open mind about receiving accurate criticism and appraisal of your skills, so that you can improve even further.
And with increased skill acquisition, you’re able to take on tougher challenges, leading to higher chances of entering flow state.
This is why dropping your ego is such a critical part of the path to regularly achieving flow state.
You need to become willing to accept feedback to grow your skills and abilities in your field of choice.
It’s clear to see why flow state is so commonly achieved by extreme sports athletes like snowboarders and skiers.
The challenge presented by tackling a double black diamond downslope mixed with a heightened level of adrenaline forces your mind to put all energy into accomplishing the task at hand.
With the high skill required to perform these physical feats, it’s a perfect recipe for achieving flow state.
There’s another relevant concept here illustrated by the Yerkes-Dodson curve:
The theory is that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal (in other words, stress) but only up to a point. When the level of stress becomes too high, performance decreases.
So to decode this a bit…
If a task is too easy and doesn’t stress you out at least a little bit, your performance will be weak.
At the same time though, if the challenge is too strong, you can become too anxious and stressed to perform at a high level.
So to add to our previously mentioned theory from Dr. C relating challenge level to skill level, we also need to keep in mind that increasing challenge to the point where it becomes overly stressful is likely not the best way to maximize our performance.
Because of this connection, I believe that getting comfortable with increased challenge is an essential component of improving your likelihood of entering flow state.
You need to train the mindset of continuous improvement so that you build the confidence to take on more difficult situations, and put in the training time required to grow your skill and meet the challenge. You need to trust yourself and your abilities.
And you earn the ability to trust yourself by doing hard things over a long period of time.
There are two major psychological triggers that seem to lead to flow state.
The first is having a balanced ratio of high skill to high challenge as we mentioned earlier, and having the right challenge level so that it provides just enough stress to maximize performance.
The other trigger is having complete concentration of the mind. This can be achieved through mindfulness practices like meditation.
It’s no surprise to me that renowned performance expert and author Tim Ferriss mentions in his book Tools of Titans that over 80% of the 100+ high performing individuals featured in the book have a regular meditation practice. This is a collection of some of the most successful people on the planet, who certainly need to enter flow state regularly in order to achieve greatness in their respective fields.
I’ve found in my own life that having a regular morning meditation practice sets the pace for the day and anecdotally seems to help me reach flow state more often especially when working on video projects like this one and playing games.
There are a ton of great smartphone apps these days that are either free or cheap and can help with creating a regular meditation practice. One of my favorites lately is
The other major contributor to reaching flow state in my own experience seems to be the ability to completely focus on the task at hand.
When I’m distracted by juggling several projects at once, or have concerns about various business tasks to take care of like paying bills and filing papers, or responding to emails, I find it tremendously more difficult to achieve flow state.
It makes sense when you consider the tDCS experiment described during the initial section of this writeup. If the frontal parts of your brain, the parts that are responsible for planning and executive functions, are taking over control – it’s going to be much more difficult to focus on deep work and skill execution.
I think this is one of the reasons why I find it so difficult to perform well in games when I’m also live streaming on Twitch compared to just playing in my off time.
When your brain is focused on reading the live chat, responding to questions, managing the video and audio production elements of running a live broadcast, and ALSO attempting to perform at a high level in the game, it’s no wonder that game performance is likely to take a hit and you’re rarely going to feel in the zone.
In fact there’s research to back up this claim. There’s analysis indicating that the brain can only process 110 bits of information per second, while decoding speech alone takes 60 bits per second.
Now whether these numbers are accurate or not, it’s easy to understand why the brain would struggle to focus on skillful tasks while also trying to understand someone speaking to you.
Have you ever noticed when you’re driving along a highway listening to music and all the sudden realize you need to find a particular turn off point, you instinctively turn down the volume of whatever you’re listening to?
This can likely be explained by only having a particular amount attentional bandwidth, and needing to shift some energy towards those executive function tasks we mentioned earlier in the frontal parts of the brain.
On the flip side, when you do reach flow state and all of your brain processing power is diverted to the task at hand, you can lose sense of time and perform some incredible feats.
So take care of your responsibilities, homework, chores, and anything else that may stress you out before attempting to play games or sports at a high level, and I bet you’ll perform much better.
If you have a big test coming up, or need to pay bills, or haven’t done homework that’s due soon, it can be a source of stress that takes up space in your subconscious mind and won’t allow you to fully focus on the task at hand.
One of the biggest obstacles to finding a "groove" on a task, in other words getting into flow, is overthinking.
Certain activities, such as listening to music, podcasts, or videos in the background can help calm the brain regions that otherwise constantly daydream or think too hard about unimportant things.
However background information that includes dialogue can be harder to optimally tune out, because it’s easy to pay too much attention to it.
Studies have shown that by inhibiting activity in a key area of your brain that controls conscious, effortful thought, specifically the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), and enhancing activity in an area responsible for sustained attention, people enter "flow" or a groove more easily.
Once this switch happens, it can have a snowball effect, as studies have shown that continued activation of certain brain regions may "turn off" or "turn on" other brain regions that can help or hurt their cause.
In other words, if you begin a task with some focused attention, after a while your brain enters a sort of "sustained attention mode", and enhances activity in other areas that can help keep that focus going.
The same is also true on the other end. If you want to start something but don't put that much effort into it, your brain will continue to engage regions responsible for daydreaming and overthinking.
This is also a good lesson in encouraging yourself to limit checking your phone or other distracting devices while trying to get into flow state because it re-engages the parts of the brain that may lead to daydreaming and drifting off into a two hour long social media binge when you really needed to be focusing on a project with a looming deadline, or spending 100% of your focus on a high stakes game.
So for a bottom line, when you’re trying to get into the flow state for a project, sport or game, spend at least 15-30 minutes without looking at your phone or checking social media and see where it gets you.
In addition to sharpening your mind directly, it seems that having a healthy routine can also lead to improved performance and likelihood of entering flow state.
Taking time to exercise, get sunlight, meditate, practice mindfulness exercises, and eating healthy nutritious meals can aid your brain in performing optimally.
In FLOW: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Dr. C says that
“Happiness does not depend on outside events, but rather on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy. Therefore, happiness depends on inner harmony.
The individuals who have inner harmony lead vigorous lives, are open to a variety of experiences, keep on learning until the day they die, and have strong ties and commitments to other people and to the environment in which they live. They enjoy whatever they do, even if tedious or difficult; they are hardly ever bored, and they can take in stride anything that comes their way.”
So to recap, we have a number of psychological pre-conditions to trigger flow:
- Willingness to embrace risk and take on increased challenges
- Ability to match current skill level with the right level of challenge that’s hard enough to make you focused and happy, but not so difficult that it produces anxiety.
- Commitment and openness to develop skills needed to THRIVE in these areas of increased challenge
- Developing a growth mindset which leads to accurate appraisal of skill
- Developing trust in yourself by becoming comfortable with increased challenges. This is progressed by consistently doing hard things over a long period of time.
In addition to these psychological pre-conditions, there are also environmental flow triggers that seem to assist getting into the flow state.
The first is engagement of multiple sensory streams at once. With more sensory streams present, your brain needs to focus more to make sense of it all. So when you need to make use of sight, touch, smell, hearing, and taste all at the same time, you’re more likely to find yourself in the zone.
The second is a rich environment. In other words, finding a lot of novelty, complexity, and unpredictability in your environment. This is one of the reasons that extreme sports like snowboarding that have complex downslopes with lots of obstacles to engage with seem to be so highly connected to getting in flow state.
The third is high consequences. These could be physical, mental, social, or emotional risks. The relationship between high levels of consequence in activities like sports and gaming at professional levels can certainly make getting into a flow state more accessible.
Some of these environmental triggers are generally outside of our control depending on the task we are focusing on, which is why certain activities like extreme sports seem to have such a high correlation with triggering flow state.
There’s also a range of flow from micro to macro. You can experience some parts of flow state but not all of the characteristics, or you can experience the full blown flow state.
When more flow triggers are present, flow experiences tend to be more full and intense.
If your activity of choice doesn’t tend to embody a large amount of natural flow triggers, you need to focus on maximizing your preconditions to achieve flow state such as developing a high level of skill.
For example in FPS gaming, you can focus on skill development like map awareness, crosshair placement, pre-aiming, aim training, in-game multitasking and game sense to become the most skilled player you can be.
This allows you to take on tougher challenges in the game, and ultimately leads to a higher likelihood of matching high skill with high challenge and entering flow state.
So with all of this research and new knowledge, what can we take away to make a lasting impact in our lives?
Here’s my take:
#1 – It’s going to take effort and intention to reach flow state, it won't always happen automatically. It’s a matter of finding the right balance between skill acquisition and picking challenges that are hard enough to stimulate you but not so hard that they create anxiety. For large projects, biting off one chunk at a time may help with this.
#2 – To improve your odds of getting in the zone, do your best to eliminate distractions, at least for a predetermined amount of time (for example 15 to 30 minutes), then repeat as needed. Avoid social media and various notifications as much as possible when trying to get in the flow state. Perhaps even put your devices in Do Not Disturb mode for periods of time when you need maximum focus.
#3 – Try to figure out your own balance between stimulation that can mellow your overactive prefrontal cortex and that which may engage it a bit too much.
Is it music? A podcast? Ocean sounds? Find something that can melt into the background of your attentional awareness, occupying some of it, but without demanding too much of your attention.
This is the key to mimicking the results of that tDCS study we mentioned at home.
Ultimately, there are no easy answers, and no guarantees, and that's why productivity is hard!
But at least now you have a formula to help you find your own personal recipe for getting in the zone.
If you liked this post, would you mind giving the video version a thumbs up on YT? 🥰
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© Post "How to get in “The Zone” (Flow State) while Gaming [video + text]" for game Destiny 2.
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