Flow Hacks: Mastering Ultra Instinct Part Two

By on March 20, 2018

In part one, I discussed the nature of flow states and looked at some common misconceptions. Now it’s time to look at some flow state hacks.

Previously, I suggested that flow wasn’t just about transient hypofrontality – not just about focus – but that it was also about managing to stay calm during an increase sympathetic response. Stress will always cause intense focus, but stress does not always mean flow.

Adrenaline, DHEA, NPY, dopamine and other neurotransmitters all likely play a role. But important to recognize here is that neurotransmitters can have quite different effects depending on the part of the brain they effect. Likewise, while flow states are associated with calmer, theta brainwaves, it’s once again likely that this association is brain-region specific. Our brain isn’t awash with any single neurotransmitter and nor is there one uniform brain wave pattern across every region. At any given time, there is a highly complex pattern of behavior. It’s likely there are multiple ‘flow states’ and spectrums within those states, though they are all probably somewhat related.

And, by looking at studies of top performers, it appears that this might have something to do with a) an exaggerated sympathetic response and b) an ability to remain calm during that response.

flow state hacks - neo dodging kick

So, if you are performing sub-optimally, then there are two likely explanations: you are not trying hard enough, or you are not engaged enough. OR you are overly stressed, second guessing yourself and you aren’t ‘in the moment’ as a result.

Effective ‘flow hacks’ should be aimed at helping you to psych yourself up when you’re distracted, and to centre and ground yourself when you’re panicking.

Calm During the Storm – Flow State Hacks for Staying Centred

So, to quickly engage a sense of calm during intense situations, there are a few things we can do.

Our pathway to the autonomic nervous system is through our breathing, which helps to stimulate the vagal nerve. One method used by navy seals to control the fight or flight response is something called ‘box breathing’ or ‘four square’ breathing. And what’s very interesting is that this form of rhythmic, controlled breathing is also very similar to exercises recommended by the HeartMath Institute to induce coherence! By breathing rhythmically, you can make your heartrate variability pattern more rhythmic and potentially increase the amount of DHEA to help you stay in a calmly aroused state.

brain waves in flow state

To use box breathing as a flow hack, you simply inhale for the count of four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four and hold for four. Then you repeat. Breathing through your nose while doing this will also increase nitric oxide production, which widens the blood vessels and helps improve oxygen delivery to the brain. Apparently humming during this may further help to enhance this effect.

If you find yourself feeling stressed and making mistakes as a result, shaking or feeling sick: try breathing more rhythmically, gently and through your nose. Box breathing is an incredibly powerful flow hack.

I spoke in a previous video/post about using wide angle vision to also help increase present-moment-focus by bringing in more visual information and to at the same time improve reaction times and a state of calm. Speaking with several martial artists after making that video, it seems that this really is one of the best things you can do. Avoid focussing on limbs and trying to anticipate an opponents’ movements – instead watch their body as a whole and you’ll stand a better chance of hacking into a flow state.

Again then, when you find yourself flinching and underperforming, try engaging your peripheral vision and taking in the entire scene. Watch my video on this for more information.

Apparently relaxing your tongue and lower jaw can help to induce calmer brainwaves – and this makes sense considering our stereotypical ‘slack jawed’ expression. Try it now and you’ll find it’s much easier to ‘zone out’! But be careful with this technique if you’re in a competitive sport as it could make you more likely to clamp your teeth together or bite your tongue!

CBT as a Flow Hack

But really, our stress response is mostly controlled by our thoughts. If you don’t believe me, the imagine that you are camping in the woods when you hear in a rustling in the bush and you know it’s a tiger. Your heart rate will increase, your pupils will dilate and your brain will be flooded with cortisol and norepinephrine.

But then the tiger emerges and turns out to be a kiten. It was your expectation that caused the fight or flight response – not the reality.

And the thing is: we imagine ‘tigers’ all around us all the time. Not literal tigers (unless you live in a jungle), but other threats and dangers that really aren’t as bad as we think they are. For instance, when speaking in public, you imagine being booed off stage if you stutter. Very few crowds are really that cruel! And does it really matter anyway?

The difference between being psyched up for a competition and experiencing performance anxiety is in your focus. Are you focused on the event itself, on doing your very best and on enjoying the experience?

Or are you focussed on what everyone will think of you if you fail?

This is why sports psychologists the world over encourage, their athletes to be goal oriented yes – to focus on the outcome to motivate themselves to work harder – but also to leave their anxieties in the changing room. The best athletes reportedly view competition as part of a process, rather than being a ‘be all and end all’. These days, a lot of sports pscyhology is focussed on flow hacks (which is awesome).

And of course, if your brain is worrying about what the future holds for you if you fail, then that is using up your cognitive reserves that would be better employed elsewhere. It’s likely this might lead to increased activity in the wrong parts of your brain. So, stay in the moment and just worry about doing your very best.

This is a common misconception about flow states and neuroscience generally that I forgot to touch on last time: that we exhibit one kind of brainwave across our entire brain. Or that neurochemicals affect every brain region the same. In truth, it is far more complex than that and a flow state is likely the result of a complex pattern of brainwaves and neurochemicals in specific brain regions. Achieving flow might be about achieving excitability in the right places.

Another piece of useful self-talk is to remind yourself that your fight or flight response is not a bad thing. We’ve been conditioned to think of it as a bad thing and this actually makes us panic in the wrong way! This is why people who experience panic attacks are told not to try and fight them or suppress them, but to accept them and observe them. There is some crossover with flow hacks here.

When you feel intense stress, welcome it: it is going to help you. The adrenaline is making you stronger and quicker and heightening your senses. Studies show that adrenaline can increase strength by 31% or more! Your sympathetic nervous system is not the enemy (study).

adrenaline increases strength

Techniques like this are examples of cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. This is a psychotherapeutic technique that is used by psychologists to treat conditions like phobias, anxiety disorders and OCD. It is my belief that the same principles can also be applied to sports psychology, productivity and general performance.

I plan on doing a whole video/post on this soon as CBT has helped me and others I know immensely. But the basics involve observing your own feelings and thoughts by using ‘mindfulness’ and then using ‘cognitive restructuring’ techniques to change your thoughts and your focus to things that are more conducive to health and in our case, optimal performance. These include techniques such as ‘thought checking’, which test the validity of your thoughts.

The next time you are in a situation where you need to perform optimally, try assessing where your focus is, what’s on your mind and what is helping and hindering your performance. Remind yourself that your fight or flight response isn’t a threat in itself, remind yourself to breathe, remind yourself to focus on the moment: that the outcome doesn’t matter. Ask yourself if your fears are really valid, or if you’re inflating them in your mind…

With enough practice, it may eventually be possible to control your own physiological responses. After all, some people are able to trigger an orgasm with their thoughts alone. The theory is that these individuals are more in-tune with their own feelings and responses. While that might sound like a random thing to drop in here, my point is that if this is possible… then surely triggering a flow state is also possible? Likewise, studies show that simply being more aware of our heartrate can help us to actually begin to control it (report).

Becoming More Focussed

These techniques may be able to help you to find calm the next time you are in a highly stressful situation. Rather than fighting the increased heartrate, embrace it. Breathe calmly and become psyched up, not psyched out.

But what if you have the opposite problem? What if your mind is wandering because you’re not engaged enough with what is happening?

In that case, there are some alternative flow hacks you can use. We’ve seen already that breath can be used to control your autonomic nervous system and as it turns out, the wim hof method is able to increase adrenaline. More on that soon.

You can likewise use CBT techniques once again. Remind yourself why what you’re doing is important and why you have to win. Visualize the end goal that you are striving for and feel the emotional motivation for why you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing.

mushin flow state martial arts

At the same time, endeavour to do your best. Part of the reason we go through life in a daze is simply that we aren’t challenged enough or engaged enough. If you do the same thing at work every single day and have the same routine of ironing and making lunch… how can you be expected to engage in the moment? Or to perform your best?

Again, this can be a matter of thinking about the situation in the right way. If a task is too easy, then try doing it faster, more perfectly or while adding arbitrary rules and restrictions. This is called ‘gamification’.

Going faster – or ‘overspeed training’ – is a particularly interesting way to make a regular task harder. And we can see how this affects cognition by driving on a motorway at 70mph and then coming off onto a regular 30mph road. How much slower does the latter seem now?

I find it amazing that when playing Furi, I can get to the point in a boss battle where my heart is pounding and I have a very significant physiological response. Make tasks more challenging and they could have the same effect. (Playing the right computer games is a powerful tool for getting into flow states BTW.)

The game Furi

Even playing this game though, I often have to remind myself to focus and try my best. The mantra I find useful often is ‘be patient’. Don’t try and rush the outcome, wait for the opening. Just focus.

This is also why the flow triggers suggested by Stephen Kotler, such as ‘deep embodiment’ (which means moving around a lot), ‘rich environments’ (which means, not being in a drab office) and ‘immediate feedback’ could be helpful – they help to make a task more inherently engaging. Though I do think his view oversimplifies the subject a lot. And you can’t always be snowboarding down a mountain…

A related concept is ‘awe cultivation’ – seeking out scenes that are awe inspiring could help us to increase activity across our brains. But again, that’s a topic for another time.

You can also try being more ‘mindful’ while carrying out tasks. Mindful washing up is actually a thing! But I personally prefer ‘mindful running’.

Of course, stimulants can help to increase your physiological arousal, which is why so many people use pre-workouts. I did say that I would tackle nootropics in this instalment and come up with a ‘flow stack’. As it is, this diatribe is already far too long – so I’ll be putting that in an all-new part three. This will also give me a chance to test out the stack myself. I have some interesting avenues there, so stay tuned.

And for more on how to focus on a creative or productive task when your mind just wants to wander, check out my video titled ‘Focus’.

Long Term Solutions

Okay, so those techniques and flow hacks can help you to remain calmer when you’re panicking and to be more focussed when your mind is wandering. These are acute ‘hacks’ you can use to help trigger flow in the moment.

But in the long term, if you want to improve your ability to focus and to remain calm, there are few things better than practicing meditation. Meditation essentially means practicing focussing your mind – whether that means emptying it out or focussing on a mantra or your breath. Gradually, you learn to become better at ignoring distracting thoughts and even rising ‘above’ emotions that aren’t conducive to your optimal performance. Combined with mindfulness, this is likely one of the most powerful tools to help you be in greater flow, more of the time.

Though I’d like to interject at this point and just quickly remind you that flow is not the only useful state. Sometimes daydreaming and activating your default mode network can be useful for creativity and long-term planning. Optimal performance is about being able to switch between mental states and be in the right one at the right time. Meditation will help you do this (study).

You can also train yourself to deal with stress better by simply exposing yourself to extreme stress more often. This is the precise technique used by special forces to effectively desensitize their combatants to the stress response. Tim Ferriss recommends doing something similar by lying down in a public place to expose yourself to extreme social pressure. We also experience a stress response when we are low on oxygen, which may be why deep divers have similar parasympathetic responses to the special forces. And likewise when we are very cold.

I wouldn’t recommend trying to ‘train’ yourself to adapt to a sympathetic nervous response by restricting oxygen… but getting outside your comfort zone and doing things that get your heart pumping is recommended. And while doing this, maintain mindfulness and notice how it feels. This is similar to a technique in cognitive behavioral therapy called ‘fear testing’ – where you expose yourself to your worst fears and thereby prove to yourself that they aren’t worth fearing!

Practice is crucial for enhancing your likelihood of getting into flow. If you are still learning a technique or sport, then it will take more conscious thought in order to execute it. This is why – seemingly counterintuitively – experts and masters in specific fields actually use fewer cognitive resources. This is called ‘neural-efficiency’ and it bears remarkable similarity to flow states.

flow hacks for intense focus

And you can also practice focus and flow themselves. Practice remaining completely focussed and in the moment, and you will become better at remaining there. Studies show that neural efficiency doesn’t just apply to learning skills, but also becoming more efficient in the way that you use your brain generally. By training your working memory for instance, you can increase neural efficiency across all tasks that involve non-verbal reasoning (study). Again, meditation seems to help in a similar way (study).

Oh and it should almost go without saying at this point: but to increase your chances of achieving flow, you also need to ensure that you are in the best biological condition you can be at any given time. That means getting enough sleep, avoiding unnecessary stress, eating well etc.

Closing Thoughts

So that’s an awful lot to take in, but hopefully it has given you some interesting topics to research further and some flow hacks you can try out right away. Practice mindfulness, practice being in the moment, start meditating, learn to control your breathing, engage wide angle vision and welcome and use your physiological response. Practice your art and push yourself outside your comfort zone. Do all that and you’ll be in flow more often.

I do think there’s a kind of ‘higher’ level of flow though. You hear a lot of people who manage to be focussed for a few hours claiming they’re in flow. But I think everyone chasing flow believes it can be greater than that. We are chasing those moments when time really slows to a crawl and when we gain seemingly super-human reflexes and decision making. I believe this is most likely due to an exaggerated adrenal response and I don’t know how we might trigger that at will. But practicing everything we’ve discussed here means you’ll stand a better chance of being ready when it does come.

And of course, if you found this post interesting, keep checking back so you won’t miss out on part three where I’ll be trying out a flow state inducing nootropic stack AND looking at the role of transcranial direct current stimulation and what that might mean.

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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