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03 Growing beyond yourself: The power of “flow”

by Achim Feige

Dear Transformers, dear Co-Creators, dear creators of a new era!

In the last VERTICAL-X newsletter I talked about self-authorship. In other words, about the moment when we go from being a victim of circumstances to an actively shaping force. Once we’ve made that leap, we want to launch into our Waking Up, the first big stage of our transformative journey. This is helped by a superpower: flow.

Flow, also known as “being in the zone,” is a psychological state in which we are fully immersed in an activity and feel focused and energized. The phenomenon was first described in the 1950s by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He noted that people in this state experience a sense of deep satisfaction and joy. At that time, this was still considered a kind of mystery that only some people experience on a daily basis – musicians, painters, sports stars. Today, neuroscience is much further along: we can all experience flow and use it purposefully.

When we do, we overcome the rushing, the running behind, the struggle against crushing demands. We free ourselves through more flow. Then we grow beyond ourselves – completely without cramps and exaggerated effort.

Today, the elite soldiers of the USA or the Silicon Valley geniuses consciously work with this condition. It is not a miracle that falls from the sky, but a power that we can acquire. This can be done through concentration exercises, through small body techniques, or even through sound. (You can try this out right away – see below under “Practices”.) And a few rules are also important: Your tasks must not be too easy, otherwise you will get bored. And they must not be too hard, or your brain will react with fear. Finding the point exactly in between is the art. This is often forgotten in companies as well.

What we want to achieve is the so-called autotelic experience. These are activities that you perform for their own sake. We can achieve this in our jobs, because most of us sit at tasks that we are at least basically good at, perhaps even love, and in which we would like to achieve something.

For many, their inner stream of thoughts gets in the way. Often it is full of worries. The ego is constantly worrying. Is the market developing well? Am I needed? Do I have good ideas? Sometimes we think so much that we hardly get to the actual task. I advise you: Separate that from each other. You need time to think about yourself. But the time will come back later, if you don’t keep brooding during your job. Take half a day for yourself and you’ll be more productive the rest of the time. You’ll work beyond ego and focus on the matter at hand.

American author Steven Kotler has studied some more traps that get in the way of good flow. We call them the “flow blockers.” They are: Distraction, self-sabotage, lack of clarity, burnout, exhaustion, being overwhelmed, stress, wrong time management, wrong mindset, and the trouble with motivation.

I can’t go into detail here about all the flow blockers; that’s an intense but beautiful task for our workshops. However, I would like to mention two examples. First, the problem of lack of clarity: we don’t know how the day will go on, and we don’t know what the next half year will bring. That is just the way it is. But the danger now is that we brood. The prefrontal cortex becomes overactive – and that’s what prevents flow. Rather, set a long-term goal, pursue it passionately. Erroneous paths are okay because they are instructive, but above all: Do something! That releases norephedrine and dopamine in the brain, the two substances for flow.

And another example: Being overwhelmed. We tend to take on too many tasks. Many people know this from their jobs, especially in upper management. But overload creates stress, creates too much cortisol and adrenaline in the nervous system, and that also prevents flow. Analyze your life: What do you do? What of it is significant? Everything that is not important can go. Try to re-evaluate things: many are not urgent and hurried at all. Define your planned daily output. Then you know when it is fulfilled, when you have reached your goal.

All these structures help to get into the flow. First into the so-called micro-flow, the flow on a small scale: you become engrossed in a conversation with a colleague, are fully involved, completely concentrated. And then into the macro flow: time slows down, sometimes you forget yourself or see yourself from the outside, becoming one with the world. Then peak performance becomes possible and yet feels easy. But because the framework conditions have to be right first, I’ll mention the most important ones again:

  • Clear goals – these are crucial for you to feel what you have to do and how.
  • Clear and immediate feedback – this is the only way to know immediately whether things are going well or badly and what still needs to be adjusted.
  • The right challenge – ideal is the feeling that one’s own abilities are just sufficient to master the task.
  • No distractions – neither internal nor external. No one tapping, no Instagram distractions. This creates the confidence of being able to complete a task efficiently.

I would like to give you a very concrete tip on how you can start today: Try what we call Single-Focused Work. Do only one thing, but do it right. Buddhists tell the following parable about the Zen master Pai-Chang from the time of the Tang Dynasty: A disciple asks Pai-Chang, “Master, what is your way of living – what is the secret of your Zen?” The master replies, “When I am hungry, I eat, and when I am tired, I sleep.” – “But we all do that,” says the student. “What’s special about that?” Then the master replies, “When you eat, you have a thousand thoughts and are in the there and then, and when you sleep, you have many fears and desires in your dreams. But when I eat, I eat and nothing else. And when I sleep, I sleep and nothing else. This is the secret of my Zen.”

Today you could add: You look at your iPhone when you eat, you think about the Google calendar when you jog. The problem: you never become fully productive that way, you never get into the flow. Vladimir Horowitz thought of nothing else when he played his brilliant interpretations of Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky in the concert hall. And Muhamad Ali was completely in the moment with his fights. Learn from the greats! Do just one thing, but do it right. If you want to scroll on your cell phone, set aside half an hour a day for it and do it all the way. And then go to your real tasks, and dedicate yourself to them with all your strength.