Flow State

Finding the right balance of peak experience, effective practice, and flow states is essential for sustained gains in the long run.

People are needy. We want it all; we want it now; we want it to last forever; and we want it for free. This is the calculus of biology, but never confuse short-term appetites with lifelong strategy.

Real gains have a half-life. They’re perishable. Preserving them requires effort, intelligence, and a strategy. To make our efforts productive over the long haul, we need the right combination of peak experiences, effective regular practice habits, and the ability to create flow states to accelerate the process.

Let’s look at these one at a time, and then put it all together.

Peak Experiences

Peak experiences change us. We’re not the same afterwards. Figuratively, they get us out of our heads and loosen our grip on who we think we are, and what we believe is possible. They can dissolve our ego and blow up our world view, causing us to put life back together in novel ways or stretch for new heights. There can be deep “aha” moments, or an audible “click”, as new insights or connections are made for the first time, or with new intensity.

One extreme form is the psychedelic experience, where if the dose is high enough, there is real risk that we won’t be able to put ourselves back together ever again. High-dose psychedelic experiences can go seriously wrong, and should never be undertaken lightly, too frequently, or without expert supervision. Psychedelics should never be viewed as recreational toys, but as transformational tools, especially for lives that are stuck in a deep rut of some sort.

More sustainable peak experiences might include occasional trips to nature, motivational retreats, raves, community service, clinics, master classes, professional and athletic boot camps, temples or cathedrals, and so on. These kinds of experiences are less explosive than all out ego death, but they are nonetheless transformational, and they add up. We hope we are performing at our peak during tournaments, but we don’t compete tournaments every day.

I went to high school and college in the 1980’s. Peak experiences for me were watching Larry Bird and Michael Jordan play basketball, and Maradona play soccer. Just seeing what was possible changed by brain and my body. Grainy as that footage is, and creaky as my joints are now, it reminds me of sports before and sports after these peak experiences. Just by watching these guys, my game (and everyone else’s game) jumped to another level.

All peak experiences end. So now what?

What all peak experiences have in common is that they end. When they do, we must re-integrate the experience into regular life armed with new insights or gifts we received. Those gifts are not assets, unless they are put to work in the real world.

Regular Practice

If peak experiences represent the tops of mountains we visit for a brief moment, regular practice occurs in the valleys between peaks. Most of our lives are spent in valleys. Regular practice builds and refines vocabulary, strength, flexibility, and dexterity, whether mentally, physically, spiritually, socially, financially, or professionally.

Meditation, visualization, self-hypnosis or self-improvement books, individual and group study, debate, physical exercise, social interaction, sex, and good diet are staples of any practice. Good regular practice should also purge toxic substances and thoughts from our bodies and minds, and replace them with physical and mental essential nutrients.

Peak experiences are the peaks. Regular practice happens in the valleys in between.

Creating Flow States

Flow states are force multipliers, and they are created. We create flow by doing something challenging enough to command our attention, while stretching our abilities—enough to stretch us and keep us engaged, but not enough to break us. Flow states make whatever we're doing seem experientially richer than usual, more effortless and timeless, while losing ourselves in the activity.

You’ve probably heard of the 10,000 hour rule to achieve mastery at something—but practicing your craft in a state of flow can cut the time to mastery down substantially. Flow is naturally created when your comfort level is exceeded by as little as 4%. If you are a musician practicing with a metronome at 90 BPM, don’t leap to 140 BPM at once causing you to crash and burn. Crank it to 93 BPM, until you can play confidently with expression, then crank it to 98 BPM, and so on.

Flow can be created when your comfort level is exceeded by as little as 4%.

When in flow, your Default Mode Network (DMN) quiets down while the experience itself takes over. In flow, you’re not thinking about the past or the future. It’s all happening right here and now. It isn’t about you. It’s all about what you’re creating or who you’re with.

Putting It All Together: The Optimal Balance

So what is the right balance of peak experience, regular practice and flow? You’ll have your own, but here is how I see it:

Over time, regular practice should be the foundation of getting what you want out of life and your relationships, becoming what you want to be, or performing at the levels you want to reach. No shortcuts here. But your practice should be punctuated with occasional peak experiences to challenge your status quo and inspire you and see the world in new ways. Finally, practice should be done in a flow state as much as possible, to make the most out of your time and effort, and accelerate your time to mastery.

Peak states can be addictive, but too many too often are actually counterproductive. To paraphrase the great Tony Rice: it’s great to hit the bluegrass festivals to hear the best pickers, but you’ll never play like they do. Spend time behind the woodshed practicing the licks you want to play, and make it your own.

Increase the effectiveness of your practice with flow states. You’ll enjoy it more, stick with it longer, and get better faster.

What is that elusive Flow State?

In my mastermind group, we have taken on the task of reading Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This 19-year-old book was a best seller in its day, but the research is still relevant today. I was enthused to read about it as it is referred to by trainer after trainer in NLP, and also by other authors I follow. Flow is also a peak state discussed often in Master NLP Practitioner courses.

Perhaps the most quoted fact from the book (and often misquoted) is that on average our attention is capable of processing only 110 bits of information per second. This information load can come in the form of external sensory inputs, or internal thoughts. Small wonder why driving and talking on the phone are a lethal combination… but it’s also a useful insight into why most of us are so poor at remembering people’s names… we are not paying attention in the first place.

NLP trainers like to contrast this 110 bits-per-second of the conscious mind to the millions of bits of information coming in through all the sensory channels each second that are filtered out. The point of all the NLP trainers is that the unconscious mind is so much more powerful than the conscious mind in comparison. This almost always produces a whoo-whoo response in the audience. After reading the book, I think the NLP trainers missed Csikszentmihalyi’s point, which is that with limited attention to spend on the world, we out to be more willful in selecting the objects and activities of our precious and limited attention.

What I took away from the book was that hoping for god-like powers to increase the rate of data my conscious mind can process is a rather futile pursuit. Instead, the magic is in top-down prioritization of things to spend attention on.


When life's highest goals are purpose-driven, and the smaller goals align with the higher goals, the battle is half-won. Then when our limited attention is absorbed in activities in pursuit of these meaningful goals we experience flow. Flow is a state where a challenging activity of our own choosing demands all of our present skill, action and awareness merge, feedback is immediate, our concentration on the task is full. In such a state, we lose track of time and self, and we feel like we are “going with the flow”. We are not in control as much as we are merging with the task.

Flow happens in a narrow band of experience between anxiety on one side, and boredom on the other. The challenge must not overwhelm or underwhelm us, but provide a gentle stretch.

The result of flow states is that we have grown to become more complex in two ways: we become more differentiated as individuals, while we also become more integrated. We do not report feeling happy while in flow, but when the experience is over the growth and new complexity are very satisfying, and even addicting.

Flow experiences are neither good nor bad. The goodness or badness is determined more by the purpose served by the flow state. The book has several poignant examples to illustrate that flow is not the ultimate goal, but that flow should be sought in service of worthy goals.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

So I tried it out for myself...

I am a consultant, a coach, a husband and father, a writer, and an amateur musician and former athlete. I never read a book without the intent to test out its ideas both objectively and subjectively. Objectively, the ideas in this book made great sense and I can see incorporating them in all aspects of life. Subjectively, I wanted to try out how good I was at producing flow in different areas of my life. It turns out that flow is like any muscle. Without exercise, it atrophies, but with exercise it can bounce back.

At work, I tried organizing my tasks such that I could perform each task without distractions, bringing all my talents and attention to bear on each task in a way that I was slightly stretched. Sometimes the stretching was in terms of complexity of the task, and sometimes the mundane tasks were a stretch in terms of how quickly and efficiently I could complete them. Again, at the end of each task, I was very pleased with the result.

After work, I began meditating and exercising with a mind toward flow, and practicing my guitar with an ear toward flow. When I achieved a state where my exertion was slightly stretched by the challenge at hand, flow was there. At the end of the exercise or practice it was very satisfying.

I highly recommend Flow as a foundational book for any NLPer, and non-NLPer alike. It is essential reading where performance and enjoyment are an important part of your life goals.