Routine and Flow

I mentioned in an earlier post, about the benefits of a Morning Routine. I feel strongly that it is a foundation for success and once you get into it’s groove, it becomes easier and easier. In general, routine and habits make things easier. Like meditation, I started out struggling to sit with a calm mind for more than two minutes, but after weeks of doing it, I can’t imagine not doing it every day. The same goes for exercise. Like everyone else, when I first starting working out regularly, it was hard to do it consistently, but once it became a habit, I don’t feel like myself if I don’t workout in the morning.

For many things, once you get to a point where things become easy, it almost becomes the path of least resistance, and it becomes your default when things become hard. This is how I feel about reading. Lately, reading has become my mode of procrastination. What I mean by this, is if I am struggling with something that’s difficult and challenging (like studying Japanese), I will feel intense pressure to just stop with the difficult task, and want to read. The reading is typically educational in nature (currently it’s more Stoic philosophy and Bold by Mr. Diamandis and Stephen Kotler). I know this isn’t so bad – I’m not vegging out in front of the TV, playing video games, or doing something unproductive. But for me, it is procrastinating, and is distracting me from the difficult, productive task, which generally means aggressive growth and learning. It annoys the hell out of me, that something I love is now something that makes me feel like I’m procrastinating – but it’s true. There are many things I want to get better at – playing guitar, sailing, learning languages, but when I’m tired, or unmotivated, my default is picking up a book I’m reading, and reading some more. Arrrrghh!

It’s the same thing with exercise. If I have a choice between working out or writing a book/article, I’ll work out. If I have a choice between during a normal workout, or changing something up, I’ll pick my normal workout. It’s the Path of Least Resistance. And it means I’m not growing…

If you never push yourself outside of your comfort zone, you won’t improve. If you practice guitar the same way day after day, or don’t try to speak the language that you’re learning, you won’t improve. You might actually regress.

Scientists use a concept called “homeostasis” which refers to the tendency of a system (often living creatures) to act in a way to maintain its own stability. A typical example of this is similar to what I described above – exercise. If you perform exercise that is not strenuous, and doesn’t strain your body’s homeostatic mechanisms, the exercise won’t cause any changes in the body. Your body won’t have any reason to change, so it won’t. But if you perform your exercises in such a way to strain your body’s homeostatic systems, it will compensate (by building more muscle, adjusting your metabolism, growing more capillaries, strengthening your heart, etc.) to return your body to homeostasis when exercising at that higher level. If you push your body hard enough, your body will change to make it easier to push.

It’s also the same for learning new skills. As you push yourself outside of your comfort zone, those things become easier to do. Mental growth requires challenging yourself outside of your comfort zone so you learn something new. That learning is typically difficult, but can be fun. Hopefully, it’s fun enough to keep you engaged. Eventually, what is difficult, will eventually become easy, after the habits and routines are developed. It’s this back and forth road that is the way to growth and learning.

“Many, like the great Roman statesman Cato the Censor, looked at comfort, almost any form of comfort, as a road to waste.” – Seneca

Most of you might have some familiarity with flow. If you’ve found that time flew by when playing poker with your friends, or lost an evening in a conversation, you’ve had a bit of that experience. When we are in flow, you’re so focused on the task that everything else becomes easy, time flies, and you are experiencing peak performance. The term flow was coined by Mihaily Csikszentmihalyi in his informative book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.” This is an optimal state of consciousness where we perform and feel our best. You see Olympic athletes, musicians, engineers, Fortune 500 CEOs routinely trying to optimize this state to achieve peak performance.

The primary theory to why performance is increased in this state is due to a higher focus in the brain on the task at hand (while also shutting down other areas of the brain that aren’t related to that task). It dramatically increases information “flow” from your senses so that you can rapidly make decisions (have you seen guitarists who move their fingers on the the guitar strings so fast, you can barely see them? that’s them in flow).

To maximize flow you should have a rich environment of complexity, novelty, and unpredictability. This should hold our attention and makes us unsure of what will happen next. In the Rise of Superman, Stephen Kotler interviewed the Harvard psychologist Ned Hallowell, who mentioned “When you’re concentrating on something that matters, when you can’t proceed on automatic pilot, that’s when flow shows up. That’s creativity to a T. Once you’ve thrown out the rule book and begun making creative decisions, the risk involved tightens focus and triggers a neurobiological cascade — it sweeps you right into flow.”

This is key, you’re focused, not bored, and can’t be doing something on “automatic pilot.” This is a state which is somewhat hard and difficult, and you can’t be doing something super easy. But it can’t be too hard where your anxious. The experts cal this midpoint the “flow channel” and it is hard enough where we need to stretch, but not to the point where we get so stressed out. This sweet spot is typically four percent above our current skill level.

During the flow state, dopamine, a chemical in the brain that acts as a neurotransmitter, is released, helps us feel engaged, excited, and creative. This chemical is released whenever we take a risk and it rewards us for exploration. Since it helps increase attention and information flow, it helps improve our skills over time.

Also, during flow norepinephrine, also a chemical hormone and neurotransmitter, is released in our brain and helps focus attention, makes us more alert, and ultimately mobilizes the mind and body for action. With both dopamine and norepinephrine released, we feel very good and become hyper focused.

Next Steps

My advice to all of you is that if you want to maximize your growth in certain skills, create that habit, and get into this flow state as much as possible. Again, regularly push yourself outside of your comfort zone, and make your practice consistent, regular, and habit forming. You’ll feel good and have a lot of enjoyment if you get into the flow state, which will make you want to practice even more. The flow state combined with routine, can take your journey of learning new things to a much higher level. Have a healthier and happier life!

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