How to Hack Your Flow: Live Life at the Limits and Boost Productivity

In order to hack your flow, you need to give yourself permission. You must be open-minded and ready for the ride in order to succeed at anything new or different that you do. If this sounds familiar then it is likely because of how often we are told not just in words but also with our actions that “we should strive” or “follow our passion.” But what does following our passions really mean? What if there was a way to live life without any limitations, doing whatever it takes until death itself became an option?

The “the flow state” is a state of mind that allows people to be present and focused on the task at hand. This state can be achieved through a variety of methods, such as meditation or exercise.

Vintage man on surfboard in ocean riding wave.

Note from the editor: Steven Kotler, author of The Rise of Superman, has written a guest article for us.

Flow is defined by researchers as a “optimal state of consciousness,” a peak condition in which we feel and do our best. Some of us refer to this condition as “runner’s high,” “being in the zone,” or “being unconscious,” but whatever you call it, the sensation is indelible.

You’ve had this sensation if you’ve ever wasted an afternoon to a wonderful discussion or became so absorbed in a job assignment that everything else faded away. We are so concentrated on the work at hand while we are in flow that everything else fades away. The two meld into one. It is amazing how quickly time passes. The self fades away. All facets of performance are at an all-time high.

Because the feeling provided is called flow, we term this experience flow. Every action, every choice, flows to the next smoothly, fluently, and flawlessly. It’s problem-solving at breakneck speed, carried away by the torrent of ultimate performance.

“Without the flow state, without that improved attention, there would be no ramping up my game—that state is the cornerstone of pushing up the game,” says skating superstar Danny Way.

Such statements are backed up by 150 years of study. For example, a 10-year McKinsey research indicated that top executives are 5 times more productive inflow. Snipers in flow learnt 200-500 percent quicker than average, according to research conducted by the US military. Creativity is increased by a factor of seven. The list goes on and on.

But there’s a catch. The flow is the most desired condition on the planet, yet it’s also the most difficult to achieve. Despite decades of attempting, no one has been able to replicate the experience reliably, much alone with enough regularity to dramatically improve performance. Action and adventure sports athletes are the only ones who do not fall under this category.

In fact, these athletes have become so proficient at harnessing flow that they’ve used it to push the bounds of what’s possible quicker and further than anybody else in history during the last 25 years. Athletes have accomplished amazing, near-exponential increase in ultimate human performance—when life or limb is on the line—in sports like surfing, skiing, skating, rock climbing, mountain biking, and so on—in this evolutionary eye-blink. Surfers are surfing 100-foot waves, snowboarders are doing impossible aerials, and rock climbers are soloing cliffs with no ropes that no human should be capable of.

This is the first time anything like this has ever occurred. So, why is this occurring now, exactly?

The solution is really fairly straightforward. Flow is a luxury in all other pursuits, but it is a requirement at the extremes of action/adventure sports. The only way these athletes are surviving the large mountains, big seas, and big rivers is because of the state. When it comes to pushing the boundaries of human performance, the decision is clear: flow or die.

I’ve spent the last 15 years working with these action and adventure sports athletes, along with the other researchers at the Flow Research Collective, to find out what they’re doing to harness flow so effectively, and how to use this knowledge in all areas of society.


That’s precisely what I’m going to talk about in this article.

A Quick Overview of Flow Hacking

Triggers are pre-conditions that lead to higher flow in flow states. There are a total of 15, which are divided into four groups: psychological, environmental, social, and artistic. We’ll go into more depth later, but there are two things to keep in mind right now.

Flow comes first, then attention. It’s a complete absorption condition. As a result, all 15 of these flow triggers work to increase and tighten attention.

Second, since they’ve formed their lives around the state, today’s action and adventure sports athletes are able to enter into the flow so easily. They’ve crammed all 15 of these triggers into their life.

Triggers in the Environment

Environmental triggers, also known as “external triggers,” are characteristics of the environment that cause individuals to enter the zone more deeply.

The first trigger is severe consequences. When there’s danger in the surroundings, we don’t have to work as hard to maintain concentration; the increased risk levels do it for us. Because survival is so important to any creature, our brain’s initial job is to sift through all incoming data for any indication of a danger and concentrate intensely on it.

Remember that danger is always relative when hacking the “high consequence” flow trigger. While some risk must be courted for flow, death encounters are not necessary. In reality, even physical danger is a choice. Consider taking intellectual, social, artistic, and emotional risks. This surge might be triggered by a bashful guy crossing the room to say hello to an attractive lady. Simply giving someone the truth in casual conversation might accomplish the same goal. “To achieve flow, one must be ready to take chances,” says Harvard psychiatrist Ned Hallowell. To attain this condition, the lover must expose his soul and risk rejection and shame. To reach this condition, the athlete must be ready to incur bodily damage, even death. The artist must be willing to be mocked and derided by critics and the general public while continuing to work. And if we want to attain this condition, the typical person—you and me—must be ready to fail, seem ridiculous, and fall flat on our faces.”

The third environmental trigger, a rich environment, is a combo platter of novelty, unpredictability, and complexity—three factors that, like danger, attract and retain our attention. The word “novelty” conjures up images of both danger and opportunity. A peculiar aroma on the breeze may have been prey or predator to our forefathers, but it paid to pay attention in either case. Unpredictability implies we have no idea what will happen next, therefore we pay more attention to it. When there’s a lot of important information coming at us at once, complexity does more of the same.

Adventure and action Because nature is so full of novelty, unpredictability, and complexity, athletes get a taste of these experiences all the time. Rivers have a life of their own. The mountains and the seas are the same way. A wandering mind is a hazardous mind in situations where anything may happen, therefore rich surroundings naturally tighten the concentration and drive flow.


And what about those of us who wish to take advantage of this reality but aren’t interested in extreme sports? Simple: Look for complexity everywhere you can, particularly in nature. Go outside and gaze at the night sky. Take a stroll in the woods. Consider the little if you can’t locate huge nature. There are worlds within dew droplets, which is why there are so many clichés about universes inside dew drops. Is there no dew to ponder? Use technology to inspire awe: use Google Earth to explore your city or go to an IMAX film.

Deep embodiment is a state in which you are completely aware of your body. Our hands, feet, and faces contain half of our nerve endings. There are five primary senses that we have. We also have proprioception, which allows us to perceive our body’s location in space, as well as vestibular awareness, which aids with balance.

Professional kayaker Doug Ammons adds, “Action and adventure sports need profound embodiment.” “In particular, kayaking.” Large rivers accelerate you in all directions at the same time. The vestibular system goes into overdrive as a result of this. This isn’t just your head paying extra attention; your whole body is now paying attention as well. When something occurs, it happens outside of our conscious control. There are no words to describe it… You are actually a part of the world’s flow.”

If we want to pull the deep embodiment trigger in less intense settings, all we have to do is learn to pay attention to all of these information streams. This isn’t a difficult task. Open-senses/all-senses awareness is taught in Zen walking meditation. Proprioception and vestibular awareness are improved through balance and agility training (such as playing hopscotch or running ladder exercises). Yoga, Tai Chi, and almost every martial art combine the two. If you prefer technology, there are video games for both the Xbox Kinect and the Nintendo Wii that perform the same thing.

Triggers in the Mind

Internal triggers, also known as psychological triggers, are situations in our inner environment that increase flow. They’re psychological techniques for focusing attention on the present moment.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a pioneering flow researcher, recognized clear objectives, quick feedback, and the challenge/skills ratio as the three most important factors in the 1970s. Let’s look at it more closely.

Our first trigger, clear objectives, inform us where and when to focus our attention. When the mind has clear objectives, it doesn’t have to ponder what to do or what to do next since it already knows. As a result, attention tightens, motivation rises, and irrelevant data is filtered out. We’re dragged even further into now as action and awareness begin to mix. In the present, there’s no past or future, and there’s a lot less place for self—the invaders most likely to drag us back to the then.

This also reveals something about the importance of focus. When it comes to “clear objectives,” most people pass past the adjective (clear) in order to get to the noun (goals). When we’re instructed to create clear objectives, we see ourselves on the Olympic podium, the Academy Award stage, or the Fortune 500 list, and we assume that’s the purpose.


However, those podium moments have the ability to draw us out of the present. Even though triumph is just seconds away, it is still a distant event rife with hopes, concerns, and other time-consuming distractions. Consider the notorious sports blunders: the lost pass in the dying seconds of the Super Bowl; the missed putt at the Augusta Masters. The seriousness of the aim drew the players out of themselves at those times, when, paradoxically, the now was all they needed to win.

If the objective is to increase flow, the focus should be on “clear” rather than “goals.” Clarity provides us with assurance. We know what to do and where to put our concentration while we’re doing it. When objectives are explicit, meta-cognition gives way to in-the-moment cognition, and the self fades away.

To put this concept into practice, we must divide work down into manageable portions and create objectives appropriately. For example, a writer might be better off tackling three outstanding paragraphs at a time rather than one amazing chapter. Consider difficult, but not overwhelming—just enough stimulation to draw your attention into the present now, but not enough tension to drag you back out.

Our next internal trigger, immediate feedback, is another way to jump into the present now. A direct, in-the-moment linkage between cause and effect is referred to by this word. Immediate feedback is a kind of extension of clear objectives as a concentrating strategy. We know what we’re doing when we have clear objectives, and we know how to do it better when we get rapid feedback.

If we know how to increase performance in real time, our minds won’t wander about looking for signals to improve; we’ll be able to be totally present and engaged, and so be far more likely to be in flow.

Getting the input that action and adventure athletes need is, of course, automatic. “In the mountains, feedback is immediate,” remarked Paul Petzoldt, founder of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). Rivers, rocks, and seas are all the same. The rules of physics provide immediate, unmediated input in these contexts. There were no judges, no scorecards, and no New York Times review. It’s all about cause and consequence.

Another reason extreme athletes have discovered flow so regularly is because of the built-in feedback, but what if we want to pull the trigger without the support of the rules of physics? There’s no mystery here. Close loops of feedback. Put systems in place to prevent attention from wandering. Inquire about further suggestions. How much input do you need? Forget about quarterly reviews. Consider daily evaluations. According to studies, even the best in professions with less immediate feedback loops—stock analysis, psychology, and medicine—get worse with time. Surgeons, on the other hand, are the only kind of physician who improves with time after graduating from medical school. Why? If you make a mistake at the table, someone will die. That’s real-time feedback.

The final of our internal flow triggers, the challenge/skills ratio, is likely the most essential. The theory behind this trigger is that when there’s a very definite link between the difficulty of a job and our capacity to accomplish that activity, our attention is most engaged (i.e., in the here and now). When the task is too enormous, terror takes over. We quit paying attention if the task is too simple. Flow occurs in the emotional halfway between boredom and worry, in what psychologists refer to as the “flow channel”—the area where the activity is difficult enough to stretch but not difficult enough to break.


This sweet spot puts the focus on the current moment. The result is decided when the task is firmly within the confines of known skills—meaning I’ve done it before and am reasonably convinced I can do it again. We’re intrigued, not enthralled. When we don’t know what will come next, though, we focus more on the next. Uncertainty is the engine that propels us forward into the present.

Triggers in the Social Environment

The term “group flow” refers to a collective form of a flow condition. When a group of individuals enters the zone at the same time, this is what occurs. That’s group flow in action if you’ve ever seen a fourth-quarter comeback in football, when everyone is always in the right position at the right moment and the outcome looks more like a well-choreographed contemporary dance than anything else that generally occurs on the field.

This game is played by a wide range of people, not only athletes. With reality, in startups, group flow is quite prevalent. When the whole team is working together to achieve a single goal at breakneck speed—this is group flow in action.

“Because entrepreneurship is about the non-stop navigation of uncertainty, being in flow is a fundamental part of success,” said Salim Ismail, a former head of innovation at Yahoo who is now a global ambassador for Singularity University. Flow states help an entrepreneur to remain open and vigilant to opportunities that may arise from any collaboration, product discovery, or consumer encounter. The more flow a startup team creates, the more likely it is to succeed. You will not succeed if your startup team is not in a near-constant state of group flow. “When peripheral vision is gone, insights are lost as well.”

So, how do you get a group to flow? Here’s where social cues come in handy. These triggers are strategies to change the social environment in order to increase group flow. A few of them are already well-known. The first three are collective equivalents of Csikszentmihalyi’s psychological triggers: serious focus; shared, unambiguous objectives; and strong communication (i.e., plenty of quick feedback).

Two more are self-explanatory given what we now know about flow: equitable involvement and an element of danger (mental, physical, or otherwise). The next five will need a bit more research.

Our second trigger, familiarity, indicates that the group speaks the same language, has a same knowledge base, and communicates in a way that is built on unspoken understandings. It implies that everyone is constantly on the same page, and that when new ideas emerge, momentum is not lost owing to long explanations.

Then there’s mixing egos, which is really a communal kind of humility. When egos have been merged, no one takes center stage and everyone is fully engaged.

A sensation of control is a combination of autonomy (doing what you want) and competence (knowing what you’re doing) (being good at what you do). It’s about having the freedom to select your own difficulties and having the ability to overcome them.

When we’re totally immersed in the present moment, we can listen closely. This isn’t about deciding what funny thing to say next or which biting sarcasm to use last in a discussion. Rather, it’s producing spontaneous, real-time reactions to the conversation as it happens.


Our fourth trigger, “Always say yes,” implies that conversations should be more additive than contentious. The objective is to build momentum, unity, and creativity by continuously amplifying each other’s ideas and activities. It’s an improv comedy trigger based on the first rule. If I start a drawing with “Hey, there’s a blue elephant in the toilet,” the correct answer is “No, there isn’t.” The scenario comes to a halt with the rejection. If the response is positive, such as “Yeah, sorry, there was no more room in the cereal cabinet,” the narrative takes a turn for the better.

Creative Insights

Creativity. Underneath the hood of creativity, you’ll find pattern recognition (the brain’s capacity to connect new ideas) and risk-taking (the courage to bring those new ideas into the world). Both of these events cause tremendous neurochemical responses, which the brain rides farther into the flow as a result of.

This implies that if we want greater flow in our lives, we must think differently, plain and simple. Instead of approaching issues from traditional perspectives, approach them in a unique way: backwards, sideways, and with panache. Make an effort to broaden your imagination. Increase the degree of novelty in your life—research suggests that fresh locations and experiences are often the source of new ideas (more opportunity for pattern recognition). Above all, make creation a virtue and a value.

Athletes in action and adventure sports have done just that. “When people think of action and adventure sport athletes, the first thing—often the only thing—that comes to mind is the physical danger involved,” says Jimmy Chin, a professional climber, skier, photographer, and filmmaker. But after getting to know and working with a wide range of these athletes—from newbie freeskiers to grizzled 8,000-meter-peak climbing veterans—I’ve come to one conclusion about everyone, including myself. The best athletes aren’t interested in taking the most dangerous risks. I mean, they’re taken sometimes, and sometimes they’re not, but those bodily risks are a by-product of a much deeper desire to take artistic risks. Don’t be deceived by the threat. In both inaction and adventure sports, the objective is always innovation.”

Athletes in action and adventure sports have done just that. “When people think of action and adventure sport athletes, the first thing—often the only thing—that comes to mind is the physical danger involved,” says Jimmy Chin, a professional climber, skier, photographer, and filmmaker. But after getting to know and working with a wide range of these athletes—from newbie freeskiers to grizzled 8,000-meter-peak climbing veterans—I’ve come to one conclusion about everyone, including myself. The best athletes aren’t interested in taking the most dangerous risks. I mean, they’re taken sometimes, and sometimes they’re not, but those bodily risks are a by-product of a much deeper desire to take artistic risks. Don’t be deceived by the threat. In both inaction and adventure sports, the objective is always innovation.”

Steven Kotler is the co-founder and head of research for the Flow Genome Project, as well as a New York Times bestselling book and award-winning journalist. The Rise of Superman is his most recent novel.



Frequently Asked Questions

How do I hack my flow?

A: There are a few popular programs that allow you to generate songs and download them for your console. The most common is currently the PS4Flow hacking software which can be found on

What triggers the flow state?

A: The flow state is triggered when the player feels unstoppable. Its an interesting thing because it doesnt happen by a specific objective or goal, but rather as a result of feeling in control and confident that you can accomplish what you need to do.

How can I enter flow state while studying?

A: First, find a quiet place to study. Next, close your eyes and focus on the task at hand (reading for example). When you get into flow state try drumming with your fingers or tapping out an idea in time with your breathing. If this doesnt work then imagine something relaxing like being underwater to help calm yourself down.

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