Flow Expert Steven Kotler On Unleashing SuperHuman Mode
Today we are joined by Steven Kotler. Steven is the co-founder of the Flow Genome Project, and he is also a New York Times' best selling author. He has written quite a number of books, many of which you have already heard of, like “The Rise of Superhuman”, his book on flow, “Abundance”, his book on the future, “Tomorrowland: our journey from science fiction to science fact” and “Bold”, which he wrote with Peter Diamandis, the book about how to go big, create wealth and impact the world. He has also written a bunch of other books like “Stealing Fire”, his most recent one.
Steven is an absolute authority, not just on writing, but also on flow. The Flow Genome Project has been doing research for decades, developing and understanding ways that we can get into flow and understanding what flow is and why it matters, why it exists and what we can use it for. I think that this is one of the most important topics in the whole realm of SuperHuman Academy and it is something that we haven't really covered in any of the stuff we've put out, from the podcast to the online courses. It has been my goal to fix that, to understand flow, to understand why it is crucial and most importantly to give you the skills and strategies to get into flow, so you can go out there and be SuperHuman.
Steven did NOT disappoint on any of these, as he was extremely generous with his time, enthusiasm, energy and wisdom. Personally, I think you guys are gonna be blown away by this episode!
In this episode, we discuss:
- Who is Steven Kotler? [5:15]
- How did Steven Kotler get into the field of studying flow and human performance? [6:25]
- How is flow different from just being focused? [9:45]
- Does everything great from humanity happen during flow? [12:10]
- Can we get into flow consistently and reliably? [14:50]
- An important prerequisite for getting into flow [18:50]
- The individuality in the flow triggers [22:10]
- The impact of getting knocked out of flow [25:35]
- Other things that Steven Kotler does to perform at the highest level [35:20]
- What is a piece of homework that everyone can try this week to get into flow? [40:20]
- What is the limit of flow? [47:15]
- Where can people learn more about Steven Kotler? [52:15]
- How does Steven Kotler fund his research? [55:15]
Resources Mentioned in This Episode:
- Flow Genome Project
- The Breakout Principle by Herbert Benson
- Flow Fundamentals Course by Flow Genome Project
- The many books by Steven Kotler (Amazon)
- Flow For Writers, a two day bootcamp with Steven Kotler
- Flow research Steven is doing
- Steven's own website
- Flow Genome Project on Facebook
Favorite Quotes from Steven Kotler:
Introduction: Welcome to the Becoming SuperHuman Podcast. Where we interview extraordinary people to bring you the skills and strategies to overcome the impossible. And now here's your host, Jonathan Levi.
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Greeting SuperFriends and welcome to an incredible episode. You guys, I think, I think this week's episode is one of the best we've ever done. And I think part of it is because I was absolutely in my flow state when we were recording it.
Why you ask? Well, my guest today, is Steven Kotler. He is the co-founder of the Flow Genome Project. He is also a New York Times bestselling author. He's written quite a number of books, many of which you've already heard of the rise of superhuman, his book on flow abundance, his book on the future tomorrow land our journey from science fiction to science fact and bold, which he wrote with Peter Diamandis, the book about how to go big, create wealth and impact the world and a bunch of other books stealing fire, his most recent one.
Stephen is an absolute authority, not just on writing, but also on flow. The flow genome project has been doing research for decades. Developing an understanding ways that we can get into flow and. Understanding what the hell flow is and why does it matter? Why does it exist? And what can we use it for? This is I think one of the most important topics in the whole realm of becoming superhuman. And it's something that we haven't really covered in any of the stuff we've put out from the podcast to the online courses.
And my goal was to fix that, to understand flow, to understand why it's important, and most importantly, to give you the skills and strategies to get into flow. So you can go out there and be superhuman. Stephen did not disappoint on any of these. He was extremely generous with his time, enthusiasm, energy, and wisdom.
And I think you guys are going to be blown away by this episode. If you do, please make sure to leave a comment. Leave a review and share it with three friends so we can get all this amazing flow out there. All right, guys, that's all for me for now. Let me introduce you guys to my new super friend, Mr. Steven Kotler.
Steven. Welcome to the show. I'm so glad that we finally got a chance to connect after we're kind of passing paths at Summit and I'm so glad Ben introduced us. So welcome. Welcome, welcome.
Steven Kotler: My pleasure. Nice to be with you, Jonathan.
Jonathan Levi: Absolutely. So, Steven, I've been a follower of your work and I've been really passionate about everything that you've been doing. I know a lot about the flow genome project. I've heard you speak, but for our audience, they haven't. So can you give me a kind of a quick summary of who you are, how you became such an authority on flow and human performance, and also a little bit about what you've been working on since?
Steven Kotler: I am an author or journalist, I'm the co-founder and director of research for the flow genome project. Where I've spent the past 20 years studying the peak performance state known as flow. And you know, we at the flow genome project, we're a research and training organization. So on the research side, I think we're the largest open-source research product in ultimate human performance in the world. And on the training side, we work everybody kind of from the US special forces through, you know, corporations like Ameritrade or Google to the, to the general public. Training people up and peak performance.
Mitch Matthews: Incredible. And I have to ask. I mean, how did you get into this? Because it's such an understudied, I think, or prior to you, it's such an understudied area, you know, I've heard you say that the vast majority of human brilliance and creativity and excellence comes out of these moments of flow.
And yet I can't name a third person besides you and who were working in this field. So how did you get into this path?
Steven Kotler: Well, do you want the childhood story, the teenage story, or that early twenties store? The late 20th story, I ended up on this path three different ways, but let's just say that since I was a little kid, I was obsessed with the question of what does it take to do the impossible, right? What does it take for individuals, organizations, even institutions to level up their game, like never before? And what does it really take to create kind of paradigm-shifting nothing is ever the same. Again, breakthroughs. I was obsessed with that and I've been obsessed with that my entire life. And you know, around the time of the quick version of this is around the time I was, I turned 30, I got very, very sick. I spent about three years in bed and I managed to cure myself at a time that the doctors didn't think I was ever going to get any better. And my kind of functionality in the world was reduced to less than an hour a day.
And the rest of the time I was in extreme pain, lying on a couch and moaning, unable to do anything. And I sort of cure myself using flow States, this altered state of consciousness and what, when it sort of happened. I didn't know what the hell was going on, right? I'm a science guy. And I was having these very strange altered states of consciousness. And they were, you know, during an illness that was supposedly incurable and it was baffling. And I, you know, I, I thought that maybe the disease had gotten into my brain and that I was just losing my mind. Anyway, I lit out a kind of giant glass to figure out what the hell happened to me and I quickly discovered that these folders dates I was experienced and had a name, we call them flow states, and I also realized that the same kind of experience that got me from seriously subpar back to normal was getting normal people all the way up to Superman. And that really caught my attention and that, and it sort of snowballed from there. So that's the very short version of where it came from.
Jonathan Levi: Can I ask you what the affliction you were suffering from was?
Steven Kotler: Sure, I had Lyme disease.
Jonathan Levi: Oh, wow.
That's a tough one.
Steven Kotler: Yeah, it's interesting because flow, I mean, so her Benson who did a lot of the kind of foundational work on the neurochemistry of flow, he's at Harvard, he pointed out in a book called the breakthrough principle that there's a ton of neuroscience underneath flow. And one of the things that happen is you get pumped full of five performance-enhancing neurochemicals besides an ASIC performance.
They actually boost the immune system and reset the nervous system in a really powerful way. And it autoimmune condition line is a nervous system, gone haywire. So like Benson had done the work on the mechanism behind how the hell, like I, sorta cured myself. So I stumbled on Bob back fairly early on too, which helped a lot, right? Proved to me that I wasn't crazy. And that there was science here and that this stuff could be understood.
Jonathan Levi: So here's a big question. I think I want to ask on behalf of our audience again, who hasn't heard you speak, because I think there's a misconception among the general populace that flow is just when you're really focused and you know, one is the other, but the other isn't the first in the sense that there are some distinct things like flow. Is it a unique in and of itself psychological state that is far above, what's happening when you are paying attention? Really, really hard. Talk to me about that. I mean, how is this a different state of mind?
Steven Kotler: Well, let's back up a second and just give your listeners, especially those who aren't familiar with my work, a little better definition of flow.
And then I will answer your question. It'll help. So what we call flow, you may call runners, huh? Or being in the zone or being unconscious or the forever box or in the pocket, then the lingo is sort of endless, but it's a technical term and it defines an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and we perform our best.
So first of all, that should differentiate it from focus, right? When we're focused. We're focused. We're not feeling our best and performing our best we might be, but right, more specifically, it refers to those kinds of moments of rapt attention and total absorption when focus gets so intense that everything else disappears, action awareness will merge your sense of self vanishes time passes strangely five hours of goodbye in like five seconds or it'll slow down and you get a freeze from effect married to anybody. Who's been in a car crash. And throughout, as I mentioned, all aspects of performance, go through the roof. So to put this more scientifically, perhaps, when you are focused, you usually have a little bit of cortisol, a bunch of nor epinephrin in your system, and your brainwaves are in high beta, which is fast food, big wave and it's where your brain is right now, as we're talking, right? Flow brainwave wise takes place near the borderline between alpha, which is, you know, a more relaxed state of consciousness, very similar to where you are when you're daydreaming and feta, which is a deep meditative state of consciousness that only accessible to most people during REM sleep or during the hypnagogic state when you're falling asleep.
So there's a different brainwave signature, and neurochemically stress hormones like norepinephrine and cortisol are mostly flushed out of your system. You have some norepinephrine still there because it helps sharpen focus and you're filled with dopamine, anandamide, serotonin oxytocin, a bunch of other neurochemicals.
So neurobiologically, there's massive differences between focus and flow.
Jonathan Levi: And so I don't remember the exact percentage that I've heard you say, but the theory is that the vast majority of actual work that's getting done Olympic medalists, you know, their moment of victory, basically that all the good stuff of humanity happens during flow.
Steven Kotler: So we learn and by we, I mean, uh, Mihai chick sent me, hi, whose name you mentioned earlier, right? Whose sort of the godfather of flow psychology though. He's not the first one to study it. People been studying flow scientifically since the 1870s, which sent me high in the seventies and eighties, early nineties, was the chairman of the University of Chicago psychology department. And he made a number of kind of foundational discoveries about flow that sort of speak to what you're talking about. One is the defined mistake. He figured out that it's measurable. You figured out is ubiquitous. So anybody can, you know, anyone anywhere can, can end up in flow provided certain initial conditions are met.
And more specifically, and this was the first clue into like, what you're talking about was he discovered that the people who test the highest, like off the charts for overall life satisfaction, wellbeing, meaning, purpose, those kinds of things, where all the people with the most flow in their lives, that was tantalizing from that point after he kind of broke down some of the psychology.
Researchers turn themselves to the next question, which was all right, this is optimal performance. How optimal, right? We know it's good for wellbeing and life satisfaction and meaning, and those are important, but what else is it good for? And the answer is Holy crap, right? Like what we now know is that pretty much a flow state sits at the heart. As you pointed out of every gold medal or world championship, that's been won. It accounts for significant progress in the arc major breakthroughs in science and business. We've got actually some hard numbers. McKinsey did a ten-year study, the business consultants, and they found the top executives are 500% more productive inflow.
So, uh, kind of across the boards, we now know that you know, flow is the signature of optimal performance and it's really worth hitting this. Again, which is to say that like, we are all hard-wired for optimal performance. This is what we do as humans actually, as mammals to perform at our best. So pretty much any high-performance system out there, the goal, at least underneath the hood has to be, to move people towards flow because this is how we're hardwired for, you know, ultimate performance.
Jonathan Levi: This is so incredibly exciting. I mean, you know, me, I geek out on the learning stuff and, and this has been one major component that I think has been missing on the podcast. And in all the kinds of lectures that I do is it's great. If people know how to learn more effectively, but they have to be able to get into that state where they're using all these techniques, where they're able to, you know, harness the power of their mind.
So I want to ask you, can we hack our way into flow. Can we will our way, or how can we get into it more consistently and reliably?
Steven Kotler: Well, you can't lose your way there. So here's, here's what we've learned. And a lot of this was research. Some of it was done. Uh, there was actually worked on that. We did the flow genome project and there was a, there's a kind of a parallel research project in Sweden at the Karolinska Institute and we weren't really in communication with one another, but we both driven in the same direction and discover the same thing, which is, we now know that flow States have triggers, preconditions that lead to more flow. And they're about 20 of them that we know of. There's probably way, way more, but we know of 20 and the simplest way to think about this is the one thing we know to be absolutely certainly true about flow is it can only show up on your, all your attention.
It's focused in the right here, the right now in the present moment. So that's really what these triggers do. They drive attention into the present moment, or, you know, if I were to put it more formally, I'd say, Hey, these 20 things are among the 20 things that evolution shaped our brain to pay the most attention to.
And what we've discovered is that shit is really trainable. And I got to tell you, man, like that was shocking news to me. You know what I mean? When we started this research we started working with the best of the best elite special forces, you know, a top professional and Olympic athletes, that top CEO, that level of thing.
And we thought we needed to be working there mainly because it was gonna be so hard. What we've learned, I'll give you a classic example. So we did couple years ago, a joint learning project at Google, and we took about 80 Googlers. It was 80, it might be 60 from all over the company. Everywhere you look, facilities, engineering, coders, PR marketing, take your pick.
And we trained them up in the four high-performance basics. And I mean, basics, man, like sleep hygiene gets seven to eight hours of sleep a night and be really protective of your sleep and you know, that sort of thing. And then the use of four flow triggers. And after a six-week course that had about an hour of homework a day.
We saw a 35 to 80% boost inflow.
Jonathan Levi: Wow. That's life-changing.
Steven Kotler: Wait, wait, let me take it one step further for you, which is we, so we got it at the flow genome project, right? You go to our website, there's a flow fundamentals force. Anybody could tag it. Um, we've got close to a thousand people who've taken it on.
We measure pre and post. Right? And what we're finding is that on average measuring seven district metrics for flow, we're seeing a 70% boost per metric. And the point I'm making here, well, two points, one McKinsey, just to put this in perspective for you, when they did their work, they figured out that most people probably without knowing it.
And I can talk about why, if you're curious, spend about 5% of their work-life and flow, if you can boost that about 20%. So a 15 percentage point jump overall workplace productivity in America would double.
Jonathan Levi: Wow.
Steven Kotler: That's crazy. Right? So we got, you know, these huge boosts, and what I want to point out is that it's not entirely they'll take some credit, but it's not entirely that our Kung Fu is so good it's that this stuff is really easy to train. It's really easy to train. It's funny. I was talking to a friend of mine yesterday who was kind of a neuropsychologist and we were talking about the same thing that like a lot of what we're discovering about, you know, high performance is it's not that hard to train.
You have to do it. You have to be diligent about it and it requires, it requires sort of living in different ways than we're accustomed to living, but it's not crazy difficult. And this is not to say that, you know, anybody who takes this advice can go out and, you know, swim like Michael Phelps or, you know, write books like Tolstoy right? But everybody can massively improve their performance with this stuff. That's for sure.
Jonathan Levi: This is super incredible. Tell me about some of those triggers that people can be aware of to start optimizing and getting into flow.
Steven Kotler: Well, there's a ton of them, but the place to start is it with chicks? I mean, high in discovery.
One of the most foundational triggers it's often called the golden rule of flow. It's the challenge skills balance. But the idea here is that we pay the most attention to the present, right? Most focused in the now when the challenge of the task at hand slightly exceeds our skillset. So you want to stretch, but not snap, right?
It's a little, little, little boost and emotionally, I would say that this sort of exists near, but not on the midpoint between boredom, not enough stimulation. I'm not paying attention and anxious. Whoa, way too much, right? I'm paying way too much attention in between. What's known as the flow channel, or if you speak physiology, it's sort of just above the arc stops and curves.
And, uh, This is the sweet spot for flow and what's interesting about the sweet spot is it tends to screw people upon two ways. The first is that if you're shy a little risk-averse, a little anxious, a little neurotic, take your pick. And I'm a lot of those things, by the way, flow shows up outside your comfort zone, you have to push yourself outside your comfort zone.
So you have to get really comfortable with being uncomfortable, but just a little, right? Um, but you have to really do this day after day, week after week, year after year. For top performers, for overachievers, for hyperactive type A's of which I also fall into that category a little, you will blow past this sweet spot without even noticing it, right?
It's like for reasons that are a little complicated, we think it's about four bursts of that. We think that the right number is when the challenge is about 4% greater than your skillset. So top performers will take on challenges that are 10, 20, 30, 40, 50% greater than their skillset. And as a result, knock themselves way out of the sweet spot for flow, or you'll see it at work, right. Other people will do it for you. I'll give you a great example that we spend a lot, I'm talking to people about. So in sales, we'll see people have William get into like deep, deep, deep flow states and, you know, have really amazing quarters, right?
And totally blow their quotas out of the water and really kill it for their companies. And then the boss comes along and says, Oh, that's fantastic. That's great. Now do it again in a half the time. And we're going to double your quota. And as a result, those employees get knocked out of the challenge skills, sweet spot, right?
Cause there's, some of the tasks is so much harder and scarier and bigger, and it's just too much. It was too big of a step up. And as a result, the anxiety that gets produced will lock you out of flow. So interestingly, what you're seeing there is employers sort of knocking their top performers out of flow and what they really need is them to stay inflow.
Jonathan Levi: Right in that sweet spot. That's super fascinating.
Steven Kotler: That's one example of a trigger.
Jonathan Levi: So it's interesting on a couple of different levels, one being that it's environmental, right? Like a lot of it can be putting yourself in the right environment. As opposed to, you know, kind of like a mindset shift, which I'm sure there is an element of that in the 20 triggers, but this idea that like, you need to put yourself in the proper environment where you're being challenged, just the right amount, I think it's really interesting.
Steven Kotler: Yeah. And, and you got you, you also have to find it for yourself, right? I mean, one of the things that's tricky about flow and people, you know, as I said, it's really easy to train, but it's tricky. And one of the reasons is, what we don't know. And what we think is that everybody sort of has different susceptibility, these 20 triggers, right?
The ones that are going to work best for me, aren't going to work best for you, Jonathan, and so forth. So you have to really conduct the experiments yourself. And for example, in my writing, I have discovered that I'm in that 4% sweet spot when kind of the level of truth I'm telling if, especially if I'm writing anything, that's got anything to do with me.
My experience is my life, the truth I'm telling the level of it. Um, I just feel a little exposed. I'm a little vulnerable. Like I'm showing a little bit more of myself than maybe I, I want to. But that's the secret spot, both for communicating with readers and for keeping me in flow one example.
Jonathan Levi: Wow. I really, really like that. I've definitely experienced that as well. I do my best writing when it's like, Oh, this is, this is a little much, are people gonna want to read this? How are they gonna react?
Steven Kotler: And I also like, Oh, you could get another different life. Right? Like I have discovered that as a general rule, I, 700 words a day which is about what I write when I'm working on a book, which is most of the days is just outside that challenge feels sweet spot. You know what I mean? Like I can get it done. But it's going to take some effort. I'm going to sweat. I can do, you know, 300 words with my eyes closed 400 words I have to start really kind of paying attention. 500 words, it's getting difficult. 600 words, I had to have a little breakthrough along the way. And 700 words. I maybe needed a couple of breakthroughs, right?
Jonathan Levi: Wow.
Steven Kotler: And six, 700 words a day. I, it, it actually changes. So when I'm starting a book, it's 500 words a day when I'm finishing a book, it's a thousand when I'm in the middle, it's 700, but I've run those experiments over and over and over and over to figure out what, what is, what is the sweet spot that will consistently produce the most flow, right? And sort of do that. So like, again, you know, those numbers work for me. They tend to work for a lot of people, by the way, I, you know, in, in teaching, writing, and flow and things along those lines, We tend to find that those numbers work for a lot of people, they may, you know, maybe 400, 600 and 700, you know what I mean?
But slight different, but that's sort of the, it's sort of the sweet spot. And you'll find if you listen to professional writers, talk, you start asking them how much do they produce today? All the answers are going to beat in right in that same place. And there's probably like a lot of neuro-biological reasons for it, right?
Jonathan Levi: Super interesting because I'm thinking to myself, like yesterday, I had a pretty profound flow experience and it had to do with changing my environment and it had to do with shutting off all distractions and a lot of different factors that were different than my normal thing. But I wrote, I think about 3000 words and I'm just wondering, like at my, a binge flower because instead of consistently writing, as you said, 700 words, I waited until it was, it had been so long that I did some quality writing that I had to go to a different workspace and surround myself with different people and shut off all my digital devices to binge out these 3000 words,
Steven Kotler: Couple of things right. You also like, I'm just listening to you. So novelty, new environment, right. Is another flow trigger. Brain loves novelty. Totally drives focus, right? Like novelty is a huge, huge, you can novel virus produced huge spikes and dopamine. One of the brands, principle pleasure drugs. One of the brands, principle focusing drugs and most important as well.
Yep. Right. You also get more pattern recognition when you get dope, man, nor epinephrin flowing through your system. So you'll find links between ideas. So you, you put yourself into an environment that was sort of packed with floaters. And also by the way, when I work with organizations, very first thing I tell them is, Hey, if you can't put a sign on your door that says f*** off I'm flowing. You're screwed because what the research shows is that flow requires 90 to 120 minutes of uninterrupted space for concentration and Tim Ferris. He argues that, and I think he's right on this, that if you're doing something really hard and creative, you know, 90-120 minutes is sort of what you need daily.
And then a couple of times a week, you're going to need four or five hours of these blocks, right? And I think that's, I think those are very true, but like, You know, so, you know, if you work for an organization that makes you respond to messages in 15 minutes or email in an hour, or you tend to do that kind of stuff? It's a disaster, and it's clean, I get up at 3:30 in the morning, four o'clock in the morning, every day to start writing and one of the reasons I do it is my phone doesn't ring. My phones are turned off. My email's turned off. There's no social media. You know what I mean? It's pitch black. The only thing I see is the computer screen. And even there, I use focus view. So I literally only see the page I'm working on. There's nothing else in my universe, right? And, you know, I've got, sometimes I'll pull full dark and all the windows, so I don't have to see the sun. You know what I mean? So like, I don't know. So I can stay in that space a little bit longer.
Jonathan Levi: Brilliant. I imagine it would be so fascinating based on all the research that you've done. I imagined it would be so fascinating to watch you work because it's probably just like, Oh crap. I should do that. Oh crap. I should do that. I mean,
Steven Kotler: I don't know if you want to like watch a guy's spending four hours writing a sentence. You're, you know, I'll set up a camera. You might like that we can file that under paint, drying, grass growing, and Steven's writing is very exciting because of a watch.
Jonathan Levi: Fair point. I guess there's something to be said about that, that, like, there is no, you know, it's dialed in and it's at such a point I do want to also mention, you know, I teach a course on productivity as well. And one of the things that I point out to students is. People love to claim that they can multitask really well, or they love to claim that it's just a little notification that pops up and you know, I'm not actually going to reply to the message.
I'd just like to know there's no emergencies. So they have these little notifications that pop up on their screen, you know, the emails, the whatever, and I've found. And I am pretty confident. You found as well that I cannot get into flow. Even if I'm not engaging with those messages, just having them pop into my field of view.
It's too tempting. And then you go hours and hours trying to write breaking your concentration every 10 minutes. You know?
Steven Kotler: There's three things on that. One, one we know. Well, we don't know on everybody, I guess, but we know from studies done on coders and maybe it varies career to career, but with coders, when they get knocked out of flow, it takes them about 15 minutes to get back in on average.
So, if you're in flow and one of those messages pops up and it's enough to knock you out. And I'll talk about why that was happening to have a second. You just cost yourself. I mean, think about it this way. If you're 500% more productive inflow and you have a three-hour work window to get something done, think about how much work that 15-minute knockout just costs you.
That's the same.
Jonathan Levi: One non-critical message.
Steven Kotler: Let me put it a different way. So the biggest thing you mentioned it, you might be like, so anxiety, which is essentially norepinephrine is a really funny drug, right? A little bit of it, it's a great focus and drug is fantastic. It feels like excitement drives performance drives curiosity, it's great. Too much of it, total anxiety.
The problem is that the highest up that scale you move while your ability to focus may increase your ability to be creative decreases. And the reason why as norepinephrine sort of shuts down the ability for the pattern recognition system to make far-flung connections between ideas, the more fear in the system, the more familiar, your thoughts are going to be, and you know, the extreme version of this is fight or flight, right? Where you are faced with extreme gear and you've got two options. Right. So, and this is neuro-biological. And so if one of those little messages pops up and it's got some little bit of emotional tag for you, right?
Like it's something that there's emotions involved, whatever. That could produce more rapid effort and knock you out of the sweet spot. And suddenly you're not getting back into flow at all. And, and more importantly, because we're all so unbelievably crunched for time and we feel time pressure all the time. You may not be paying attention to those, the alerts, but your brain is going, Oh yeah, I got to respond to that. Oh yeah. I got to respond to that. Well, yeah, I got to respond to that and it's doing two things. One it's trying to save energy for later when you have to respond to those things and to it's making you more anxious.
So you're saving energy. So suddenly we have less energy going into what you're doing right now. And you've put more anxiety into the system. So you're no longer in the sweet spot for flow and yeah, you've knocked yourself out of the state for about 15 minutes minimum high, high, high consequences. And you know, I mean, this is my buddy live NAS work in Stanford, nobody multitasks. It's absolute bullshit. You can, brain is not built. It's a serial processing machine. It can process in parallel on a lot of levels. But when you're talking about conscious attention, it's a serial processing machine and there's no such thing as multitasking and a study after right?
Shows like, I mean, and the performance declines for people who try are ridiculous. I saw something this morning and I wish I could figure out what I was looking at, cause I would cite this study, but they were talking about people trying to multitask by writing an email and maybe taking notes on a lecture at the same time, I want to say.
And they, they measure something like a 10000% decrease in performance. Like it was some stratosphere number that I was like, well, how the hell did you even measure that? Like what is that? That doesn't even make any sense. So I don't know if it makes any sense, but, uh, or I don't know if that research, you know, bears out cause I didn't take a deeper look at it, admittedly, but you know, it's interesting that we're finding the decline is huge across the boards.
This is so motivating
Jonathan Levi: because this week I finally put a line in the sand I already do, by the way, make her manage her days. I'm theoretically supposed to have two days a week where I'm just not available. Period. I don't do emails. I don't do chats. Like nothing. And even in those days, I have little things creeping into my time and popping up. And, uh, I took a stand finally this week and decided that you know, if I want to write and I want to create and want to actually get shit done, then I have to go full with it and, and completely close everything except for, you know, that does provide a little bit of anxiety because it's like what's going on in the company. Servers could be crashing, you know, worlds could be burning and I have no idea, but I've had two of the most productive days ever since making that decision.
Steven Kotler: Yeah. I like, it's funny when I think about my career and I think about like, you know, The stuff that, you know, what did it take to write, you know, seven bestsellers and get two Pulitzer prize nominations, right?
Like, was there a secret Kung Fu in there on the flow stuff helped a lot and blah, blah, but honest to God, I think it said, I just kept saying no. Anytime somebody offered me a job where I would lose control of my schedule and any level, the answer was always, no. I never became an editor because you would take time.
I never, like I could have given up book writing and had a career in advertising, but I'm not giving up. You know what I mean? Like I just said no. I protected my schedule as fiercely, as I protected anything in my life.
Jonathan Levi: You know, I preach that, and yet, somehow it creeps up on you and you, you make so much time and you're like, Oh, well I have time I could volunteer and do this and do that.
And I could answer a couple of customer emails here and there, and then it just creeps up and it, it snowballs. It really is, I've found, as you said, a black and a white, like just no, there's no, I'll do a little bit. And that's something that I'm working my way back to is just no. No, I'm not on Slack three days a week. It's a, no, it doesn't matter what's happening. So I really love that. And that's a reminder kind of driving home, something that I'm working on myself.
Steven, I want to ask you other skills, those habits, routines that you feel make you perform at a higher level. I mean, a lot of what you talked about felt like mindfulness training, but I'm sure there are other 4:30 in the morning sounds like a pretty good skill/hack to make you perform better. Any other things that you do that, uh, help you perform at the highest level?
Steven Kotler: Well, I mean, the most important thing I do that helps you perform at the highest levels. I hurled myself down mountains at high speeds as often as possible because I'm an action sports fanatic.
So, and speed is the ultimate gateway into a flow for me. So I try to have, you know, a confrontation of mortality and high speeds at least once or twice a week.
Jonathan Levi: Oh, wow.
Steven Kotler: Cause it, it really, you know, it really keeps my head dial down. So I mean, you know, not for everybody, but, uh, you know, risk is a big factor for obvious reasons. But have any physical risks. I happen to really like physical risks, emotional, psychological, social, intellectual, all those things work as well. But I use physical risk all the time and I really like it.
Jonathan Levi: And how are you carrying that forward? After you get off the mountain, do you then go and write, or is it the other way around or is that a different day?
Steven Kotler: I write, whenever I get up at 3:34, so I'll write till about eight o'clock and then head towards the mountain. And when I come home, I try to do nothing. I try to keep my brain shut down and I have, I, you know, I have a very active recovery practice that involves, you know, saunas and breathwork in the saunas. And then I handful of other things. And so I'm a big believer in active recovery as well. And, um, I've also broken a lot of bones, so I tend to have to ice my body after I ski.
Jonathan Levi: You aren't kidding about the risk factor,
Steven Kotler: 83 bones and counting.
Jonathan Levi: : You've broken 83 bones?
Steven Kotler: You have to understand that I spent the first six, seven years of my career chasing professional athletes around mountains. That was the first place I started to notice flow stuff. I didn't know what it was, but this is how, when I got Lyme disease when I was 30, I knew what I was looking at. Because I kept seeing professional athletes and they would talk about it. You know, if they were stoned enough, they might say, yeah, you know, I give them this space, time slows down and I feel one with the mountain and it gets really weird and it's really spiritual and I don't know what it is, but it makes me perform right. Daddy, you hear those stories? I remember hearing layer to handle and then describe a flow state. When I was probably 27, 28, first time we met and a part of me was sitting there thinking, well, I've had this exact same experience. But he sounds like an absolute raving hippie lunatic.
And you can never say these things out loud. How could you even talk about it? You know, a couple of years later, I actually became the guy who figured out how to talk about it out loud without like, sounding like a raving lunatic, but it took like four years to figure that one out. I saw it a lot, but if you're not a professional athlete and you chase professional athletes around mountains, you're gonna break bones. And I broke a lot.
Jonathan Levi: You were a photographer or?
Steven Kotler: I was a journalist and I started my career as a journalist. I mean, most of what I was doing was science journalism. But back then, this was early nineties, action sports were just happening and they were deep subcultures, right? And I was an old-school punk rocker. So I fit right in, but they were deep subcultures and, you know, public was fascinated. The X game is just getting started, the gravity games, all that stuff. And, you know, if you could write and ski or write and climb or write and surf, write whatever there was work. And I was desperate for the work. So even if I couldn't do those things, I would lie to my editors, right? Which you know, is how, you know, you'd find yourself on the top of some incredibly gnarly peak in the middle of Alaska, you know, just so far above your head, you can't even imagine, right? I mean, like, it's really funny. So I will honest to God last year I took a couple of months and I moved to Squaw Valley to finish a stealing fire, my last book.
And, uh, I lived at the base of KT and that was where I started my career. I, a lot of those bones were broken there and, uh, we had a journalist from ESPN with us and another one, I think they were both from ESPN and it was, you know, it was me and a handful of like professional skiers, basically taking these guys around the mountain and we, you know, did to them, what people have been doing to me for decades, scared the shit out of them.
And, you know, I watched one of them. You know, fall like 200 feet, you know, through a shoot and you know, he's flying on the other end, but I just started laughing. I was like, you know what, for 10 years, that was me 10 years, you guys did that to me. I feel so great that I finally get to do it to somebody else.
Jonathan Levi: Brilliant. Stephen. I want to transition into some practical stuff that people can play with at home and ask you a, what's a piece of homework that people can try this week.
Steven Kotler: Piece of homework that people can try this week. For what? Just give me direct me a little bit.
In general just
Jonathan Levi: to perform at a higher level. But I guess since you are the flow guy, it would be pretty cool for them to try something out at home that would get them into flow, maybe an exercise or some kind of experiment that they can do with themselves.
Steven Kotler: So, one thing I will tell you, so why don't we just talk about a couple other flow triggers that are really great. And I'll talk about one that gets overlooked all the time, which is called clear goals. And the idea here is we pay the most attention to the present moment, right? When we know what we're doing and we know what we're doing next.
So most people. Screw this up because their goals are too big. Clear goals are really like moment by moment plans. In a sense, I'm going to write a great sentence that I'm going to write another great sentence and I'm going to write another great sentence then I'm going to, so setting really clear goals, goals that are clear enough that you just keep, keep your attention focused on the present moment is really great.
Now, interestingly, I'm guessing if you're listening to this podcast is what high performers listening to this podcast? High performers tend to be pretty good, you know, they they've got their daily to-do lists and if you're not making a daily to-do list, you're insane. Like as far as I can tell for a number of reasons, most importantly, you need to know when to declare a win.
So I often think of clear goals. It's like a daily to-do list with sub goals, kind of blocked in and most people are really good at doing one thing in flow. And what happens is they're, you know, lots of focus really, really intense, and then they're transitioning to task number two from their to-do lists, right? And what do they do? They check social media or, you know, do any number of things that might be, could possibly be emotionally taxing. And if it's stead of doing that stuff, if you take your two minute break and do three sun salutations, or you do two minutes of breath of fire and then go right back into your work without doing anything that could pull your focus out of the present moment in any anyway right emotionally, and just go right into your next clear goal. You're going to carry your kind of low grade flow state from one task to another. And you're going to start to deepen it along the way.
Jonathan Levi: Right.
Steven Kotler: And I'm going to give you one other thing, cause I'll bet, you did this to yourself yesterday, which is, did you keep working until you basically had nothing left because you were having such a good time and you're getting so much done.
Jonathan Levi: Kinda, yes. I went to lunch and then, you know, had a friendly lunch with a friend and everything. And then I was like, you know what? I think I'm going to keep going. Um, I'm feeling pretty good. So I had a break, but yeah, I came home from the workspace and just crushed it.
Steven Kotler: And did you have a hard time working today or an easy time?
Jonathan Levi: Today was pretty easy, but it was a different kind of work today was my phone calls day.
Steven Kotler: Oh, okay. So did different kinds of work because one of the things that often happens, so interestingly, if you let's talk about writing for a sec, a lot of writers, I learned it from Gabriel Garcia, Marquez, Josh Waitzkin talks about it, Hemingway talks about it, but they all say when you're doing a work session or a writing session, that to get to any work session, it's a long project, right? And you've gotten into a flow state. It's going really, really well. Quit when you're most excited.
Jonathan Levi: Interesting.
Steven Kotler: And the reason is twofold. One, the hardest thing to do is to get back into flow when you're starting cold, right? So you need to stack motivations, right? You need a lot of stuff. That's going to drive focus in the present moment, right? And if you left off, when you were excited, You will bring that excitement to the next day's work, right? So what is more important to understand is the neurochemistry here? So we talked about norephinephrin and dopamine as the brain's principle, focusing on chemicals and their big flow drivers, right? Turns out they're also very short-lived chemicals. You can only have sort of maximum saturation of those chemicals for about 20 minutes. This is why Ted talks 20 minutes long. Most of us can really pay peak attention throughout 20 minutes, or this is also why, and once those neurochemicals are gone, by the way, it takes a while for the supply to reboot, right? You need minerals and vitamins and food and sunshine and a bunch of crafts. So it takes a little while. So when you've all had this experience, you've seen like a James Bond movie where there's lots of explosions, lots of things grabbing hold of your attention, exciting, fun and about half an hour into the movie, you're exhausted, right? And you've got another hour and a half to sit through? That's because you've used up all your norepinephrine and dopamine because all that has claimed it from you, right? So when you're deep in flow, you're using up a lot of norepinephrine and dopamine by the time you notice, right? Oh my God, this is amazing. This is great. You have probably gone through a bunch of your supplies. So by fighting for those extra kinds of hours of work on the backend. What you're doing is you're taxing the last year's resources and it's going to be harder to do it the next day.
Jonathan Levi: Wow. That's really interesting. So you should almost plan your weekends. I mean, I guess it, it kind of lends credit to what I'm doing, which is I break up my writing days. So I have a calls and recordings day in between where I don't really need to be as creative. It's just, you know, ticking off emails and ticking off things in a sauna.
Steven Kotler: Yeah. So what I have noticed for example is on, uh, the day after I say, go skiing, right? Or go mountain biking or whatever. That's going to be usually going to be a really great flow state for me the morning after, because I've had flow the night before, um, you know, creative flow tends to follow fairly quickly and, uh, Theresa model at Harvard discovered that the heightened creativity you get in a flow state will outlast the flow state by a day.
Sometimes two ends up big boost. It's like 400 to 700% boost and creative inflow. So huge spike. Yeah. Huge, huge spike. So, I'll use that heightened creativity, but the day after that, I know I'm going to be like, I had a big flow state while skiing. I had another one while writing. I know I'm going to not be able to produce a whole lot.
I just know. So I may ask myself under those conditions to produce 400 words instead of 700 words. And that's exactly, I'll be the same thing as you'll schedule, you know, all this stuff I have to do for PR or marketing or phone calls or podcasts, or, you know, I'll record my TV shows or whatever that stuff will get done, then.
Jonathan Levi: Brilliant, because I actually did want to ask you, you know, as, as we talked about getting into a flow state, you know, I think the obvious question is like, what's the limit? Can I really spend eight hours inflow? Can I really do it every single day? So like, what's a good goal now that we know that you can't spend unlimited time and flow, like what's a good reasonable goal for people to try, you know, hours per day, days per week.
Steven Kotler: So.
one data point before I can answer that question. Flow is a spectrum experience. It's like any emotion, right? Anger, a little arc homicidally murderous, same emotion, flow is the same way. We know, so the state has seven core characteristics. I listed that uninterrupted concentration in the present moment. The vanishing itself, time, dilation, time passing strangely, a couple of others. These are the characteristics of flow that show up in most, every flow state, you can have microflow where a couple of those things show up or where all of them show up, but really at a low level. So this is what happens when you sit down to write that quickie email, and you look up an hour later and you realize you've written an entire essay, right? And maybe you forgot what your body felt like along the way. And you're like, Oh my God, look what I've written out loud. Do I have to take a piss? Right? That experience that's microflow, macro flow, which is the other extreme, right? When all the characters should show up at once. Feels like, you know, too many, a full-blown mystical experience.
In fact, for the first 70 years that scientists were looking at this state, they've thought it was a spiritual experience. I thought it was a mystical experience. They thought only religious, spiritual people could get it. And it wasn't until Abraham Maslow discovered flow in a study group pack with atheists in the fifties that this idea of what that is, you know, went away.
But, uh, you can have two, three microflow states a day, right? You won't stay in them perpetually, but like, if you get good at this on a good day, you might two, two, maybe three, but like that's after years of working at this stuff, right. What starts happening really quickly though, is that you start finding those microflow states show up more frequently and more frequently and more importantly, the more you work with this stuff. The time between flow states can shrink, but you can't live in flow it's going to neurobiologically impossible, you know, or if you do live in flow, we have a different term for it. We call it schizophrenia, right? So, and that doesn't have to work so well. We have a mania as well, so that, you know, there are, there's a limit and more importantly, and this is really critical because I know so many people miss this point.
The information, the real information, right? I mean like what flow is great for us yesterday, they have some performance, but it really dials up insight. That's that creativity, insight, that kind of inspiration, those kinds of things go through the roof on. That's fantastic. But the information is really rich because it is different from daily life.
It's in the difference, right? The pleasure of a flow state isn't the fact that, Oh my God, it doesn't feel like normal life, right? That's one of the reasons it's so amazing and it works, but you want both. And in fact, I will tell you, so often what happens in a flow state flow is what happens when you're, you've learned a bunch of stuff consciously and suddenly your subconscious knows it well enough that it can do it automatically at a better than you could do it consciously.
And usually like, it's a number of skills coming together at once, right? And what happens is that you get this view of all my God, look at how good I can be in a state of peak performance. And then you'll spend three months, six months, a year, two years, whatever learning, training yourself up, sort of to get, to be able to do that under normal conditions.
And that's in a sense, the tender with her, but this is the high perch experience. You sort of see the next Vista of possibility. I can go this far, the error, a lot of people make, and there's, there's neuro-biological reasons for this as they think that they're going to be to pull it off in like a week or two and they come back down.
And, you know, they realized that like it's all much longer stretch, but at the end of it, there's a, there's a day when you usually can pull off all the stuff you just pulled off and flow out of the flow. And it feels terrible. It's totally unpleasant, but it feels like so much victory. It is such a victorious day.
So I think the contrast is really important and I think knowing, you know, getting to see this inflow, you know, especially because it's underpinned by so many feel-good neurochemicals, you'll charge towards that goal. It'll just amp up motivation. You'll move in that direction.
Jonathan Levi: Right. I think that's a really, really important distinction as you can grind through things. And that's not what this is about. This is about those days where you're like, well, you know, it's only lunchtime, but I just wrote 3000 words and I feel great about it. I'm really glad we made that distinction. So, Steven, I know we are wrapping up on time here. I want to be respectful of your time, so you can spend the rest of your day getting into flow or bombing down a mountain.
Where can people check out and learn more? Obviously, you mentioned there are online courses, which I'm going to check out on the flow genome project, but you also told me that there's a pretty exciting program that people can get involved with happening in January of 2018.
Steven Kotler: Yeah. So the January program is amazing.
I've spent the past five years developing and it's called flow for writers. And it's for people who are, you know, who are writers, it's, it's a serious course for, you know, you make your living out of words or you're dying to make you're living out of words. You're dying to write that book and you're really serious about it.
I honest that, we were talking about it earlier, right? And what I said to you, I think is really true that if you would have taught me this stuff at the front end of my career, You would have saved me a decade and you would have added a number of zeros to my income, right? It's in San Francisco. It's a two day Bootcamp.
It's everything from the kind of a breakdown of what you really need to know about the business of writing, how to put together a proposal for a book, all that kind of stuff through a lot of like just hardcore writing, writing work, and a whole ton of ton of flow stuff. And I think, there just aren't there are very few people in the world, maybe five of us who have had as much luck in their writing careers and know as much about high performance and neuroscience and psych as I do.
And none of those other guys are teaching. So this is pretty much the only opportunity in the world to learn this stuff. And it will absolutely, you know, accelerate anybody's career. You know what I mean? Like you give me two days, I'm going to give you a much more satisfying, meaningful, and profitable writer's life.
So anyway, I'll float called flow for writers. You post the link for people. If you want to know more about me, stevenkotler.com, there's a ton of stuff there. flowgenomeproject.com, you go to the flow genome project, by the way, if you want to start flowing hacking right now, there's a free flow profiles.
Treytology basically, looks at those triggers basically under the hood and says, if you have this kind of person, you're likely to find the most flow in these directions.
Jonathan Levi: And I also see there's a free training with Jamie that I plan on hopping on pretty soon a webinar. That's pretty exciting.
Steven Kotler: Yeah, we do a bunch of them. So yeah, there's always free content and you can find us on Facebook as well at the flow genome project. And they're a lot more stuff ends up on Facebook than it does on the website until we get it redesigned, you know, you could, it does look nice, but it doesn't have is not enough functionality and it also, we've got six years of hardcore research under our belts. That's not, it's not there. So there's a bunch of stuff missing. We, that site was built right when Jamie and I were writing, stealing fire. So we haven't had a chance to redo it until now.
Jonathan Levi: Yeah. You know, I want to say I really, I admire so much of the work that you're doing and it's something that I really aspire to because you've done the work to do the research that then enables you to go out and, and improve the teaching and the content that you're doing.
That's one thing that I really want to learn from you and emulate is I would love to do more research on mnemonic techniques and actually how we can improve the brain and right now I'm dependent on universities like Red Valley doing the research. One thing I'd really like to learn from you is how you go about funding, the research, and actually getting the damn thing done.
Steven Kotler: Well, you know, I, we fund our stuff the same way everybody else does the hard way, right? But what we have is a diet giant community of people who are avid fans of this stuff. And you know, who really jumped in, kind of due to the research and we do a lot of kind of open source, big data stuff, survey stuff, you know, stuff that you can do fairly inexpensively provided you have, you know, we're lucky we've got, we've got data scientists we work with, we've got a bunch of universities we work with, so it's a good network, but you can, you know, to me, I'm not a PhD in neuroscience.
And so to compensate for that, my filter for truth and my willingness to do research is pretty significant. And I go to, I did this as a journalist. I just went to really extreme lengths to make sure that what I was writing was true. And it's sort of like, it's where I learned to research and it just carried over into the work we do at the flow genome project.
I'll give you a simple example. Like we have a creativity survey that's floating around right now. Um, it's a study of flow and creativity. It's one of the first deep dives into the topic. Like we know a bunch of stuff, but we don't know, we know flow booze, creativity, you know, this huge spike. But does it boot? What portions of creativity is it idea generation? Is it pattern recognition? Is it, you know, so we're taking a deep dive look into that, but if a research study gets 500 respondents to a survey, they're doing good and, you know, just putting it out through our community. I think we're already up to 2000.
I'll send you the link for that. So you can give it to your listeners.
Jonathan Levi: Yeah. We'll put all of these links for everybody in the blog firstname.lastname@example.org.
Steven Kotler: Awesome.
Jonathan Levi: Awesome. Stephen. I want to ask you, you were going to say one more thing that you said by the way,
Steven Kotler: By the way, it's been really fun talking to you, and thank you for the work you do in the world
Jonathan Levi: Back at you, man. It's been my pleasure. I just want to ask you one last question before I continue thanking you, which is if people take away just one message from this and they're able to remember it and carry it with them for the rest of their lives, what would you hope for that one to be?
Steven Kotler: I don't have one message. That's the real one. That's the real point.
Mitch Matthews: That's a
Jonathan Levi: message in and of itself, I suppose, right?
Steven Kotler: Like honest to God. And I jotted that. I don't mean to jump down your throat on this one, but like everybody wants it. What are the three things I can do Monday morning that Jane, I shut the **** up?
Seriously. You get one shot at this. That's what, what do we know for sure is you get one shot at this life and you're going to spend a third of it asleep, right? So what do you do with the other two-thirds is the only question that matters and you don't want three things you can do Monday morning. You want to do it Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.
You know what you want to do it every day for the rest of your life, because you may never get to have this particular roller coaster ride again.
Jonathan Levi: That's the message, man. That's the one message I was hoping for.
Steven Kotler: Okay.
Jonathan Levi: That's perfect. Steven. I really want to thank you, man.
Steven Kotler: Dick piss me off to get me there.
Jonathan Levi: Oh no. I'm sorry about that, man. I want to thank you. This has been an amazing interview. I really appreciate the work you're doing. Like I said, I've been a fan for a really, really long time. So thank you for sharing your wisdom and your time with us.
Steven Kotler: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Jonathan Levi: All right, brother. Take care.
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