Today, we have the opportunity to hear from Joy Thigpen, Creative Director, on the idea of the flow cycle. She breaks down her method and challenges us to think creatively about how to recognize this rhythm in our work when creating.
We all know it’s not the lyrics or the melody that matter even a fraction as much as the rhythm.
I did weddings (photographing and designing them) for over a decade and have seen, time after time, an empty dance floor and a shy, scattered crowd transform into a throbbing mass, joyfully flailing in unison as soon as that first compelling beat drops. Some people will know every word, some will only know a few words, and some will even endure lyrics they despise—because they
there for the rhythm. Inevitably, some people will hold out on the edges of the room, committed to conversation and/or unwilling to fully abandon their bodies to the music so publicly, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a single soul that’s not influenced. At minimum, their foot bounces, head bobs, hips sway, or walk falls in step. We just can’t resist a good beat.
But that’s on a literal dance floor. On the dance floor of life I’ve come to observe a pretty different scene—there is an amazing four-count beat going on that most of us try really hard to resist. It’s called the flow cycle.
Flow is the actual scientific term for when you’re in the zone; when you become hyperfocused on doing something and everything else melts away. You lose track of time, forget to eat, hit a new level of creativity, and are killing it at whatever it is you’re doing. Researchers have studied flow states in everyone from rappers and improv jazz musicians to waitresses and snowboarders and found that there are some neurological changes happening in a flow state that are highly addictive and may literally be the best feeling on earth.
This state of peak performance and feeling amazing is a place most of us have at least tasted and crave to be. And we can be frustrated if we’re not there. But what most of us don’t understand is that flow is just one beat of a four count rhythm. We have to go through three other phases before we can hit flow again.
In an attempt to understand and kind of learn to hack the pattern for the rest of us, Steven Kotler has been studying flow states in extreme athletes for years. He’s learned that there’s a cycle. Here’s a summary:
The Flow Cycle
1. Struggle. Struggle is the uncomfortable place where you are learning new information or skills, and/or working through the structure of what you’re going to do. Kotler says, “to get the most out of this stage you want to take this (the struggle/discomfort) almost to the point when you’re about to lose your mind and then pull back.” During this period all your stress hormones, cortisol, norepinephrine, adrenaline are rising and your brain is in high frequency Beta waves.
2. Release. You have to take your mind off the problem. Your brain slows down into Alpha waves and you trade your slower, lower ram, conscious thought processes from the struggle phase in for faster, subconscious thought with endless ram. “During the relaxation response, you’ve got a global release of nitric oxide gas, which is a signaling molecule everywhere in your body. It drops all the stress hormones out of your bloodstream and instead forces the release of dopamine, serotonin, anandamide, norepinephrine, endorphins, all the good chemicals that you want for flow,” Kotler explains.
3. Flow. Now your brain shifts into Theta and sometimes even Gamma waves. You’re in the zone, make fantastic decisions effortlessly, and feel one with the universe. You can enter a flow state (perhaps to varying intensities) while doing anything active but you’re much more likely to when you are acting out of intrinsic motivation. Freedom from distractions and self-judgement are critical. You’re most likely to hit a flow state when your challenge level and skill level is high. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the guy that coined the term flow, also hypothesized that autotelic people—people with a high level of curiosity, persistence, low self-centeredness, and a high rate of performing activities for intrinsic reasons only (so…Plywood kind of people) may be able to achieve flow more often than the average person. People in flow can be up to 500% more productive than when they’re not in flow (which would mean you could work one day a week in flow and be as productive as most people working 5 days a week), especially if they allow for the next phase…
4. Recovery. Last but not least. By this point you’re dropping into Delta waves. Your brain is spent and needs a period of recovery to replenish, consolidate memories, and rewire itself, which is where learning sets in. This is a great time to look back more objectively at what you did while in flow and see what’s worth keeping and what was just a crazy idea (so, editing). You can feel pretty horrible in this phase, especially compared to how good you felt previously, so it takes some awareness and grit to let yourself be here. Sunlight, sleep, and good nutrition can help you move through this stage more gracefully. The important thing is to not stress out about being here or you will crank up your cortisol which will prematurely send you back into the struggle phase.
Learning about this cycle has helped tune me into and give myself more permission to move through this rhythm more freely. Hopefully, becoming aware of this natural rhythm will help turn up it’s volume in your own life and invite you to at least fall in step with it if not give yourself over to it with full abandon. It’s a great beat.
When you think about this process, where do you get stuck?