Flow-states the key to peak performance

Posted by on Jun 3, 2015 in Leader's Digest | No Comments
Flow-states the key to peak performance

ISSUE 6 – JUNE 2015

Roger Maitland & Brett Anderson-Terry

It is often said that time is your scarest resource as a leader. The confounding reality for many leaders is that the barrage of information in fast paced digitally networked environment has had a detrimental effect on the average attention span of a leader. One study found that on average almost 87 interruptions per day in the workplace. What was of particular interest was that 75% of these interruptions were triggered by the person him/herself (Adlera & Benbunan-Fich, 2013.) No longer is guarding attention simply a matter of setting boundaries with people, it is increasingly dependent on our own ability to self-manage and develop mastery over our attention.

Interruptions have a cognitive cost, in that the reorientation between tasks takes time. This is particularly accentuated when the interuption requires the leader to switch general sphere of work, that is switch between tasks that are unrelated (Gallup, 2006.) Interuptions within the same sphere of work can enhance the quality or creativity of output within the same sphere of work. Interuptions in this context can be seen as helpful interactions.

Emerged from research over forty years of research into what made the work of sucessful people worthwhile and meaningful, flow has been described as “a particular kind of experience that is so engrossing that it becomes autotelic, that is, worth doing for its own sake even though it may have no consequence outside itself” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999:824.)

Flow states have been shown to be associated with peak performance, increase rate of learning and drive intrinsic motivation. A longitundinal study conducted over a decade by McKinsey found that executives reported being 5 times more productive in flow states (Kotler, 2014.) Recent neuroscientific research by the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency has found that where flow states are induced through transcranial direct current stimulation in sniper training, learning rates can be increased by 230% (Adee, 2012.)

Five neurochemicals are released in flow states, the combination of which have a powerful effect on performance. Norepinephrine and dopamine tighten focus, endorphins block pain allowing sustained effort, anandamide supports the creation of lateral connections and insights, and serotonin, the feel-good chemical, helps to build cohesion in working groups (Kotler, 2014.) Of particular importance is that flow states are one of the only times in which all five neurochemicals are produced together, and the simultaneous release of these neurochemicals is one of the most intensive reward states the brain can produce (Kotler, 2014.) Flow states leave us wanting more, and going to huge efforts to attain them.

A 15 year study of the subjective experiences of doing complex work in organisations found that the “of all the things that can boost inner work life, the most important is making progress in meaningful work” (Amabile & Kramer, 2011:4.) Dubbed the progress principle, if work is personally meaningful, small wins are all that is needed to unlease motivation. Flow states do just this.

What triggers flow states? Kotler (2014) in his study of professional athletes found that high consequences triggered flow states, as these high stakes caused a concentration of attention which lead to focus. Consider the risk experienced by a rock climber, or a musician stepping onto stage. A further trigger is finding the ‘sweet spot’ between challenge and skill. This ‘flow channel’ exists between boredom and anxiety, where there is sufficient skill and challenge to allow the person to immerse themselves into an activity in a way that leads to growth and discovery (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990.) Kotler (2014) suggest that challenge should be 4% greater than level of skills.

Learning to master our attention and extend our ability to focus are the first steps. One method is to use a 30 minute hour glass or timer, and train yourself to sustain focus for short periods. As the opportunities for distraction proliferate with rich sources of data and communication continously at our fingertips, we need to be careful that our technological tools don’t end up reducing our capacity to perform. Flow states offer the possibility for peak performance whilst increasing our sense of gratification from our work. Learning to master flow states might just be the most important skill you learn this year?


  • Adee, S. 2012.Zap your brain into the zone: Fast track to pure focus. New Scientist, Issue 2850. Available at www.newscientist.com.
  • Adlera, R. & Benbunan-Fich, R. 2013. Self-interruptions in discretionary multitasking. Computers in Human Behaviour, 29(4): 1441-1449.
  • Amabile, T. & Kramer, S. 2011. The power of small wins: Want to truly engage your workers? Help them to see their own progress. Harvard Business Review, May, 1-12.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1999. If we are so rich, why aren’t we happy? American Psychologist, 54:821–827.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1990. Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Grand Rapids: Harper.
  • Gallup, 2006. Too many interruptions at work? Gallup Business Journal, June. Washington: Gallup
  • Kotler, S. 2014. The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance. New York: Harcourt.