Underrated Yet Brilliant Ways to Increase Productivity by 500% and Boost Innovation, Approved by a Psychologist

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Flow has been defined as a mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus. The term was first coined by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975 and is often referred to as as ‘the zone’, however few people truly appreciate that ‘the zone’ is actually a physiological state.

Why did I choose to write about a topic that may at first glance seem to have more to do with psychology and physiological science than business innovation?

The answer is simple.

A 10-year McKinsey and Co. study on flow and productivity found top executives 500% more productive when in flow. Interested in finding out more?

So I thought…


Before I go on, it’s worth knowing what the flow state looks like from a physiological perspective. The human brain possesses five different types of electric patterns, also called “brain waves” across the cortex.

According to C Wilson Meloncelli, the five brain waves can best be summarised as:

  • #1 Delta — experienced in deep, dreamless sleep
  • #2 Alpha — dominant during quiet thought, while daydreaming or light meditation
  • #3 Beta — associated with normal waking consciousness
  • #4 Theta — intuition and processing information above and beyond normal consciousness
  • #5 Gamma — higher processing tasks and cognitive functioning

The flow state is activated when the alpha and theta brain waves coalesce — this is essentially the border between the conscious and subconscious mind.

Picture for a second a lone surfer about to hurl himself onto a 20 foot wave on a treacherous, shallow coral reef — in that moment, the mind is processing information above and beyond normal consciousness and intuition takes the driver’s seat (theta) whilst rest of the world simply slips away (alpha) to allow the lone surfer to focus only on one thing — riding that wave (well, maybe two things…staying alive).

According to Steven Kotler, best selling author of The Rise of Superman and founder of the Flow Genome Project, “if we are hunting the highest version of ourselves, then we need to turn work into play and not the other way round. Unless we invert this equation, much of our capacity for intrinsic motivation starts to shut down. We lose touch with our passion and become less than what we could be and that feeling never really goes away.”

How I interpret this is that in order to be our best at anything, we need to be pursuing our passions which activates a sense of play otherwise we will only ever perceive work as just that and will struggle to tap into the flow state that sees free solo rock climbers (that’s climbing on your own without a rope) scale and survive 600 metre high walls. When it comes to pushing human limits, it’s a case of flow or die.

So you’ve never caught a wave, climbed a wall or jumped out of a plane? Have you ever been so immersed in an activity that time just seemed to slow down, you effortlessly and blissfully put in hours of work and the rest of the world seemed to just slip away?

That’s flow.

Did you find that state productive? Do you want to find that state more often?

Sure you do…

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