You know the feeling. That sense of exhilarating focus on the task at hand. The sense of everything running smoothly, almost effortlessly. And if there is an effort, it comes together with a great sense of accomplishment. You get a rush of adrenalin. And when it’s all over, you are rewarded with the bliss of dopamine. Of-course you want more. But how?
Most of us are familiar with the theory of flow. It’s the Hungarian psychologist with the hopelessly difficult name, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, that coined the expression “flow”, which is described as the delightful “mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity”.
Mihály explains that we are in flow when the task at hand is sufficiently challenging, but within what we are capable of. We are not board, nor are we overwhelmed. We know we can do it, and it’s a challenge.
I want to look at flow from a slightly different angle. Namely that of neuroscience. I am lucky to work together with a neurologist and his team of neuropsychologists and neuroscientists and so I am gradually gaining insight into how this complex brain of mine is working (or not).
I wrote an article about my experience of ‘brainfog’ and what to do about it in Dagens Perspetiv, April 23rd (http://www.dagensperspektiv.no/2017/er-du-i-hjernetaka-etter-jul) . One of the responses I got, was from a law student, asking a question relating to flow; “Why is it that I can be extremely productive and study really well one day, and then be completely ineffective the next?”
I can relate to that. I have days where everything runs like a dream. Where I know just exactly what to do and how to do it. I see the patterns, I make decisions on the spot, I write articles in no time. Those are the days I rock. And then… There are other days. Days where I don’t feel I am remotely in the range of Jason Bourne in clarity, creativity and decisiveness. Why?
First of all, let’s settle that this is normal. No tiger hunts all the time. No brain works optimally always. Brains need recovery time, just like any other part of our bodies. They need downtime. This is insight number one. Allow your brain to recover. Don’t keep pushing it all the time. Stop. Allow yourself to take a break. And be well aware that surfing Facebook while lying on the coach is NOT to give your brain a break. Nor is it to play candy crush, watch TV or anything else that involves exposing ourselves to lots of stimuli the brain needs to understand or filter out. Give your brain a break. Go for a walk or a run. Meditate. Go climbing. Anything that allows your brain to relax.
Insight number two relates to brain fuel. Your brain runs on carbohydrates and oxygen. It runs pretty much like a motor, and it produces waste. It needs the right kind of fuel. And it needs it at the right time. The brain works best if is provided with fuel in a steady flow. This means that food with so called “low glycemic index” or “low GI food” works best for your brain. This provides your brain with a steady flow of energy. A chocolate or snack might be good for shorter bursts energy and cognitive performance. But then, as we all recognize, you are punished by a sudden stop when you run out of fuel and things become more difficult.
Oxygen is also important for the “machinery” to function well. If we are stressed, we tend to almost forget to breathe. Take a deep breath. And take the stairs. Think on your feet.
Insight number three is related to the rhythms of the brain. Much like you, it has its daily rhythm. Most brains perform best between 07am and 12am. Before lunch. After lunch, we get a dip in concentration and brain performance. And then the brain tends to be reenergized again around 4pm and for a few hours. Knowing this, it’s probably a good idea to schedule the most cognitively demanding tasks early in the morning, or after 4pm. And remember to get enough sleep, because this is when the brain gets rid of all the toxic waste it has produced working for you throughout the day.
To summarise: – this is how we can help our brains to find flow
- Allow your brain a break. It needs downtime after a performance. Go for a walk in the woods. Meditate. Go sailing. Go climbing. Do anything that doesn’t feed your brain with information.
- Give your brain enough fuel and oxygen. Google “low GI food” for tips. Breathe.
- Surf the rhythms of the brain. Find when it performs best (07am-12am and 4pm-8pm for most people) and schedule cognitively demanding tasks at the right points of time.