The wind smashes against your face and the salt stings your eyes. As you move your arms through the water, carrying the weight your board and yourself with you, the sun slams its light onto your back. Your attention is unwavering, directed instead on the glistening mountains of blue in front of you. The right wave seems to be approaching from beyond, humming a low tune as it picks up speed. You time it just right, pivoting to the left and paddling to catch it. As you lift yourself onto the board, the wave pushes you forward with resilience. There’s no bailing now. Cool droplets of water race past your skin, and your gaze is stuck on the curling tunnel you’re about to conquer. You can barely make out the cries of gulls above, or the gazes of friends on the beach. You forget that you’ve been doing this for 4 hours straight, or that your knees have been torn from run-ins with coral. You just know that you’re floating on the tide again.

That feeling is called “Flow,” and it doesn’t just apply to surfing.

It is a state of peak physical and mental performance in which a person is fully immersed in an activity. Colloquially, it is known as being in the zone.

So how is this at all applicable to you, or to learning math for that matter? How can surfing, writing, playing soccer, or meditating have anything to do with you studying for a test?

The common thread, and the key to optimizing your results, is Flow. The reason it applies to you is that you’ve probably felt it at some point in your life. Even if you’re young, you can probably remember those moments when you were so engaged in something that time just melted away. You felt absorbed and at your best. You were in Flow, but maybe just didn’t know it at the time.

But you should know about it now, because it’s something that you can learn to harness to improve your skill-sets and perhaps draw more out of life. And yes, it could improve your SAT score too.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a researcher at the University of Chicago, popularized the term “Flow” after publishing his seminal worked in 1990 called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Though research on the topic had been done before, he conducted extensive research after surveying many of the world’s top masters in a variety of fields. He described it as: being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.

Curious to learn more? Let’s dive into the background behind Flow, and how you may be able to implement it to improve your test-taking and overall experiences.

Background of Flow

Though the term was made famous by Csikszentmihalyi, Flow had not been scientifically analyzed to the degree it is now. Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, both interested in researching the topic, founded the Flow Genome Project to map the “sequencing” of Flow in the brain. Kotler has even written a book entitled The Rise of Superman that discusses the neurobiology of this state of optimal performance.

One of primary theories of Flow is that a part of the brain has to shut down, not light up, to make it possible. The scientific term for this is Transient Hypofrontality, which means that for a short time (transient), reduced activity (hypo-) occurs in the prefrontal cortex in the brain (-frontality). This part of the brain dictates a person’s sense of self and acts as like a CEO to process decisions. However, it can act as a filter during demanding activities and prevent a person from truly losing themselves. This is a huge barrier to overcome, because when a person is in Flow, he or she shouldn’t be second-guessing themselves. They should just perform, almost as if possessed.

According to Kotler, Flow causes the release of 5 hormones that improve output:

  1. Dopamine, which increases momentary pleasure.
  2. Norepinephrine, which gives you energy by increasing heart-rate and breathing.
  3. Anandamide, which reduces stress.
  4. Endorphins, which reduce physical pain.
  5. Serotonin, which increases the feeling of reward and keeps you wanting more.

In the process of his research on Flow, Kotler has cited some fascinating studies that add evidence to his claims. During a 10-year McKinsey study, high-level executives said that they performed 5 times better when in Flow.

DARPA scientists artificially induced Flow through transcranial stimulation to find that snipers improved their skills by 230%. Australian researchers used the same method to discover that 40% of participants could complete a brain-teasing puzzle when in Flow, whereas none of them could do so before.

As scientific attention on Flow increases, we may see even more compelling evidence and implications for this state of mind. For now though, let’s discuss how you can access this superpower yourself.

How to get into Flow

As you’ve seen in the research, one way to achieve flow is with transcranial magnetic stimulation. I don’t recommend this. Not only is it used more for medical purposes, but you’re not going bring an expensive machine with you when skiing down a mountain slope or sitting for an exam. Plus, you probably want to know how to induce the state naturally, so you can sustain it long-term.

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The following are some basic criteria to achieving Flow on your own, taken from summaries of Kotler and Csikszentmihalyi’s works:

  1. Choose the right challenges for your skill level. As you can see in the figure above, you want to hit a sweet-spot in the battle between challenges and your skill-level. With math, this could mean doing more advanced algebraic equations once you’ve mastered the basics, or solving progressively harder word problems after getting a few down.
  2. Focus your entire self on the task at hand. This point has been well-established by your parents and teachers. If there’s no other reason to listen to them, at least trust that it will help you achieve this mystical Flow state.
  3. Give yourself enough time. Stay with a task for at least 15 to 20 minutes or longer before you can expect peak performance. It takes a while to get your mind in the right place. Long-term, this means sticking with a skill until it virtually becomes muscle-memory, then doing step 1 again.
  4. Take some deep breaths before you begin a task, or during the activity. This will help relax you and is a common practice in meditation, which is famous for inducing Flow.

As you can tell, getting into Flow is more a matter of calming yourself down than it is building your energy up. And it doesn’t have to just be with math. Take what you find in some of your most engaging activities and apply that to others. Certain tasks that you thought were boring might appear deeply engaging after some practice (maybe even Calculus).

As a piece of general advice, Flow is not only a state for maximal performance in a single activity, but possibly the best way to spend your time. Even your leisure hobbies can be turned into methods of self-improvement instead of repetitiveness or boredom. It will help you see work as an end in itself, rather than a means to one. As Csikszentmihalyi said:

…It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were.”