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Optimal Flow State with Steven Kotler

Steven Kotler is a New York Times bestselling author and an award-winning journalist. As the Executive Director of the Flow Research Collective, he is one of the world’s leading experts on high performance. His most recent work, Stealing Fire, was a national bestseller and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It documents an underground revolution in peak performance that is rapidly going mainstream, fueling a trillion-dollar economy and forcing us to rethink how we lead more satisfying, productive, and meaningful lives. Steven’s work has been translated into over 40 languages and appeared in over 100 publications, including the New Your Times, Atlantic Monthly, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Wired and TIME. He also appears frequently on television and radion and lectures widely on human performance, disruptive technology, and radical innovation.


"Flow is what happens when you get all of your intrinsic motivators lined up correctly."


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  • Flow is defined as an optimal state of consciousness where when we feel our best, we perform our best. It refers to the moments when you are so focused on whatever you are doing that everything else seems to disappear — when mental and physical performance go through the roof.
  • Psychologists define flow slightly differently as they look at six core characteristics, the Flow Research Collective looks at neurobiology and physiology. The list of what causes flow and how scientists now define flow is getting very long.
  • “Flow”, depending on the area of study or impact, is also known as “peak experience”, “runner’s high”, “the zone”, being “unconscious” if you play basketball, and “the pocket” if you are a jazz musician.


  • To become limitless does not mean to become perfect, it’s about progressing and advancing beyond what people believe is currently possible.
  • It’s not possible to have a conversation about motivation without talking about flow.
  • When psychologists use the term motivation they mean three things: drive, grit, and goals.
  • Drive refers to all of your intrinsic motivators like passion, purpose, curiosity, autonomy, mastery, and flow — flow is the biggest of all.
  • Flow is what happens when you get all of your intrinsic motivators lined up correctly.
  • When all of your other motivation is pointing in the same direction, flow is one of the results. Flow follows focus and all of the other intrinsic motivators martial our attention.
  • The gateway into flow is opened when our attention is dialed in and really focused on the present moment.


  • There is no way to stay in a flow state — it is a four-stage cycle. You have to move through all four states to get back to flow.
  • The cycle goes like this: struggle, release, flow, recovery.
  • There are strategies and tactics for each phase.
  • Flow states have twenty-two different triggers or preconditions that lead to more flow that drives attention to the present moment.
  • The “challenge-skills balance” is a concept that says we pay the most attention to the present when the challenge of the task at hand slightly exceeds our skillset. You want to stretch but not snap.
  • Emotionally you know what boredom and anxiety feel like. You want to push yourself until you are a little bit anxious. A little norepinephrine (not a lot)  in the brain primes it for learning. You are targeting a sweet spot and priming the brain to retain the information later. You are pushing on your skills and your brain is noticing.
  • Flow is a very neurobiologically and physiologically expensive state even though it feels great.
  • Two things are important about recovery:
  • 1. If you want to lock in what you learn in flow, you need deep delta wave sleep.
  • 2. You need an active recovery protocol. Some examples include infrared saunas, Epsom salt baths, massage, stretching, yoga, and mindfulness respiration exercises.
  • Steve and his team are collecting data that shows if you are able to access flow on a regular basis, with the combination of 7-8 hours of sleep every night and an active recovery protocol in place, it’s very hard to burn out.
  • There is no set time frame for each state. Some flow states can last for a couple of days.
  • In general, flow lasts about 90 minutes. The brain is essentially built around 90-110 minute long cycles.
  • Concentration matters for flow. Research shows you should start your day with 90-110 minutes of complete concentration because we are built to focus for these periods of time.
  • If you are going to go through the struggle phase, you want to put in at least 90-120 minutes of uninterrupted concentration.
  • It depends on how deep your flow state is, but Steve tries to do some form of active recovery 4 or 5 times each week.
  • Lack of sleep can interfere with the struggle and recovery phases.


  • Flow is a huge neurochemical dump — a massive spike in learning.
  • Learning and memory work like this: the more neurochemicals that show up during an experience, the better chance that the experience moves from short-term holding into long-term storage.
  • We remember what happens to us while in flow.
  • With learning, it’s important to remember that you are bad until you are good. You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
  • You have to figure out what conditions work for you, but the biology is the same.
  • Plateaus are interesting in learning. Steve and his team have found that when you stay in the sweet spot “where the challenge is 4% greater than your skillset”, you don’t seem to plateau. (Note: The 4% is used as a marker and has not been confirmed yet.)
  • If you are at a plateau first ask yourself, is the challenge too hard or too little? If the skill is too big, chunk it down or lateralize.
  • If you got value out of this conversation, be sure to check out our other episodes with Steve. I recommend all of his books, including two of my favorites, Stealing Fire for more on flow and Rise of Superman.


  • Take a screenshot of this episode, tag us on social media (@Kotler.Steven & @JimKwik), and share your greatest “aha!” moment from this episode with us.
  • Get Steven’s recent co-authored book, The Future is Faster Than You Think, here.

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