Hacking Flow

In sports, it’s called being in the zone.

I’m talking about those moments when self vanishes, time seems to slow down, and you are operating with maximum confidence. A sense of calm pervades, even though you might be surrounded by a frenzy of activity. Your focus intensifies and your actions and decisions seem to meld.

This is the psychological state known as flow, researched and pushed into the spotlight by University of Chicago professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

You might know what flow looks like from the outside if you’ve ever experienced a great jazz player riffing, or a skilled comedian doing improvisation.

And you probably know how flows feels if you meditate. If you’re in sales, it’s those times when you and your customer seem to be synced up in perfect harmony. A writer experiencing flow has the sense that the words on the page are being dictated by some outside source. When you and your best friend are so deeply engaged in conversation that an hour feels like minutes, it’s likely you’ve put each other into a flow state.

Runners, sky divers, surfers, and students engaged in deep academic pursuit are all secret or not-so-secret flow junkies.

Flow is big business. It’s fair to say that professional sports is really a giant flow industry produced for our viewing pleasure. It gives meaning to our lives, separating out the high points of experience from the everyday mundane.

So is there a way to hack flow, to trigger a flow experience? In Steven Kotler’s book, The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, he suggests the following strategy:

1. Find something you’re passionate about and establish a clear goal for improvement.

2. Give yourself a hunk of unbroken time for maximum concentration and focus.

3. Find mentors and coaches: expert input is a key for good progress.

4. Push yourself to the edges of your abilities.

Push yourself, but don’t shove yourself. Kotler reports that a quest for a 4% improvement in any skill, compounded over time, will achieve incredible results.  It’s this kind of incremental growth that is an essential building block of progress. Trying to bite off more than you can chew is often self-defeating.

Flow is an ephemeral thing: easy to recognize, hard to pin down. In any given moment, there’s no surefire recipe for getting there. But by following Kotler’s steps, you can at least point yourself in the right direction. With a little practice, you could find yourself with a passport to the zone.

Breaking a Barrier: On Doing the Impossible

Breaking through barriers: we humans love it! Not necessarily putting ourselves at risk, but living vicariously through someone else, especially if we can do it far out of harm’s way.

Not so long ago, it was said that running a sub four-minute mile was impossible. After all, human endurance had its limits. The lungs and heart could only produce so much blood-rich oxygen, and the muscles could only metabolize what the lungs and heart could deliver.

For many years, a good number of athletes had tried to defy the presumed laws of human mechanics and squeak out a mile in less than 240 seconds. The net result was always the same: failure. Which is why nobody’s name comes to mind when we think of the almost four-minute mile crowd.

Then on May 6th, 1954, a tall unassuming lad from Great Britain named Roger Bannister came along and blew the impossible goal away with a time of 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds. It made international news. He became an overnight sensation.

But here’s what’s interesting: although runners had tried and failed to clock that time for years, within 46 days Bannister’s feat had been duplicated, and then with fair regularity the mile record came down after that—two more times in the 1950’s alone.

So what happened? Why was there a rash of sub four-minute milers after Bannister, when for years no one seemed capable of either starting or joining this elite 239 second club?

Athletes in 1954 did not undergo some fundamental physical transformation. It’s now clear that many people actually had the raw ingredients necessary to break the four-minute mile record. What these four-minute wannabes lacked was the ability to see the mile record as truly obtainable. The barrier was mental.

This gulf between our capabilities and our mental assessment is one of the most profound disconnects in the human experience. When someone achieves beyond what we thought possible, we tend to elevate them above the rest of us, wondering what special quality allowed them to break those boundaries. We don’t always wonder what caused us to believe in those boundaries in the first place, or how real they ever were.

Bannister saw the goal as obtainable. His combination of preparation and perspiration is a basic winning formula for skill acquisition across a wide variety of enterprises, from math to music to athletic endeavors and beyond.

But those that followed in Bannister’s running steps are in some ways the real heroes. These athletes continue to push at the barriers for themselves—and for the rest of us.

“If they can do it, so can I,” is a mantra that has driven everything from learning to bake a cake to some of the most amazing technological advancements in human history.

“Nanos gigantum humeris insidentes,” as the medieval saying goes. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants. It’s much easier to see the possibilities of what lies ahead by capitalizing on the previous work of others.

When enough people do that, a barrier breaks under its own weight. The current mile record is held by Moroccan two-time Olympic gold medalist and “King of the Mile” Hicham El Guerrouj, at 3 minutes 34.13 seconds. El Guerrouj has held the honor since 1999, but if history is any predictor, it’s only a matter of time until the king is dethroned and the record is broken again—and again.

The Happiness Epidemic: Catching a Habit

What do behavioral traits and infectious diseases have in common? According to researchers James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis, quite a bit.  Let’s suppose that in your thirties, you become obese. We might assume that your jelly donuts and lack of exercise has finally caught up with you. Fair enough.

What might surprise you is the contagious effect your new weight is having on your peer group.

Your friends are 57% more likely to gain weight as a result of hanging out with you.  Not only that, but their friends, the ones not in your immediate circle, are 20% more likely to gain weight as well.

The same contagious effect seems to be true about smoking. According to Massimo Pigliucci in Answers for Aristotle, quitting smoking means “your friends have a 67% chance of quitting too, and their friends a 36% chance; this is also true of alcoholism, depression, and the effect is even present for happiness (meaning subjective well-being) itself!”

‘Wait a minute,’ your rational brain might already be protesting, ‘there’s no cause and effect here, but mere correlation. After all, aren’t my friends probably living in a similar socio-economic bracket, therefore frequenting Dunkin Donuts too, essentially living my lifestyle?’

From that perspective, it would stand to reason that you’d see similar tendencies in your friends across the board. Yet Fowler and Christakis were able to document that the patterns of change aren’t simultaneous. They happen over time, like the spreading of a disease.

And if habits broke down purely on socio-economic lines, then your address would be one of the best indicators of your behavior. Surely if any collection of people could be expected to act the same, it would be those with access to the same grocery stores, gyms, bars, and restaurants. However, the behavior of your friends is a much better predictor, even if your friends live across town.

Why? Mimicry is an essential aspect of our lives. The association and comfort of being part of a group is well documented. And what is a group if not individuals brought together by shared experiences, held together by commonality?

As Fowler and Christakis discuss, these commonalities go beyond a nicotine habit or a number on a scale. One of the traits that seems the most influenced by who you spend time with? Happiness. Seventies acoustic troubadour Cat Stevens once sang, “If you want to live high, live high, and if you want to live low, live low” but these studies suggest you might first want to seek out other pals who are living how you want to live.

If Fowler and Christakis are correct and behavioral traits can spread like the common cold, the idea of frequent hand washing, and general accountability for one’s disposition, take on a whole new significance.

Why Your Mindset Might Be Throwing You Curveballs

Are you wired for success? And by “success”, I’m not necessarily talking about monetary reward.

In her paper “The Mindset of a Champion”, psychology professor Carol Dweck discusses the almost-professional baseball career of Billy Beane.

You might remember Billy Beane from Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball. Beane was the famous Oakland A’s general manager who enjoyed numerous successful seasons by combining competent scouting with a wonkish handle on baseball statistics.

Beane as a player is another story.  In high school, he was a natural athlete who enjoyed interest from professional teams in baseball, basketball and football. He was considered to be the next big thing, and yet his chosen career in baseball came up short. After stints with several different teams, he eventually washed out of the major leagues.

Was Billy wired for success as a big league player? Carol Dweck doesn’t think so. Dweck’s research focuses on the concept of mindset. The idea is that people’s brains are basically wired up through environmental interaction towards one of two mindsets.

To fixed mindset people, your abilities—or lack of abilities—are fixed traits, like your height or your deadly soy allergy. “In this view,” Dweck writes, “talents are gifts—you either have them or you don’t.” The fixed mindset sees setbacks as powerfully discouraging, since any bump along the way could be a hint you were never blessed with true talent.

What’s the other option? The growth mindset, which holds that people can cultivate and improve their abilities through hard work and learning. To those with a growth mindset, drawbacks and extra practice opportunities are simply part of the game. While the fixed mindset camp sinks their time into proving themselves, the growth mindset followers focus on improving themselves.

According to Dweck, growth mindset people tend to be more successful in a wide variety of endeavors because they demonstrate more grit in the face of adversity, and because sustained incremental improvement tends to pay off over time.

You may be like Billy Beane, born with exceptional talent, but like the tortoise and the hare parable, it’s the willingness to hang in there and keep plodding along on the road of self-improvement that eventually brings the win.

Unfortunately, Billy Beane’s natural talent combined with a history of being rewarded for skill over work ethic probably led him towards a fixed mindset. The reasoning goes something like this: superstars don’t and shouldn’t need to practice all that much. That’s why they’re a cut above, that’s what defines them as superstars.

The problem with this approach is that when adversity shows up, the ‘superstar’ has developed absolutely no mechanism for overcoming it. The need for additional help or practice is seen  as only highlighting one’s personal flaws.

The good news? Since mindset is just that, a state of mind, and since the plasticity of the brain means neural rewiring is an ongoing opportunity; Beane was ultimately able to pick up more of a growth mindset. Dweck believes this contributed to Beane’s eventual success as a GM with the A’s.

Interested in success? What mindset are you?

The Reptile Brain Fights Back: Extinction Bursts

Let’s suppose that you’ve got a habit you want to break. You’ve followed the following five habit-breaking rules:

1. Tell a friend you’re going to break a habit to help put pressure on yourself to actually follow through

2. Be persistent; whether making or breaking a habit, it’s generally believed you need about 60 days of reinforced behavior to cement a change

3. Enlist a friend for moral support when you find your will weakening

4. Plan out a meaningful reward to give yourself once the habit is eradicated

5. Keep track of your daily progress towards breaking the habit to reinforce positive habit-breaking behavior

Everything’s going smoothly, and then just when you think you’ve rewired your brain, you’re blindsided by a sneak attack from within.

Once you understand that your rational brain is up against an internal conspirator, you might not be surprised to discover the nemesis is your emotional brain, sometimes known as your reptilian brain, which has some habit maintenance shenanigans up its proverbial sleeve.

The shenanigan in question is known as extinction burst. And your reptilian brain cleverly waits to spring the trap only after you’ve essentially overcome your bad habit, and you are literally in the very final stage of habit change, with a given habit all but eradicated.

An extinction burst is much like a Hail Mary play in football, where desperation drives an all-or-nothing strategy for success. Your reptilian brain makes a final push to reestablish your old habit.

Take healthy eating, for example. Suppose you’ve managed to avoid dessert for weeks and you’ve seen your hard-earned reduction in sugar intake showing in a positive way on the bathroom scale. It’s that big piece of chocolate cake that up until now you’ve been able to walk past that seems to reach out and grab at you, taunting you like the sirens in the Odyssey.

You can thank your reptilian brain for ramping up the chocolate cake craving to almost unbearable level. This might explain why dieters succumb to binging behavior after they’ve been so diligent in their efforts to kick their sugar addiction.

One theory for why your emotional brain might initiate a final extinction burst is that the wiring for a longtime habit is so deeply ingrained that the habit could be misidentified by part of your brain as something vital to survival. In much the same way that your body’s immune system can misidentify a food source as allergen.

Extinction bursts are extremely dangerous, largely because they are part of a process that originates from inside your brain. Unfortunately, there is no well established playbook for fending off an extinction burst.

Odysseus solved his problem and fear of succumbing to the siren song of temptation by having his shipmates lash him to the mast of his ship. That might have worked for the famous Greek, but ship masts aren’t always easy to find, especially when it comes to the dessert isle of your grocery store.

Straws, Steps, and the Importance of Thinking Small

There is a famous Arabic proverb where a camel loaded beyond capacity collapses after a single straw too many, hence, ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back.’ The idea is a basic one: a small, seemingly inconsequential, event ends up having profound effects.

Exactly one hundred Fridays ago, I began posting on this blog. In my writing and research, I have been struck by one reoccurring theme: the simplicity and elegance of the single increment, the power of potentiality unleashed through a minute action.

“A journey of a 1000 miles must begin with the first step.” This quote is sometimes attributed to the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, but the concept also resonates in Daniel Coyle’s talent code, Anders Ericson’s 10,000 hours rule, and JB Foot’s tiny habit.

It’s the compounding effect of building on a single decision, and that crucial first step overcomes inertia for creating a new habit.

The process is understood: practice builds repetition, which in turn builds habit. Habit is really nothing more than mylenated neural code put into action. But, of course, knowing is not the same as doing.

Our lives are a complex dance of experience, interpreted through the lens of emotion, and it’s difficult in the moment to comprehend the swirl around us. Even when our goals and aspirations are clearly defined, actually getting there proves difficult.

It’s not the knowing; for the most part, we know what we should do or want to do. In some way, it is the very simplicity of that initial step that lures us away from it, as though somehow there has to be more to it than that.

And yet, maybe there isn’t. Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. At 211 degrees, all you have is really hot water. Raise the temperature one degree and steam is generated, and steam has the power to run a city’s electrical grid.

Someone had to lay that first stone at the pyramid of Giza, Itzak Perlman had to run his bow across a violin string for the first time, Michael Jordan had to shoot his first layup, and Mark Twain had to write the first word in Huckleberry Finn.

As the process plays out, tiny steps build into something much greater than merely the sum of incremental parts. Nothing illustrates this better than a bird’s nest. Bits of debris, twigs and straw, when woven together, create an amazingly resilient and viable structure that has served our feathered friends for millions of years.

The straw that broke the camel’s back is a parable of warning (I suspect that’s how the camel understands it), but it can also be reframed as the awesome power contained in a single straw.

The last hundred weeks have been an interesting and rewarding journey. Thank you for taking a step down that road with me.

My sincere appreciation to my editor extraordinaire, Jessica. (Editor’s note: aw, thanks!)

See you next week.

Robb Best

Robbing a bank with your wristwatch

As you stand in the check-out line, you may find yourself wondering why two minutes in a loud, crowded store can feel like an hour, or why an hour of relaxing with a good book can flit by in what feels like seconds. Why are we so bad as a species at tracking lengths of time?

In neuroscience, the prevailing strategy for understanding the “why” of any brain behavior is to think of it in terms of evolutionary advantage. What was life like back when humans were just starting to become humans? A lot of seemingly negative or unhelpful traits make sense in this context. There is a school of thought that the species might have benefited from some members of the tribe having ADHD, for instance. A dose of extra alertness or hyperactivity might hobble a desk worker, but it can be a godsend if you’re hunting antelope.

So why are our internal clocks so terrible? To a people consumed by foraging, hunting, and gathering, the passing of 90 seconds or an hour was just not that important. Most of human history has not been counted in minutes. Luckily, the Swiss came along to help us out.

December 18, 2013 marks the 91st anniversary of the Denver Mint robbery. To be precise, it marks the robbing of a bank truck fresh from the Mint. From end to end, the crime took just 90 seconds, which, even in today’s fast-paced world of modern bank robbing, is still impressive.

Who was the mastermind? Herman “the Baron” Lamm, a German immigrant and former Prussian soldier who was kicked out of the Army for cheating at cards. He is also often credited as the father of modern bank robbery. In 1917, Lamm was rotting away in the Utah State Penitentiary for a failed bank robbery attempt. The Baron could have used this time to contemplate “going straight.” Instead, he did something remarkable: he went pro.

Lamm spent his incarceration engineering a whole new kind of bank robbery: multiple getaway routes, specialized roles (point man, lookout, vault man, driver, backup driver), and meticulous planning. He would case a perspective bank for hours, detailing the comings and goings of bank employees and deliveries. (Later, John Dillinger, public enemy #1, would cite Lamm as his inspiration.)

After he got out of the Utah Pen, he carefully recruited a crack team of experts, and they practiced various scenarios, sometimes using a mock-up bank they constructed in an abandoned warehouse. They practiced until their operation ran with the precision of a Swiss watch—or a Prussian military exercise.

Lamm’s rule was simple: 90 seconds was the absolute maximum length of time they could spend on any caper. No matter what stage the robbery was in, when a minute and a half ticked by, his team exited the bank. Their success or failure was determined by Lamm’s wristwatch.

This served him well in the Denver Mint robbery and a string of other robberies across the US. Lamm finally met his demise following a bank heist in Indiana, where no amount of rehearsal could prepare his team for their run of slapstick-level bad luck.

First, the high-powered getaway car blew a tire when their driver cut a U-turn dodging an armed vigilante. So Lamm’s crew seized another automobile, put the pedal to the metal—and discovered that this particular car had been rigged to go no faster than 35 miles an hour. (The owner had been worried about his elderly father’s reckless driving.)

The solution was simple: steal another vehicle. So they nabbed a truck. When the truck turned out to have a hole in the radiator, they were forced to abandon it in favor of stealing a third car. Unfortunately, this car was filled with killer bees.

Just kidding: it was simply more or less out of gas.

Lamm and his team sputtered to a standstill near Sidell, Illinois, surrounded by 200 Indiana state police officers and vigilantes. What happened next is a matter of controversy. The police swore that Lamm, rather than face more prison time, took his own life. Needless to say, the autopsy reportedly showed the Baron’s body riddled with bullets, making his “suicide” all the more spectacular.

A dead bank robber might not seem like the most natural role model. But after an hour of holiday shopping drags into an afternoon, many of us can appreciate the bare-bones efficiency of Lamm’s 90 second rule.

Still, how much good did it do Lamm in the end? Maybe our ancestors were onto something, feeling no need to parse time into such finite increments. Has our desire to control and measure every second of our modern day lives really improved our situation?

The Swiss gave us watches and chocolate. At least one of those was a great invention.

Chocolate Chip Cookies and the Secret to Will-Power

If you run up a long steep incline, it doesn’t take very long before you burn through the energy stored in your muscles and find your legs turning to rubber. We learn this at a relatively early age, and as a result, some of us make it a habit to avoid running up steep inclines.

What you might not realize is that this exhaustion, this depletion of fuel, happens in the exact same way when you exert yourself mentally.

Your brain, like your muscles, runs on glucose. Give your brain a mental workout and your ability to focus, or demonstrate what we call ‘will power’, is spent as well.

This was proven out in a well-known experiment done by psychology Professor Roy Baumeister and his team at Florida State University. They conducted a test where people where randomly assigned to eat either radishes or freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. The radish eaters were instructed to resist eating the cookies. In this case, the noble radish eaters were able to exert enough will power to avoid the cookies 100% of the time.

Both groups were then presented with a series of problems that required extreme eye and hand coordination. The radish eaters gave up noticeably sooner — their focus was about 10% shorter.

In this and in other experiments, Baumeister was able to show that the more often and more recently you resist a desire, the less likely you’re able to complete the next tough task that comes along. This might explain why you were able not to eat those cookies your workmate brought in at lunchtime, only to find yourself with no energy to scrub the bathroom that evening.

Interestingly, will power seems to work just like your leg muscles when you tackle a hill. At some point you run out of gas. And you only possess one store of glucose that both your brain and body share in common.

Luckily people can choose to conserve their glucose and hang onto some will power, and so for this reason we are not necessarily reduced to mush after a series of extremely temping situations.

Not only that but one can build their will power by practicing restraint in four key areas: thought, impulse, feeling control and task performance. The muscle analogy holds up, the more you exercise your will power the better you become at resisting whatever temptation might befall you.

It’s therefore not surprising to discover that the ability to demonstrate will power along with intelligence are the only two reliable predictors about a person’s success measured across a variety of areas including, relationship, happiness, and income generation.

Editors note; don’t try running up a hill with a quart of Hagan Dass in your hand, none of us have enough reserve glucose to pull that one off, not even the most sanctimonious radish eaters…