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.

Save a Life: Take a Nap

Are you sleep-deprived? If you’re a working adult in America, I can probably answer the question for you: yes. Or at least, statistically, you have an 80% chance, according to a January 11 New York Times piece by Maria Konnikova.

On the fence about whether or not you qualify? Well, do you constantly feel tired during the day, or do you often find yourself falling asleep within five minutes of lying down? Chances are you’re not an efficient sleeper; you’re just not sleeping enough.

That’s not just murder on your coffee budget, it’s bad news if you’re planning on learning anything. According to a 2011 UC Berkeley study, sleep is an essential part of holding onto memories. That’s when bursts of brain waves called “sleep spindles” network up to shift fact-based info from the hippocampus, which has limited storage, to the more long-term storage of the prefrontal cortex. The more spindles, the more learning is enabled.

Unfortunately, these spindles are much more active during the later, non-REM portion of slumber, so if you’re sleeping 6 hours or less, it’s harder to form long-term memories.

It’s also bad news if you’re planning on not crashing your car. When you put sleep-deprived people in a driving simulator or give them a hand-eye coordination test, they tend to perform the same or worse as drunk people. (And if you’re considering swigging down a reasonable-seeming bottle of beer before a drive, keep in mind sleep deprivation magnifies the effect of alcohol.)

Getting 6 to 7 hours of shut-eye a night? You are twice as likely to be in a car accident than someone averaging 8 hours or more. If you’re more of an insomniac, and you can only manage 5 hours or less, that accident is now four to five times more likely for you than it is for your friend the eight-hours-a-night-sleeper.

It’s a widespread problem, as Konnikova explains. The average American today sleeps 2 hours less per night than their counterpart from 100 years ago. Between 50 and 70 million Americans are suffering from one chronic sleep disorder or another.

We are a nation of night owls, and a nation of drivers. The results are clear, and a little terrifying. Letting sleep-deprived people behind the wheel leads to at least 100,000 car crashes each year, killing an esimated 1550 people. However, since self-reporting is inherently flawed and many, many people don’t even know when they’re too tired to function, most experts suspect the real figure is much higher.

The damage isn’t just happening on the highway: a 2004 study at Harvard Medical School found that hospitals could reduce their medical errors by up to 36 percent just by capping out doctor work shifts at 16 hours a day, and 80 hours per week. Factor in commuting, showering, and the necessary time to wind down from a shift, and this still doesn’t even leave the 7 to 9 hours of sleep recommended by medical science for peak mental performance. It’s just enough rest not to stagger around like a zombie, accidentally adding salt to your coffee—or worse.

For those of you looking to minimize the casualties in your life, consider these tips for better sleep from the National Sleep Foundation.

  • Exercise can lead to better sleep (but remember to exercise at least three hours before bed; physical activity raises your heart rate and your body temperature, the last thing you need when you’re trying to wind down.”
  • Before bed, avoid anything that stimulates the body: caffeine, nicotine, and spicy or heavy meals
  • Develop a relaxing pre-bed routine that doesn’t involve screens (light can be disruptive)
  • Maintain a relatively consistent bedtime and wake-up time. Use as much natural light in the morning as possible, and in the evening, signal to your body that it’s time to sleep with a dark, quiet, slightly colder room.

And if you’re really struggling to keep your eyes open on the highway, pull over and let yourself snooze for a while. The moment the sounds of the freeway start to feel soothing, you know it’s time to give in and get some sleep.

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

Want a Brain Boost? Try a Jog—or a Curry

Exercise: you know you should, and yet for many, vanity might not be enough to get you on the old treadmill first thing in the morning.

So if that isn’t getting you out of bed and into your sneakers, perhaps your brain might do it. No, not do your exercise, but rather, provide the best argument for working up a sweat.

It turns out that during strenuous physical activity, your brain produces a neural chemical called brain-derived neurotropic factor, or BDNF for short.

In his book Spark, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise, Harvard psychiatrist John J Ratey refers to BDNF as “Miracle-Gro for the brain.” Why the fertilizer reference? BDNF strengthens the brain’s electrical connections by boosting their strength and vitality. This means that BDNF plays a vital role in the brain’s ability to rewire itself, often referred to as plasticity.

In an interesting study done in Germany, two groups faced off on treadmills. The first group supplemented their 45-minute exercise routine with two separate 3-minute intervals of intense sprinting. The control group didn’t include the high intensity sprinting intervals.

In subsequent memory tests, the sprinting group showed a 20% increase in word acquisition over the non-sprinters. Not surprisingly, the sprinters showed increased levels of BDNF, where the non-sprinters showed no difference.

Neuroscientist John Medina recommends in his book Brain Rules that we exercise 5 days a week for 30 minutes a day at an aerobic level. Recent Scottish studies support the German findings: extra bursts of brief, high-intensity exercise have a profound effect.

Memory improvement not convincing enough for you? How about kicking your mood up a notch? The neurotropic factor released during exercise appears to increase the output of dopamine and serotonin. Both are associated with well-being and enhanced mood.

Not into exercise? What about Indian food?

Another way to boost your BDNF is by consuming curcumin. It’s one of the main components of the spice tumeric, and according to Dr. Andrew Weil, it’s also “a powerful antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties.” You can find tumeric in most commercial curry powders, or on its own as a flavoring and a natural food dye.

So tomorrow morning, do your brain a favor and jump on the treadmill. Afterwards, sprinkle a healthy helping of turmeric on your Cheerios. Or better yet, treat yourself to a nice yellow curry at your favorite Indian haunt tomorrow evening. Or do both—your call.

The Intersection: Where Bacon Meets Chocolate, and Creativity Meets Genius

Want to radically ramp up your creativity? In his new book The Medici Effect, Frans Johansson believes he can help you. If you’re a fan of the Renaissance, you are probably familiar with the House of Medici. This powerful political dynasty bankrolled generations of thinkers, poets, philosophers, sculptors, painters, architects, and scientists. It is no exaggeration to say that in the 15th century, the Medicis were a driving force behind making Florence, well, Florence.

We still enjoy their legacy; Medici sponsorships enabled the work of heavy hitters like Galileo and Botticelli, as well as Donatello, Raphael, Michelangelo and Da Vinci. (The artists, not the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Although that would be an amazing show…)

According to Johansson, the Medici genius was creating conditions that fostered the intersection of diverse disciplines. This co-mingling ultimately led to extraordinary leaps in innovation.

Johansson argues you can create your own little Medici effect if you correctly set up your environment. First, you must harness the way your brain picks up information. The brain’s strategy for learning is associative. It uses an elaborate sorting system, constantly looking for connections between arenas of knowledge.

Take music, for example.

I might begin with understanding that music is built on single entities called notes, and these notes combined in chunks of three or more make up basic structures called chords. As I learn the chord formations, I begin to understand their place in a larger system called a scale, and pretty soon I’m immersed in the study and playing of these scales. When we let these associations run wild, the result is a genre called jazz.

So this is how we build out our mental library, with each of these associations bridging out to other associations. It’s a very efficient way to take on and store information.

But the real power lies in the brain’s ability to combine domains. For instance, philosophy and specifically logic rest at the intersection of language and math. And it is at this nexus point you can spark some surprising insights.

One of the central themes of Johansson’s book is to immerse yourself in as much experience as possible with an eye towards seemingly unrelated connection.

If you frame your world in this way and you go deep with your exploration (a key to creativity, according to Johansson), you begin to see new possibilities. A young Steve Jobs’s fascination with calligraphy leads him to make a variety of fonts available on the early Apple computers, a distinct and winning differentiator from his competitors.

Kirby Ferguson’s creative model follows the process of “copy, combine and transform.” Johansson suggests that the key to novel ideas is keeping an aggressively open mind in the combination phase, bringing together elements that might, on the surface, seem out of place.

In your culinary adventures, you might not think mixing chocolate with bacon, but many people swear by it. Paul Simon’s Graceland melds traditional American roots rock with Cajun zydeco and South African mbaqanga, among others. Henry Ford’s revolutionary automotive assembly line took its cues from the meatpacking industry.

As Johansson says, “The world is connected and there is a place where those connections are made—a place called the Intersection. All we have to do is find it… and dare to step in.”

The Dunning-Kruger Effect: Are You Under its Spell?

When it comes to brain biases, one that gets an awful lot of play is the Dunning-Kruger Effect. It’s a phenomenon demonstrated by many studies, but it all started with, you guessed it, Dunning and Kruger.

The pair surveyed undergrad college students who had just taken a test, asking each student to predict his or her score. Then they compared each student’s guess against the results.

The students who did really well on the test had slightly downgraded predictions. The students who did poorly, on the other hand, had overestimated their scores by an average of 30%.

In Daniel R. Hawes’ article “When Ignorance Begets Confidence: The Dunning-Kruger Effect”, he shares the same general conclusion from another study:

“Participants who took tests in their ability to think logically, to write grammatically, and to spot funny jokes tended to overestimate their percentile ranking relative to their peers by some 40 to 50 points, thinking they were outperforming a majority of their peers when, in fact, they are the ones being outperformed.”

Put more frankly, people with limited knowledge have the potential to make total fools of themselves, without ever realizing how ridiculous they seem to everyone else. The problem of course, is you don’t know what you don’t know, so unless someone breaks through the wall of that person’s cognitive dissonance, it can perpetuate itself forever.

So here is an interesting question, and one that might be slightly uncomfortable. What if you are the poster child for the Dunning-Kruger Effect? What if you’re the one they’re chatting about around the water cooler? To that end, I share the following four warning signs for D-KE.

•   Any conversation that begins with your coworkers saying, in voices choked with withheld laughter, “Tell us that story again.” As in, “Tell us again how you explained to the exterminator that insects developed wings not so much through an evolutionary process but because they just didn’t know they couldn’t or shouldn’t be able to fly.”

•   When you approach the water cooler and the eye rolls move from person to person like the wave at a football game, and then they all break into a smile.

•   You believe that simply observing someone do something qualifies you as an expert, as in, “I’ve seen Mick Jaeger twelve times, how hard would it be to strut around on stage like that– provided I had access to his wardrobe.”

•   Any time your sentence contains the following words: “It’s not rocket science…” This one is actually a double whammy, because the Dunning-Kruger Effect is in play when you believe you understand rocket science enough to make a generalized statement, and likewise assume you are an expert in what you’re comparing rocket science to.

Important note: the above list is by no means a complete catalog of being under the influence of the Dunning-Kruger Effect,  but it’s a start.

>It’s also important to understand that D-KE is not the same as self-delusion. Self-delusion  happens when you are in some way a willful party to the charade. But as a participant in the Dunning-Kruger Effect, you are completely oblivious to your behavior—which means without outside intervention, the behavior could continue indefinitely.

We all know people like this. They are both fascinating, and infuriating. And although it is unlikely that you or I will have any effect on the way they operate, there is something satisfying about at least having a name for their ilk.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to watch another video on a note-for-note breakdown of essential Jimi Hendrix guitar licks. Because there are two things I know to be true: practice makes perfect, and if I only had his guitar, I’d give old Jimi a run for his money.

The Top Six Errors in Unbalanced Brain Strategy

Recently, I talked about whole brain strategy.

This week, a look at what happens inside a workplace when a company or organization tries to implement a new policy without understanding how the human brain works. If you’ve ever witnessed a giant disconnect between the systems a company claims to use, and the way their employees actually operate (call it Ghost Ship Syndrome, if you will), unbalanced brain strategy may very well be to blame.

So without further ado, I give you: the top six errors in unbalanced brain strategy: Continue reading

Defragging Your Brain’s Hard Drive, a Handy Guide

Stanford neuroscientists have determined that 72 hours after someone delivers information verbally, we tend to remember only about 10% of what we’ve heard. That’s right: we forget 90% of what people tell us. This explains a lot. Our working memory dumps out faster than a guy on an all-prune diet. (Prunes are basically mummified plums––brutal way for a fruit to age)

Teenagers and the elderly have been taking a bad rap for years. It turns out those of us who are neither teens nor elderly have bragging rights when it comes to short-term memory.  What was I talking about again? Continue reading

Charles Lindberg, The Checklist Manifesto, and Overcoming That Goldarned Overhead Luggage Compartment

In 1927, Charles Lindberg, a.k.a. Lucky Lindy, took off from Long Island on the first successful nonstop Atlantic flight in history.  In 2010, I flew about 140,000 miles aboard various beat-up Delta aircrafts. Since the distance around the entire earth is about 25,000 miles, you can see I put in just a couple more hours than Mr. Ticker Tape Parade. Continue reading