“What if flow was the most important thing for the business?”
There’s brain science behind those moments when everything just seems to click. It’s called flow, and knowing how to recognize it, tap into it, and optimize it can change everything about how your business operates. Performance coach Cameron Norsworthy brings the details on:
- The part of your brain that operates a million times faster than you can think
- What a Peruvian busker and world-class chess players can teach us about flow
- The biggest thing we can do to train our brain for flow
- The role of intuition and “muscle memory” in business
- How to optimize your time, tasks, and team for finding flow
Who’s on this episode
Host: Jennifer Tribe
Guest: Cameron Norsworthy, CEO, The Flow Centre
Cameron Norsworthy is a coach, keynote and TEDx speaker, author, and founder and CEO of The Flow Centre. Cameron has coached numerous world champions, leaders, entrepreneurs, and high profile military personnel. Fascinated by experience, optimal performance, and innovation, Cameron gives immersive talks that help others understand how they too can integrate optimal experiences into their life. Cameron has given talks at governing bodies, corporations, schools, TEDx, and graduation ceremonies.
Jennifer: I’m Jennifer Tribe and this is Workflow, the podcast about growing a happier, healthier MSP. More profit, less stress.
Today on the show, it’s time to find your flow.
And I don’t just mean this podcast. I’m talking about the reason we called the show Work+flow in the first place – that feeling when you’re in the zone. Wired in. On fire. In the bubble. Whatever you want to call it. It’s that moment when everything seems to click and just… flow.
My guest is Cameron Norsworthy, a former junior athlete who became intrigued by the neuroscience and psychology of peak performance. He now leads The Flow Centre based in Perth, Australia, where he coaches athletes and business leaders in finding and harnessing their flow states.
We talk about how to recognize when you’re in flow, what’s happening in your brain when it occurs, whether there are hacks to help you reach flow faster or more easily, how to set up your work and team to optimize for flow, and really, why knowing all this is so important for your business.
First, let’s define what we mean by flow. Here’s Cameron.
“It feels good”
Cameron: Flow scientifically is the term used for our optimal state of functioning. Often an optimal experience, often associated with peak performance, deep engagement, creating meaningful experiences in which we’re highly engaged in the moment.
There’s some three key characteristics of flow. One of them is there’s this absorption in the moment. We might be doing a task and we see everything within that task, but we’re not distracted by stuff outside that task. At deeper levels of flow, we might have a high level of connection, we might have time transformation, loss of self-consciousness. All the sort of higher executive cognitive functions start to sort of dissolve the more and more absorbed we become in the moment.
The second key aspect of flow is there’s this high sense of control, but there’s an effortlessness to it. It’s not a constrained type of control. It’s an effortless sense of control. And the last one is that it’s intrinsically rewarding. It feels good. It keeps the experience going. And on reflection, it’s enjoyable regardless of the results or the outcome.
“The brain is split into two operating systems”
Jennifer: So you can call flow different things. As we said, being in the zone. Deep work. Hyperfocus even. But the key is those 3 characteristics Cameron just mentioned: absorption in the task, effortless control, and it feels good. If you’re straining in your focus, working really hard, stressing about it, that’s not flow – and the reason why it’s not flow lies in the brain science behind it.
Cameron: We have brain frequencies happening in the brain. The brain has a host of electrical currents zipping around, creating all this sort of energetic frequencies that allow the messaging and everything to occur. We can quite easily measure those brain wave frequencies that range from sort of high beta to falling asleep and being in theta brain waves frequencies. And we know that in flow we’re in that low beta, high alpha phase.
Ordinarily when we go throughout our day and we’re doing our work, the brain’s in this high beta. It’s often around the sort of prefrontal cortex, the front part of our brain zzzz. It’s like a high frequency zzzzz. But in flow we just sort of come down a notch. We don’t go down too far where we might be in a deep hypnotic trance or asleep or very relaxed or watching a movie. But there’s this sort of low beta, high alpha activity that’s going on.
Jennifer: When we’re straining in our focus, we get stuck in high beta, our thinking brain. Here’s more about that part of our brain and why sitting only there keeps us from flow.
Cameron: From a cognitive neuroscientific perspective the brain is split into two operating systems that are quite distinct from each other. So often we just think of the brain as this one operating system, but typically there’s actually two. One more associated with our kind of animalistic brain that is hardwired through our motor cortex and our movement, and hardwired to our senses and hardwired to all the blueprints that we sort of store in the basal ganglia at the top of our spine. And it’s much more of our being brain. When we’re in it, we’re just being, being and doing.
Then we have what scientists might call the explicit system or the cold system and what I call the thinking brain, which is the front part of our brain. We have this prefrontal cortex and specifically the medial lateral prefrontal cortex is there to think. Like a popcorn machine is designed to make popcorn, that part of our brain is designed to think, and it will continuously think whether we like it or not. And that thinking goes and goes and goes and goes and goes and goes. And more often in our waking consciousness, day to day, we run our day through that mode.
“In flow, the being brain is captaining the ship”
Cameron: We get up in the morning, we …not everyone starts thinking before they’ve had their shower and their coffee, but that part of the brain kicks in and we start to answer our emails, we start to have conversations, we start to do all our day-to-day stuff through that thinking brain. And there’s a lot of value there. It’s one of the higher functions of humanity and allows us to create so many incredible things. And the key characteristic there of that operating system is to be logical, to have reflexive thinking, to be able to sort of think about ourself. It’s filled with sort of conscious thinking.
However, it’s also extremely slow and very linear in its logical sequential type of thinking. So there’s this great flexibility of it but extremely slow when it comes to processing. Rather than our being brain is the opposite. It’s not very flexible. It kind of operates some pre-programmed training that we’ve installed there, but it’s exceptionally fast, like a million times faster than the thinking brain.
Ordinarily we go through life with that thinking brain dominating our experience. But in flow, — although they always work together, there’s never just one and the other one’s not there, they’re always kind of working in tandem — but if you think of it as the thinking brain is normally captaining the ship, telling the being brain what to do. In flow, it’s sort of a little bit of the reverse. We’re in that being brain and we might use the faculties of that thinking brain as and when we need it, but the being brain is captaining the ship.
“Flow fits everywhere”
Jennifer: After hearing the difference between the being and thinking brain, you can see why flow works so well for athletes. I imagine a tennis player, like Cameron used to be, a hockey player, a swimmer, sinking into their body, letting their being brain take over and move their muscles, almost on instinct. But it wasn’t clear to me how flow could apply to more cerebral tasks, like running a business, where it isn’t about moving your body and you really need your thinking brain. Does flow really exist in business?
Cameron started that answer by sharing the story of how he came to be a flow coach.
Cameron: I was a junior athlete playing tennis for England, got injured, got depressed, was walking up the streets of Peru, met this busker that was playing incredible music, could have been playing in the Sydney Opera House or the Royal Albert Hall and was just in their flow. Committed to every note. Immersed in the music. And I was drawn into that music. I was just transfixed into this music. And where I came away from that experience going, Wow, that’s actually what I missed from playing tennis. I missed those moments of deep engagement where everything would just click and come together.
And so I started to study why can we be our best one moment and then the next moment we’re stressed or choking. And that brought me to a study of subjective experience and the study of peak performance and the study of flow. And I worked in the sporting sense for many a year and worked with over ten world champions and, and that’s one of my strengths because I know sport very well.
But through all the research and interests around flow quite quickly started to find that OK, flow is a subjective experience so it fits everywhere. Wherever there’s a challenge or a task, flow can fit. Flow becomes very important to schools and creating optimal learning environments in universities. Flow becomes very important to businesses in creating productivity and high motivated networks.
Often within business, we’re always like, Oh, I’ve got to think harder. Why didn’t I think that through more? I’ve got to think about it. But then when we examine chess players where it’s very cerebral, it’s very logical and it’s very, you would think, being operated through the thinking brain, when chess players were playing well and associated with being in flow, actually they were operating more out of the being brain. The thinking brain was actually downregulated because the pattern recognition and the processing capability of the being brain is much more.
“That’s where our intuition comes from”
Cameron: And I think what’s really interesting as well is both that thinking brain and being brain have its own subconscious. So we actually have two levels of unconscious databases, if you like, in our brain. And all the stuff that we’ve experienced, all the stuff that we’ve learned that’s become muscle memory, that’s become, you know, the culture we inherited from the first business we worked in, the subtle values and skills we’ve picked up from managers we’ve worked under, all the things we see from great leaders that we want to sort of epitomize that we don’t necessarily think about, but we’ve just absorbed through books, through observation, that all gets stored in our being brain.
And that’s really where our intuition comes from, that kind of sum of our personal experience on this planet. If we want to access our intuition, which in business, we can always spend time thinking things through. We can always have think tanks, we can always have advisory boards, we can always get outside feedback on important decisions.
But typically what seems to be more and more valuable for leaders and not only is important in terms of performance, but is important in terms of being a leader and not stressing about it is this ability to operate through our intuition and to be able to look back and go, at that time, I know I made the best decision possible and we’re not overthinking it and stressing about it. So that relationship with our intuition, whether that’s in a negotiation, whether that’s just we haven’t got a lot of time but we need to answer that email, whether that’s do I hire this person, do I fire this person, all those sort of day-to-day decisions, it’s quite important that we develop a strong relationship with our intuition and we train that relationship.
“We don’t value our own attention”
Jennifer: So flow, at least the way I envision it from what Cameron is saying, is still a letting go of sorts. The way an athlete might sink into their body, a business person might sink into their intuition. Trusting your gut and your past experience is a big part of flow.
Now how do you get to that flow state when you want to? Are there hacks that can help you get there? Cameron talked about brain wave states for flow so I asked him if things like binaural beats, which are sounds that purport to stimulate certain levels of brain waves, can help you enter a flow state whenever you want.
Cameron: People play about with external hacks, if you like. And some of them may be momentarily helpful. A little bit of caffeine, but not too much caffeine. A little bit of dopamine reward-related things, but not too much. Binaural beats helps us get out of that high beta and into more low beta high alpha. And that’s why some people like to listen to sort of concentration music in the background quite slowly. I’m always in favor of working on strategies that develop sustainable behavioral change as opposed to creating dependence on external influences because that’s what’s going to help people be autonomous within their own mastery and their own ability to find flow.
Most of the strategies I would recommend are ones of psychological flexibility. Ones of training our brain to prioritize flow. A huge one is valuing our attention. Our attention is really all that we have really. When we’re emotional, our attention is on our emotions. When we’re stressed, our attention is on the overthinking and the expectation and pressure. Wherever we direct our eyes determines what we see in the world that we interpret and wherever our attention is ultimately creates our reality.
For most of us, we don’t value our own attention and we often don’t value other people’s attention. So really creating that as a value, it’s almost worth developing and training that more so than working on hacks that might sort of feel good for a month but then wane as our brain gets used to it. I don’t sort of disencourage other stuff because it’s all helping people to prioritize their states and their self management of those states and hopefully optimize them towards flow. So it’s all energy in the right direction. But in terms of best bang for someone’s buck and and creating sustainable change, I would work more on how can we manage our mind? How do we approach the task? How do we self-regulate within the day to day. And then how do we self-actualize? How do we actually allow ourself to do our best work as opposed to sort of working at 70%?
“Flow is often found when we’re using our strengths”
Jennifer: Alright, so there are some tips and tricks that don’t hurt to try but if we want to get serious about structuring our work or our workplace for flow, what are the principles that are going to help us do that.
Cameron: The key one is creating an optimal level of challenge. When we unpack that, there’s quite a few things that come out of that box. One of them is this idea of matching up the difficulty level with a person’s skill. If the difficulty level is too low and the skill is too high, someone’s going to get bored. They’re going to get bored, demotivated, distracted, and so forth. If the difficulty level is too high for the skill level, then we’re going to be nervous and anxious and distracted and having a conflict. And therefore flow is not possible.
And just this one thing, I’ve worked in businesses and organizations to improve and it’s made a monumental difference. So just looking at every single person in the business and their overall role and their overall tasks for the day and then breaking that down for their tasks within the hour. Is there an optimal level of challenge that’s being created? Is there clarity to the task goal? If there’s not clarity, then the optimal level of challenge won’t exist. Is there immediate and ambiguous feedback available? If there isn’t, then conflict will occur and flow can’t exist. Are people getting the feedback from whoever they need to get it from instantaneously, even if that’s from their own self-assessment of the work.
So are there clear task goals? Is there immediate and unambiguous feedback? Does that individual have the self-efficacy or the confidence to do that job? If they don’t have the confidence, then it’s unlikely they’ll be able to meet that optimal level of challenge and in a manner that’s conducive to flow. All those things come together in order for us to manage that optimal level of challenge.
Another key one is strengths. Flow is often found when we’re using our strengths because we feel confident and we’re willing to sort of just play with the edges of moving out of being in that over controlled phase. So are the tasks that people are doing matched to their strengths.
Then we can look at, OK is someone highly motivated. We know that when we’re highly motivated, that draws our attention in, and then we can look at how can we create highlights of motivation for people. Are people’s personal goals aligned with the business goals? Do they have some intrinsic drive or motive to engage in this task?
“Focus time is when flow can occur”
Cameron: Another key thing that’s important is giving people focused time. There’s so much distraction with a million emails, a million messages. And there’s this sort of presenteeism that gets in the way of everyone needs to be attentive to everyone else’s requests as soon as possible. And it’s often frowned upon in offices to actually say no, I’m having my focus time. I’m actually having 2 hours without or 3 hours without getting back to anyone because I’m focused. And that focus time is when flow can occur and when people feel good about their work and when great work gets done. So it’s quite important to sort of set up a safe environment in which people can self-manage their time, albeit co-created and structured in a team dynamic so everyone’s on the same page for flow to occur.
There’s lots of others, but those are the main key ones that can have the biggest wins and often just thinking about these questions in regard to the office can have a huge impact in terms of the design of the office and so forth.
“Look at anti-flow as distraction and conflict”
Jennifer: Just to recap because there was a lot packed in there, Cameron talked about a handful of things that can help you find flow: the right level of challenge – not too hard, not too easy, clear feedback, using your strengths, finding motivation, and focus time.
He also mentioned confidence in your ability. And so I wondered, can we find flow in tasks that are new to us? For example, if you’re a technician and you find yourself in the role of business owner, can you find flow in that? And what about imposter syndrome and other crises of confidence — do they mean we can never find our groove?
Cameron: What’s helpful is to look at anti-flow as distraction and conflict, whether that’s external distraction and conflict, whether that’s internal distraction and conflict, and imposter syndrome is both. It creates a lot of internal conflict or I’m not good enough. Should I really be here? Can I really do this? Am I the best person for it? Which creates distraction. We then stop becoming focused on what we’re doing and start creating more effort to internally get over the chaos and the inner conflict that’s arising.
Can we still find flow if we’ve got imposter syndrome? We can if we’re able to focus all our attention externally on the task. We don’t need to be this highly self-actualized individual that has all of their self-development practices in place in order to find flow. But certainly when we have hang ups, it will eventually break flow. If we don’t deal with that imposter syndrome, it will become a hurdle to flow and how big that hurdle is depends on how embedded that imposter syndrome is.
And not just imposter syndrome, but you can move that on to trauma, you can move that on to ADHD, you can move that onto all sorts of facets that add to us becoming distracted or in a conflict that rises and distracts our ability to to really focus on the task.
“Are we in flow?”
Jennifer: I hope you’re feeling what I was feeling at this point in the conversation with Cameron, which was incredibly excited about the possibility of bringing more flow into my work and really eager to experiment. So I asked him, if this was all new to a business owner and they were interested in exploring how they could bring flow into their business, where would he recommend they start.
Cameron: The first and most important one is just really thinking about this idea of flow and what if flow was the most important thing for the business? In business, we’re so preoccupied with KPIs, profit, quantifying things and measuring things, and that’s all very important and very necessary. But we can almost put that into the feedback bucket, information that tells us whether we’re on the right path or not. As opposed to the destination we need to get to or the goal for working and engaging in what we’re doing.
Because when it does become the destination, when it does become the goal, those metrics often add stress and they become a distraction and they add conflicts within the individual and that performance goes down. So when we really start to think of, hmm OK, let’s say flow was at the core of my culture for my business and the main thing I want people working in my business to achieve, then that often has quite a lot of knock-on effects. It creates a lot more questions and it changes a lot of things. It changes how I manage someone else. It changes how I manage myself. It changes when I do certain type of work. It changes how I communicate with clients.
It sort of changes so much of how we do the things we do. And that for some people that can be very scary and very difficult to kind of let go of always having those KPIs and outcomes right in front of our eyes. So my first recommendation is just to take a morning out or just sort of sit back in your chair having a look at your team and employees and the business as a whole and just sort of ask myself, Are we in flow? Are we all working at our best at the moment? And what would need to change for that to happen?
Often some of these changes take money and we often go ah can’t afford it. It’s more important that we put money into marketing or other areas of the business. But is that creating sustainable performance? And also a lot of these changes don’t require money, right? They’re more cultural changes and they may take a bit of time and it might feel like I don’t have time, I’m too busy, I don’t have enough seconds in the day as it is. But when we look at it as an investment, rather than adding another thing towards what we do, we’re investing in the future so the future is more efficient, more productive, then it’s easier to sort of swallow.
Jennifer: That was Cameron Norsworthy, performance coach and director of The Flow Centre.
What did you think of today’s episode? Let us know with a review for Workflow or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you do leave a review, take a screenshot of it, email it to me, and I’ll send you your choice of a free Workflow or Syncro t-shirt.
And don’t forget to tell your friends about us. Until next time, this is Jennifer Tribe. Thanks for listening.
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It’s time to find your flow
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