Peak performance is a state of consciousness where you’re in a rapt moment of attention, totally absorbed and focused on the task at hand. Everything else disappears, and time seems to pass quickly. Often called “flow” or “the zone,” it’s a state where your mental and physical performance goes through the roof.
The good news is it’s possible to train yourself to move into it when needed, says Steven Kotler, author of The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer. “Flow is universal,” he says. “Anyone, anywhere can get into it, provided certain conditions are met. . . . Instead of it being an elusive state, it can become more reliable and repeatable.”
Biology Versus Personality
Getting into flow happens in a specific way. However, it’s not a one-size-fits-all process, due to personality. Following someone else’s system can be dangerous, says Kotler. “What usually happens with personality, personal growth, and self-help categories is that somebody figures out what works for them and then tries to teach others,” he says. “As a general rule, it’s a disaster. . . . Personality doesn’t scale.”
The foundational elements of personality differ from person to person. Personality traits that play a critical role in peak performance include where you are on the introvert/extrovert scale, your tolerance for risk, and having an openness to trying new experiences. They’re genetically coded and difficult to change, says Kotler.
“The literature says personality isn’t a death sentence,” he says. “You can change traits, but it will take a while to rework. When it comes to performance, this isn’t a good place to start.”
While Kotler says there is some evidence that proneness to flow is more evident in certain personality types, the ability to enter this state isn’t dependent on one’s personality. Flow is an evolutionary advantage. “It’s foundational in our neurological systems that have existed and evolved over millions of years.”
There are a series of onboarding processes that get you into the peak performance game. The first is aligning five intrinsic motivators: curiosity, passion, purpose, autonomy, and mastery.
“The first three are the launching pads toward the impossible,” says Kotler. “Autonomy is the desire for freedom required to pursue your passion and purpose. And mastery drives you toward expertise.”
Getting all of your internal fuel sources in the same direction can take a while and differs from person to person. “Later in the process, you can start working on cultivating and amplifying your strengths,” he says. “Strengths and values vary from person to person based on personality. If you can get all the things that you’re doing in the world pointed in the same direction, you can get farther, faster.”
Find Your Flow Triggers
Get into a state of peak performance by using one of the 22 flow triggers that drive attention in the present moment. Many are individual-based, and you have to figure out what works for you based on your personality.
For example, one trigger is having high consequences, such as the CEO of your company calling you into the boardroom. It involves an element of danger, and someone with a high-risk-tolerance personality will find this trigger pushing them into peak performance. Another flow trigger is deep embodiment, which is when you expand your physical awareness as you learn by doing. Again, some personalities are more comfortable jumping in and trying something before they feel ready.
Your triggers can change over time as your personality and strengths evolve, adds Kotler, who recommends rotating through triggers to keep flow showing up.
Prepping Your Body and Brain
In addition to using your triggers, your physical and mental health have to be in a welcome state for peak performance. Kotler says there are six specific things you must do—three to have adequate energy levels to perform at your best and three to keep your anxiety in check and your brain ready to perform.
For energy, you need seven to eight hours of good sleep per night, good hydration and nutrition, and regular social support, he says. On the cognitive side, anxiety hampers performance in a significant way. Kotler says you have to tune up your nervous system with a daily gratitude practice. He recommends making a list of three things you’re grateful for and turn one into a paragraph. “This is shown to reduce anxiety,” he says.
The second step is having a mindfulness, respiration, or breathwork practice. Eleven to 20 minutes a day of focused breath is enough to consistently lower anxiety and regulate emotions. And the third step is 20 to 40 minutes of exercise where you can feel your lungs expand and you’re flushing out stress.
When you’re starting, Kotler suggests doing one of these a day. “In times of peak stress, such as during COVID, do two or three,” he says. “That’s what peak performers [are] doing.”
Kotler admits none of the tricks are cutting edge or sexy. “They’re simple psychological interventions that evolved millions of years ago,” he says. “If you want to rely on [a] substance, tool, or technology to get into peak performance, there’s a problem. When your boss calls you into the boardroom, you need something reliable and repeatable. Flow follows focus. It only shows up when you have attention on the task at hand. Understanding the biology and having a set of tools can make you more productive at work and a little better about life.”