Unlocking Flow

It’s been half a year since I decided to quit the day-job and start my own business, so I thought I’d reflect on the journey so far. The reasons why I decided to change can be found in earlier reflections on my blogpost here so i’m just checking back to see how things have fared.

 

I must say that it has been the trigger for a considerable growth spurt in my psyche, in many different aspects. Perhaps it’s best if I reflect on these triggers and relate them to one of my coaching methodologies to make sense of it. This is a process to insight that I try and elicit with my clients and teams, so its worth using; Unlocking Flow for Ultimate Performance.

 

The flow cycle requires a challenge that elicits a marked increase in effort. The challenge must be one that requires a complete departure from the zone of comfort we are used to. It is the precursor for the progression through the flow state and out the other end. The exit, one assumes, is a better ‘you’. This challenge, however, must not overstretch you too far, like an over-stretched rubber band that either breaks, or pings back to strongly.

 

The Challenge vs Skills Ratio

Starting from scratch, with little savings to fall back on, this was surely one of the largest stretches out of my comfort zone in my life. Far greater than attempting to run the marathon des sables or 27 back-to-back marathons. Flow requires a balance between the challenge and the skill set, so I needed to get this right from the start. The ‘high consequence’ pressure of having to earn money from the get go to be able to honour commitments of school fees, loans and everyday living costs was daunting, to say the least, but within my abilities. This ratio is extremely critical for successful entry into ultimate performance (flow) because it requires a balance between stretch and self-confidence. Without the latter, fear can set in which can also be crippling and have the counter effect of stimulating a freeze, fight or flight response. In a nutshell, fear or lack of confidence in my skills would have pushed me to either accept the first job that came up, resort to accepting work I wasn’t happy doing, or freezing up mentally and crumbling emotionally.

 

I balanced this ‘stretch’ by practicing mindfulness regularly, to enable me to make rational choices and not get caught up by fear or panic. I set clear goals (both financial and emotional) to measure my progress and give me confidence for immediate gratification and stimulation. I set ‘worst case scenario’ plans to give me the strength to realise when things were going to pot and not follow a ruinous road simply because of ego. All this groundwork set up my environment to support my journey and keep me on the right path.

 

The Right Chemicals

The rich environment that I had entered into, working on a very personal level with some exceptional people from all walks of life, made my own existence very interesting. I was learning as much as I was teaching through my coaching. Indeed, it really allowed me to focus on what made me perform, simply to share it with others. This deep embodiment into the work meant using my thinking skills 10 times more than when I was CEO of a large organisation where ‘operational’ issues cropped up daily.

 

This immersion into the work gave me such a buzz that it prevented any adrenaline or cortisol (stress hormones) response that would trigger fear and send me on the wrong path. This ‘buzz’ was further boosted by the immediate feedback from clients after their sessions, many of which had a breakthrough in their thinking that immediately boosted their performance at work and in life.

 

Feedback & Kaizen

This feedback from clients was critical in keeping me in flow for long periods and keeping up the momentum. In order to grow the business I was working 15hr days, with weekends thrown in for good measure. Feedback from clients was important as this helped me fine tune my product and sharpen the sword, improving my uptake and increasing the client base. It was also important to get feedback from Deirdre and the kids, as they were seeing less of me and the weight of running the household was all on her shoulders – and she was getting very busy with her own personal training business).

 

We put ‘dates’ in our calendars to go out for dinner and take a time out. We kept talking so that we could surface any issues that needed dealing with, including our understanding and emotions around this new way of life. The main issue – being away far more than when working the 9 to 5 – was the aspect that would create most of the pressure on our family. My goal again was clear – work hard to set up the business, and the ease off by being more selective of the clients I accept to work with (which is already happening). This became a shared goal, making me accountable and not let things get out of hand.

 

This selectivity further increases my fulfilment and satisfaction at work, gives me a greater sense of control (another flow trigger) creating a virtuous cycle of continuous improvement.

 

Regrowing neural pathways

The more you practice, the better you become as new neural pathways form patterns in your brain. In the same way your brain creates patterns to accelerate decision-making and ‘think fast’, required in every day stressful situations, the more i work under pressure and stretch my comfort zone, the more I can stretch myself for larger and more daunting tasks. Saying ‘Yes’ (another flow trigger) becomes easier and addictive. Your performance increases and you feel on a high doing difficult things with ease. The most evident surfacing of this has been my public speaking. I need no scripting or preparation to stand on stage and talk to a crowd, answer awkward questions and say the right things to inspire and empower people.

 

It’s not just ‘learning it off by memory’ but the uncanny ability to actually think while I am talking. It’s like I have two separate brains working in sync, yet distinguishable between the voice in my head and the voice coming out of my mouth.

 

Creativity

This whole process elicits moments of thoughtfulness and self-exploration that has enabled greater creativity within my toolbox of skills. When thinking of solutions or suggestions to clients I am working with, I’ve noticed an increase in ‘lateralisation’ of thinking towards new solutions, new exploration and reframing of problems. Perhaps the greatest evidence is my use of metaphors in my sessions, triggering alternative thinking and exploration of ideas with my client, helping them find solutions to problems they have been facing for years.

 

Research shows that flow states facilitate creativity because they increase the speed of thinking, stimulate new neural pathways and create ‘bridges’ between different parts of the brain – namely the prefrontal cortex (rational thought) and the Limbic System (emotional thought) and other parts of the brain related to memory and problem solving. In essence, this increase in mindfulness, suppression of the internal critic (self confidence) and ‘stretch’ from the comfort zone all help boost creativity.

 

Sustainability

Flow states are not sustainable and always require a period of reflection and recuperation. The neural pathways need time to consolidate and the energy required for flow is very demanding. I keep up my running and physical fitness, as well as mindfulness meditation, but I need to expect a ‘low’ sometime soon. Accepting this in good faith and with positivity will enable a quicker transition into new skills, and re-entry into another flow cycle.

 

To repeatedly move through cycles of flow we must continue to challenge ourselves. We need to stretch a little bit more every day. If we can do this at work then we will continue to outperform. We can also ‘stretch’ in sports, art, music and other areas and disciplines. All will help improve our ability to stretch, across all the different aspects of our lives.

 

Care must be taken with regards to consequence. Perpetually seeking the thrill will impact the people around us, so a die-hard approach to success and performance will eventually knock us out of flow for reasons I’ve described above.

 

Fallout

Flow has side effects. I know for a fact what flow feels like from my ultra endurance events. I am always on a low after I get back, often falling into lethargy with months on end, with no motivation to train. I need to sign up for the next challenge to keep momentum. In the same way I need to do this with my business. I need to factor in downtime and have the guts to refuse business so as not to fall out too hard. I need to regroup with Deirdre and the kids, my family and friends and make space for my own free time.

 

Spending the rare free days with the kids camping or outdoors with no distractions is key. Signing up to the worlds longest non-stop race (the Spartathlon) will certainly put me back in the zone pretty soon. Raising funds for charity through it will keep my spirit healthy too! Every aspect needs to be considered.

 

I am to achieve this over the next few months as the business settles; this isn’t about equal time, but equal dedication, quality and effort. This approach has enabled me to enjoy life without having to compromise between work and play. This ‘maximise’ approach means that I get to enjoy every aspect of the time I have on this planet, and hopefully make a difference to others in the meantime.

 

So what about the business? Well, somehow, when all this falls into place, success just happens!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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