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Amelia Schubach

August 11th, 2022

Unpacking the secret to peak performance

1 comment | 6 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Amelia Schubach

August 11th, 2022

Unpacking the secret to peak performance

1 comment | 6 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

You know when you’re completely absorbed in something and you lose all sense of time? You might even lose yourself for a bit there. This is actually when you’re at your best and it’s where the magic happens. Let me introduce you to: flow.

What is flow?

Mihaly CsikzentmihalyiIn 1975, a brilliant Hungarian-American psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term for what we colloquially call being ‘in the zone’. He attributed a number of dimensions to the flow state, including total concentration, loss of self-consciousness, transformation of time perception and a merging of action and awareness [1].

Elite athletes enter the flow state to set new highs and break records (think Kobe Bryant) [2]. But, given the right conditions, anyone can tap into this state and reach peak performance, whether at work, performing onstage or mastering an art. And this is really exciting.

Tell me briefly, what’s happening in the brain?

During flow, the prefrontal cortex, that part of your brain in charge of thinking and planning, is less active [3]. This allows other parts of your brain, responsible for skill execution and focus, to take over. The brain protects that process and mutes interference from the analytical mind, effectively re-routing that energy to fuel focus towards a single activity.

Diagram of the prefrontal cortex in normal and flow states

What can I do in flow?

When you’re in flow, your productivity, learning capabilities and creativity are supercharged.

Improved productivity

Let’s momentarily dip into neuroscience to better understand and appreciate flow’s benefits. In flow, your brain is releasing a combination of chemicals, including norepinephrine, dopamine and endorphins. Each of these impact performance. Norepinephrine and dopamine sharpen focus and attention, and endorphins provide an encouraging boost, helping to maintain that focus [4]. Psychologically, you’re in a state of complete task engagement; minimal energy is devoted to the external world. So much so that you lose track of time and sometimes, even your sense of self [5]. In this state, McKinsey found that executives reported being 500% more productive [6]. That’s pretty amazing. This study isn’t perfect though because its results are self-reported. But it gives you a sense of how powerful flow can be.

Levelling up

In our accelerated modern-day world, grasping new concepts and rapidly improving skills is a huge advantage. When you’re in flow, something inside you is pushing you forward to be curious, to do better and to level up. Maybe there’s an element of external force, but mostly it’s internal – you want to race up that skill curve. This is intrinsic motivation, enabling you to zone in on your goals, unhindered by self-consciousness. In turn, your attentional control is strengthened, further deepening flow [7]. Studies strongly correlate intrinsic motivation with enhanced learning and optimal development [8]. For example, DARPA found that military snipers who trained in a state of flow, acquired target skills at an incredible 230% faster rate than normal [9].

Increased creativity

Creativity is effectively processing information, whether novel or existing, and generating new ideas or approaches. When you’re not in flow, simply put, the brain is employing rational reasoning and analysis to synthesise that information [10]. But in flow, you’re far less inhibited. The implicit system takes over, driving free association and more spontaneous modes of thinking [11]. The brain’s neurochemicals supercharge this process, broadening the horizon of lateral thinking and

Nine dots puzzle

heightening creativity [12]. In fact, in a recent study in Australia, 40 research subjects were given a classic creative brain teaser, the “nine dots” puzzle [13].

Not one of them could solve it. But when flow was artificially induced using transcranial magnetic stimulation, 23 participants got the answer right, and in record time. The same amplified creativity can be seen across disciplines including improvisational jazz [14] and creative writing [15].

How do I activate this thing?

Flow can’t really be consciously triggered; it’s not something you can simply switch on or off. But with the right internal and external factors, it can emerge.

Transform your inner dialogue

Your internal voice has the power to make or break you; to inject you with self-belief or pull you down. Take Kobe Bryant.  He, along with other NBA titans, was trained by sports psychologist, George Mumford. Mumford teaches players to transform negative thoughts into positive ones, particularly love and compassion for themselves; actually, even rival players too. Why is this so important? It provides psychological safety. It means that you can try again if you fail; that you should try again if you fail. It builds and reinforces persistence, resilience and ultimately, self-confidence [16]. With that mentality, the inner critic quietens, motivation soars and focus tightens [17], cultivating the flow state. That was part of Kobe’s Mamba Mentality and what elevated him from an 11-year-old kid, not scoring a single point all season, to a record-breaking 81 points in a single game.

Eliminate distractions

Let’s switch gears and consider a typical work environment. On average, an office worker faces 87 interruptions a day[18]. Of those, 22 are external distractions, but 65 are in one’s control. Think opening a notification like the well-trained Pavlovian dogs that we are. Evolutionarily, getting distracted was a necessary moment for the brain to pause, scan the environment for imminent threats and potentially activate the fight or flight response [19]. In today’s world, this isn’t required, and an interruption means redirecting energy, focus, time and oxygen in the brain to something else [20], at the expense of the task at hand. People then take over 23 minutes to get back on task after the interruption, with 18% not going back to it at all that day [21]. So you might want to turn off some notifications after you’ve finished reading this!

Challenge/skills ratio

Interestingly, our attention is most engaged when there’s a very specific relationship between the difficulty of a task and our ability to perform that task. What’s the golden ratio? It varies but in general it’s about 4% [22]. If it’s too easy, we’ll stop paying attention; if it’s too hard, fear overwhelms the system. Let’s try it. 2 x 2? Too easy. 4x = 2√126 + 8. Too hard. But 4x = 2x + 8? You kinda want to focus and figure it out, right? That midpoint, where the task is challenging enough to stretch us, but not too difficult that we abandon it, is the optimal ‘flow channel’. Here, full immersion, energised focus and often a sense of enjoyment of the task, coalesces to drive performance and execution.

The takeaway

Maybe you thought you’d reached your limit; that you’ve got no more new ideas or your intellect is swamped by the weight of information overload. But I’m here to remind you that the human brain is incredible. If you take one thing away from this blog, I hope it’s this: pretty much anything is possible if you put your mind to it.





  • A discussion, and the solution to, the “nine-dots problem” can be found here. Hint: think outside the box!
  • If you are interested, the Flow Genome Project can help you identify your personal ‘flow profile’, developed by professional athletes, business leaders and scientists. You will have to submit an email address to get results.
  • This post was originally written as part of PB101: Foundations of Psychological Science, which is a course course on the BSc Psychological and Behavioural Science programme and can be taken as part of LSE Summer School. It has been published with the permission of the author.
  • The views expressed in the post are of the author and not the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science, nor LSE.
  • Banner and homepage image sourced via Canva.



  1. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, 2nd New York, NY: Harper & Row.
  2. Jackson, S. A., and Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). Flow in Sports: The Keys to Optimal Experiences and Performances.Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Books.
  3. van der Linden D, Tops M and Bakker AB. (2021). The Neuroscience of the Flow State: Involvement of the Locus Coeruleus Norepinephrine System. Front Psychol, 14(4).
  4. Kotler, S. (2014). The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, 1st New Harvest.
  5. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology, 1st Edn: Springer Dordrecht.
  6. Cranston, S., and Keller, S. (2013). Increasing the meaning quotient of work. McKinsey Quarterly, 1(48-59).
  7. Rheinberg, F., Engeser, S. (2020). Intrinsic Motivation and Flow. Motivation Science, 6(3), 199-200.
  8. Ryan R. M., Deci E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation Development and Wellness.New York, NY: Guilford Press.
  9. Kotler, S. (2014). The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, 1st New Harvest.
  10. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York HarperCollins.
  11. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York HarperCollins.
  12. Anandamide is the neurochemical responsible for bolstering lateral thinking.
  13. Chi, R. Snyder, A. (2012). Brain stimulation enables the solution of an inherently difficult problem. Neuroscience Letters, 515(2), 121-124.
  14. Sawyer, K. (2007). Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. 1st ed. Basic Books.
  15. Forgeard, M. and Kaufman, S.B., and Kaufman, J.C. (2009). The Psychology of Creative Writing. Cambridge University Press.
  16. Edmondson, A. (2018). The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  17. Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218–226.
  18. Adler, R. and Benbunan-Fich, R. (2013). Self-Interruptions in Discretionary Multitasking. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(4), 1441-1449.
  19. Fiebelkorn, Ian & Pinsk, Mark & Kastner, Sabine. (2018). A Dynamic Interplay within the Frontoparietal Network Underlies Rhythmic Spatial Attention. Neuron, 99(4), 842-853.
  20. Clapp, W., Rubens, M., Sabharwal, J., and Gazzaley, A. (2011). Deficient in switching between functional brain networks underlies the impact of multitasking on working memory in older adults. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(17).
  21. Mark, G., Gudith, D., & Klocke, U. The cost of interrupted work. Proceeding of the Twenty-Sixth Annual CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems – CHI’08, (2008), 107-110.
  22. Kotler, S. (2014). The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, 1st New Harvest.

About the author

Amelia Schubach

Amelia studied Languages and Law at the University of Sydney, graduating in 2017 to first pursue a career in corporate law. For the last 3 years, Amelia has built and led Australian firm Hamilton Locke's inaugural pro bono and mental health programs, the latter of which rapidly grew in importance during Covid-19. As lockdown restrictions eased in Australia, Amelia decided to pursue a summer intensive programme at LSE to learn more about psychology and human behaviour to drive the change the world needs, structurally and culturally. Amelia is excited to apply the learnings from the Psychological Sciences unit at LSE in her future career.

Posted In: PB101 Foundations of Psychological Science