In a state of flow, your focused energy flows dynamically into peak performance and productivity—effortlessly, without the need to exert willpower. Does this mean that the power of flow overshadows the power of will, of strength, of discipline?
First of all, if all you achieve is based on motivated passion, your achievements are probably miniscule. And if all you achieve is based on willpowered discipline, your life is probably miserable. But even if you have both, passion and discipline, your performance potential is still not fully realized; your performance is still not as great as it could be if you also had—flow.
It is a common mistake, however, to think of flow as a substitute for discipline, as a convenient way out. Sure, working in a flow state does not demand much willpower, but flow is a state of mindcoolness, of freedom through strength. You will not get into a flow state without strong discipline, not on a regular basis anyway.
Now this seems to be paradoxical because willpower is associated with prefrontal activity while flow is associated with transient hypofrontality.* To discipline yourself, you need a strong sense of self, whereas in a flow state, your sense of self disappears.
The dimension of time resolves this paradox. Put simply, discipline precedes flow:
- Flow occurs when your high skill level gets properly challenged. This means that you need a certain level of skill to begin with. To reach that level, you need practice. Practice, of course, is enforced by discipline and good habits, which are formed by willpower.
- Flow can occur only when you take up a challenge: when you actually sit down to write, when you actually go to the gym, when you actually talk to a sexy chick, when you actually go on the stage. As long as you do not conquer your weaker self, as long as you do not get started, as long as you do not take the first step, so long will there be no opportunity for you to enter a flow state. To conquer your weaker self, however, you need your stronger self, you need willpower, you need discipline.
Do you want more discipline to live more in a state of flow, more “in the zone”? Of course you do, so check out my book Willpower Condensed.
* Transient hypofrontality is a temporary, relative deactivation of the prefrontal cortex. Whether it truly is a physiological correlate of the flow experience is still under debate. For example, Ulrich et. al (2016) found evidence for this hypothesis, while Harmat et al. (2015) did not.
- How to Live Your Life: On the Glory of Flow
- Flow Is Life and Freedom Through Strength
- Taoism and Martial Arts: On Non-Doing and Fighting
- Will Vs. Flow: Can You Force Yourself to Do Something?