Entering a flow state of mind can feel pretty magical. They’re those moments when you lose track of time (in a good way) and you enter a calm, creative state of concentration that results in fast learning and powerful performance.
The problem is, you may find it hard to achieve that state during a normal workday. But that’s not necessarily a “you problem.” It’s an everybody problem.
In his bestselling book “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in A Distracted World,” author and professor Cal Newport explains that “most people have lost the ability to go deep – spending their days instead in a frantic blur of email and social media, not even realizing there is a better way.”
That better way, of course, is to get into flow states more often so you can achieve deep work. And the key to diving into that deeper state is to harness your brain’s alpha waves.
What are alpha waves?
Alpha waves are at the center of your brainwave spectrum, between 8-12 Hz. When your brain is operating at the alpha frequency, you’re able to absorb new information with ease and you’re significantly more creative.
Thanks to the 86 billion nerve cells in your brain, there’s always some type of electrical activity going on inside there – and at different times of the day, different waves dominate. When you wake up in the morning, for example, your brain passes from the slow delta waves of slumber into the low frequency theta waves that act as a portal between the dream and waking worlds. Then there’s the “alert” beta waves, when you’re engaged in problem solving or decision making, and the even faster gamma waves, when you’re full of adrenaline and energy, feverishly multitasking to complete impossible to-do lists.
But when it comes to work performance, the most valuable brainwaves of them all, the gold standard, are your alpha waves. Think of this state as a kind of work hypnosis, where you’re fully engaged with your subject matter, yet completely happy and relaxed as you calmly and deftly decimate deadlines.
You can learn how to increase your alpha waves
The good news is that you can indeed increase your alpha brain waves, if you put your mind to it.
Alpha waves oscillate between the theta and beta waves. To successfully harness them, you’ll usually need to slow things down, deepen your breaths, lower your heart rate, and calm the electrical activity in your mind. A 2015 study found direct evidence that meditation and mindfulness could help unlock this beneficial state of mind. That’s the beauty of the immersive alpha state: it reduces stress levels and increases productivity levels, making it a brilliant business tool for both you and your entire team.
On a practical level, there are easy, day-to-day tactics you can use to tap into alpha waves at work, triggering a flow state to sweep your in-tray aside with ease.
7 ways tap in your alpha-waves frequency
1. Create a mental cue
Just like Pavlov’s dog, the human brain can be conditioned to respond in certain ways to certain triggers – including the production of alpha waves. If you create a mental cue for yourself when you sit down to enter a flow state, your brain will remember and respond. That could be a phrase or mantra you repeat, a particular piece of music you listen to, or even a certain number of deep breaths. If you do exactly the same thing every time before entering an alpha state, your brain will recognize it and begin acting on the established cue, helping you to reach a state of flow more quickly.
In his classic book on creativity, “The War of Art,” author Stephen Pressfield describes his pre-writing routine, which includes handling any calls or pending tasks before starting work. He then sits down, recites the “Invocation of the Muse” from Homer’s “Odyssey,” and positions a tiny cannon on his desk in a very specific way. “I point it toward my chair so it can fire inspiration into me,” Pressfield explains.
Creating a ritual of your own will help cue your brain that it’s time to go deep.
2. Eliminate all distractions
According to the latest workplace research, whenever you get distracted it takes an average of 25 minutes to regain your full focus on the task in hand, thanks to “attention residue” left on the distraction.
When you’re trying to reach a place of hyperfocus, you need to remove every possible obstacle from your path. That means turning off your phone and disabling all other alerts and notifications, before going to a quiet, clean environment (the power and potency of a simple, clean desk is crucial to alpha waves), and donning noise cancelling headphones.
All of the above will not only help you to reach flow state more swiftly, but also assist in keeping you there.
3. Work at your biological peak time
It’s always going to be a struggle to harness your alpha waves when you’re tired and low on energy because your willpower and concentration levels weaken and make you vulnerable to distraction. Instead, pre-emptively identify and protect a two or three-hour slice of the day when you know your energy levels are normally high, and block it into your diary as deep work time.
This will be different for different people but should always be after a proper break (so first thing in the morning, after lunch, or after dinner are all ideal windows for surfing alpha waves).
4. Listen to (the right kind of) music
Flow is often compared to a state of semi-hypnosis – and music can help get you there. The secret is to ensure that the tunes themselves aren’t a distraction. Opt for familiar, repetitive tracks, ideally without lyrics (techno, trance and classical music are all excellent options).
The beauty of this approach is that it helps block out internal distractions (stray thoughts) as well as external ones (stray colleagues), which can help you to focus more cleanly and completely, and thereby enter an alpha state more swiftly.
5. Strategically consume caffeine
According to Chris Bailey, author of “Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction,” the tactical consumption of caffeine can help spark a valuable raft of alpha waves in your brain. The key, however, is to keep the amount low.
The magic number is around 200 milligrams (about 1.5 standard mugs of coffee), which has been proven to help you focus more intensely and stay in a dedicated mindset for longer – without giving up or getting easily distracted. Any more than that, however, and you’ll end up with increased beta and gamma waves, as your cortisol and adrenaline spikes.
6. Focus on a single task
Flow is all about quality, not quantity. To trigger alpha waves, your mind must be in the moment – and it cannot be there if you’re focused on multiple different tasks at once. The good news is that you can sharpen this focus easily.
Pick an important task and set a timer for 15 minutes, consciously bringing your attention back to that mission whenever any distractions surface. Increase the timer with each attempt, until you can stay in a focused state of flow for an hour or more.
The trick for longer periods, as psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified in “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” involves learning how to control the thoughts that enter your mind so you can stop distractions from disrupting your flow state. Think of your mind like a park bench, where you can control which thoughts are allowed to sit down. You let all of the others just walk past.
7. Stay hydrated
One of the simplest but most overlooked ways to improve your brain performance (and thereby reach flow state with more ease) is to drink enough water. The human brain consists of 75% water, and it needs a constant supply of H2O to function at its optimum level, where it can produce sets of alpha waves.
Think of your brain as an engine: you need the oil topped up at all times if you want the smoothest ride. In fact, fueling your body with the adequate amount of water means you’ll be able to think 14% faster, as well as maintain focus for far longer.
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