The Psychological Trick to Flow States Is a Technique Called ‘Little Successes’

Tim Denning

According to “Do the Work” expert Steven Pressfield.

Image credit: unsplash

Working in a flow state is your God-mode.

The challenge is arriving at a flow state. Before a flow state, there is enormous resistance. You do everything you can to avoid getting into flow. I think of productivity in three levels, thanks to my recent Steven Pressfield discovery.

Level 1 = Habits
Level 2 = Flow States
Level 3 = Little Successes before flow states

The idea of little successes came from a recent interview with writer Steven Pressfield. Steven wrote two masterpieces: The War of Art and Do The Work.

People look up to Steven because he understands how to deploy one’s creativity, whether or not you’re a writer. Like all good ideas, Steven didn’t come up with the little successes technique — he borrowed it from his friend Randall Wallace.

Before You Start Work Do This

Little successes are a series of tasks you complete before you do the real work. Completing tiny tasks before you start work gives you momentum.

Once you have momentum you can achieve extraordinary results when you start the real work. It’s like starting your car at 100 mph instead of 0 mph. Once the productivity engine is purring away, it’s easy to produce Lambo-level performance.

What counts as a little success?

Steven counts brushing your teeth, feeding an animal, and taking out the trash as little successes. I like to do the dishes before I start work. It makes me feel as though I’ve started working.

The little success Steven has used to write some of the most notable books of our time is the gym.

When you complete a gym workout before starting your work, you feel as though you’ve achieved a decent amount of progress. The gym also helps you switch on your brain and get your blood pumping. With exercise comes energy. With energy comes life. And with high levels of life comes some of the best creative outputs a human will ever see. People feel the energy through your work. A tiny success coupled with energy is a superpower.

Steven says by the time he is ready to sit down and write after a gym workout, he feels as though he has momentum.

The trick according to Steven is to string together a series of little successes. One tiny success is nice. But a chain of little successes is where the momentum hides, ready for you to awaken it. Try waking up, brushing your teeth, doing a few dishes, doing some exercise, and then getting started with your work.

A Basketball Game Starts at Least 4 Hours Before the Players Walk onto the Court

I hadn’t thought about work in this way before. Steven gives the example of NBA basketball player Stephen Curry.

Let’s say Stephen’s basketball game starts at 7 PM. He arrives at the basketball stadium at around 3:30 PM. Upon arrival, he does knee exercises with bands. He warms up. He shoots one-hundred balls at the ring from beyond the ark. Before 3:30 PM Stephen is at the gym exercising, preparing himself mentally, and likely getting a massage.

So you could say Stephen’s basketball match doesn’t start at 7:30 PM. It’s an all-day game of basketball. Each routine before the basketball game is another little success Stephen obtains. The little successes help Stephen win the mental game before he plays the physical basketball game.

Little successes mentally prepare you for work.

It’s Okay If It Takes You a Few Hours to Start Work

I’m at the gym at 5:30 every morning but it takes me till around 11:30 to actually sit down and start work.

That’s how long it takes Steven to start work. The productivity gurus might tell you he’s lazy or ineffective. They’d be wrong. It’s okay if it takes you time to start work. I sometimes goof off watching Youtube videos for three hours before writing a single word.

Procrastinating before you start work can produce some of the best work of your life.

I’ve spent a lot of time watching seemingly unrelated inspirational videos. Those videos helped inspire me so I could perhaps inspire another person. Unrelated work is part of the real work. It just doesn’t look like it.

Brainwash Yourself into Flow with a Routine

Steven Pressfield says creative habits expert Twyla Tharp uses routines as part of her flow state preparation. She believes doing the same thing every day before starting work is helpful. Little successes coupled with routines enable mental automation.

She catches a cab at the same time each day and travels to a studio. The predictability prepares her mind for the work that follows. Familiarity becomes a reminder of flow time.

Producing flow from scratch each time is hard work. Use little successes and familiarity to reach your flow state faster.

Put Yourself in Different Environments

Some creatives find it easier to change their environment. Writer Tim Ferriss used to stay at a hotel in San Francisco when he couldn’t do his work. The change of environment seemed to help him start work, so a flow state could do the rest for him. Authors often like to rent a cabin in the woods and write.

Try whatever works is my advice. Personally, if I have to change my environment then I know I’m overthinking my work. You can do your work in any environment. Try not to get superstitious. Explore different environments to work in. If this does nothing then work in whatever environment you can and don’t judge the quality of your work.

Judging your work can stop you from working. You don’t know what good work is — you just think you do. Let the world judge your work.

You’ll Rarely Feel Like Doing the Work

Actor and writer B.J. Novak reports spending quite a bit of time getting into the right mood before starting work.

I don’t think waiting to be in a good mood is helpful advice. You’ll rarely ever feel like doing your work. Your brain always has a reason to be pissed off or frustrated — it’s wired to find problems and design custom imagery you can vividly see in your mind, to protect you from fake danger.

Habits, flow states, and little successes, when combined, mean you don’t need to rely on “feeling like it.” You feel like working when you start working.

Feeling like it leaves you in the hands of the willpower gods. Those gods typically punish their followers harshly with poor consistency and low-quality, self-obsessed output.

Working in a Mess Is a Disaster

Many of the little successes you’ve read about so far can be linked to cleaning up. It’s hard to do your best work surrounded by dishes and dirty underwear.

You can clean up your workspace and simultaneously create a few little successes. Clean up before you start work so you can be focused on your work, not the mess you’re working in.

Your Process Will Be Different

Steven says some writers write in cars. Their car produces flow states. If I wrote in my car then there’d be police at my house due to a trail of road destruction. The point is your process for work will be different.

What works for Steven Pressfield may not work for you. The trick is to start with a process and then adapt it to what works for you. Little successes can help enhance your process … but you still need a process.

A process can be as simple as “I write at 5 PM every Thursday for an hour.” That’s the exact process I started with as a writer seven years ago. I then molded and shaped other people’s processes into mine. Your process keeps changing over time. Your process is never a finished process.

Different stages of life require different processes.

If you have a newborn baby on your lap, then Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Workweek might be completely impractical for you. If you just lost your job, then the last thing on your mind will be practicing your yoga poses in front of a mirror with a statue of a Buddhist monk.

A good process is practical.

When You Sit Down to Work, a Wall of Resistance Will Take Over

It’s going to happen. Even if your pre-game is amazing it won’t stop you from feeling a negative force that wants to prevent you from working. Little successes give you enough momentum to overcome the inevitable resistance rather than avoid it. You can’t avoid the resistance.

Once you start work you’ll be fine.
The key is to start working.

Do the smallest task you can think of first. As a writer, the smallest task I can do is write the first sentence. If I can bring myself to write the first sentence, then I’m off and away. I make the threshold of quality for that first sentence so low it’s impossible not to give myself a pass.

Once you’re through the beginner resistance, your flow state will take over. Your flow state completes the work, not you. It can feel like an out-of-body experience. Your words can write themselves. Your hands can shoot the ball without you thinking. Your confidence can kick in and do the speech without worrying about hand gestures or saying the word “um.”

Your best work is done in a flow state. Getting to the flow state is where the art lies. Little successes lead you to flow. In flow, you’re unstoppable.

Starting work once you have momentum from little successes is a powerful psychological trick to get into flow states. Your best work requires you to start. Flow states take over once you start. Little successes help you get started in the first place.

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