Learning in the 21st century is easier and more accessible than ever before, which is raising the bar for collective intelligence and increasing our rate of technological innovation.

The rise of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and ubiquitous digital education is giving us the platform to learn any subject we want in our spare time. As a result, the new emphasis in education is on self-directed learning — how we learn, how we motivate ourselves and how we make practical use of our knowledge.

When nearly everyone can inexpensively access online education, it becomes essential that we use all the tools at our disposal to improve the process of how we learn and always be upgrading our knowledge and skills.

Unfortunately, the most effective strategies for learning are often counterintuitive — we should space study out as opposed to cramming, for example. However, there are two less talked about yet very effective tools that we can apply to our learning process, that of mindfulness and flow, which I’ll discuss in this post.

Flow

You’ve already experienced flow many times in your life. It is characterized by a deep immersion in an activity where you lose track of time and your mind becomes completely absorbed in the activity. Think about a time when you were doing something that held all of your attention, you were perfectly capable of doing whatever it was, and once it was over you were surprised by how much time had passed.

Within flow, we lose our sense of self, our perception of time wanes, and we become extremely productive.

This optimal experience is one of the most fulfilling activities we can experience as human beings. It’s driven by intrinsic motivation, which when we’re talking about learning is usually the desire to grow and master something of one’s own choosing.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi — the leading researcher into flow — found that extreme athletes and their constant dance between physical danger and euphoric adrenaline rushes provided the perfect conditions for flow. Later, Steven Kotler, who runs the Flow Genome Project, laid out the different flow triggers that can help induce flow.

All of those flow triggers are essentially trying to do one important thing: improve focus. The make or break element of flow is attention, we cannot try to multitask, we cannot allow ourselves to be distracted from our task, or flow will not occur. Here is where mindfulness proves so effective, which we’ll look into more below, but first, let’s examine 6 flow triggers that help us learn.

Flow Triggers

1. Intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation provides the foundation for all the other flow triggers. To achieve flow, you need to be self-directed and have a high degree of autonomy, mastery and purpose in what you’re choosing to do. In a nutshell, if you’re going to enter a state of flow, the task you want to complete needs to be important to you.

In Dan Pink’s book Drive he points out the dominance of intrinsic over the usual extrinsic motivation (systems of rewards and punishments). Money won’t do it, we need to be motivated through autonomy, purpose, and mastery; that is, we need to be in control of what we do and how we do it, we need to feel as though we are working toward something grand and meaningful, and we need to feel a sense of constant improvement and growth.

Think about why you’re learning something new, is it because you are passionate about it? Or is it something that’s being forced on you?

2. Clear goals

You need something to work towards, and to know if you can achieve it or not. Vagueness and just doing what we feel like is not conducive to flow, as it lacks a clear path to follow. If you need to think about where to go after each step, you’re not immersed in the activity.

You should also aim to set small goals, big goals are great but too distant. We need smaller goals that give us an immediate direction, so I recommend you break things down into steps — small enough that you can achieve them in one go, but large enough to allow for an extended period of flow. I find that blocks of 2-3 hours of focused work is the sweet-spot.

3. Immediate Feedback

Clear goals let us know what we’re aiming towards, while immediate feedback lets us know whether we’re doing it right, and how to do it better.

Athletes know almost immediately if they succeed or fail. Musicians can tell a bad note the instant it sounds — or even earlier. Surgeons face immense pressure to get things right, and will often have immediate feedback when things start going wrong. 

Slow feedback disrupts flow because you never really know if you’re on the right track, which can leave you wondering about the result — ergo, not in the moment. Quick little tests are a great way to achieve this when learning, simply trying to recall the material or solve a set of problems will usually provide immediate feedback — better yet, the regular retrieval of knowledge helps strengthen your memory.

4. Skill / Challenge Ratio

You need to be able to achieve your goal, but not find it too easy. Flow occurs — as Csikszentmihalyi found — in a position where your skills perfectly match the challenge. As your skills improve, so should the challenge, which is why games are so effective at inducing flow.

If the task is too easy we’re more likely to get bored or start daydreaming; if the task is too challenging then the result is anxiety and frustration. If your education is not self-directed, then chances are the rise in difficulty will be pre-set. However, if you are in charge, you need to find the point where you know you can achieve the goal, but you’re not casually getting everything right with little effort. You also need to realize when you’ve learned something, so you can up the difficulty level.

“Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The Flow Channel

5. Risk

In the case of the extreme athletes and the surgeons, each stand to lose a great deal if they don’t succeed. This fear is a magnet for attention.

Uncertainty, complexity and novelty are the three aspects of risk that focus our attention. The mind is essentially trying to understand and predict the patterns in our environment — an important evolutionary survival feature — so, situations that are difficult to predict or that haven’t been experienced before require our focus.

In the case of learning (not in the case of the surgeon), it’s also important not to be afraid of failure. Fear can end up stopping us from trying, or can make us far too careful and reserved. If you’re learning at a University or an online education provider, then there is likely some risk already included with exams and the possibility of failure, but if not, add some of your own by holding yourself accountable and I also recommend setting up a social accountability system that works for your unique needs.

6. Embodiment

Lastly, we should aim to use more than our eyes or ears when it comes to learning something new. We can become far more engaged with what we’re doing when it involves more of our senses, especially touch.

Getting your hands and body involved is a great way to learn something more thoroughly, and is a perfect way to help direct your attention. The learn-by-doing method has been gaining steam in the last two decades, and is backed by science.

A great example of learning by doing is The Montessori Method, where students learn through the constructivist model of working with materials as opposed to Rote Learning models that dominate most public education systems.

Mindfulness

All of these flow triggers are aimed at directing our attention into the now for long periods of time, which is a necessity if we want to learn faster. Another powerful method that can amplify our ability to focus is the practice of mindfulness.

Mindfulness has a number of definitions depending on who you ask, but for this discussion, we’ll define it simply as an open awareness of the present moment. Concentration on the now helps alleviate the natural tendency of our mind to be constantly wandering into the past or future.

When you observe the nature of your mind in mindfulness meditation, you come to the realization that you’re wasting an insane amount of your mental energy analyzing the past and thinking about the future. As information technologies like Google, Facebook and Instagram become more distracting and habit-forming, mindfulness becomes something that gives you a cognitive edge.

In terms of flow, distraction is the enemy, whether it comes from your environment or from within your own “monkey mind.” Practicing mindfulness in the moment helps us to focus our attention on what we need to. Not only this, but practicing mindfulness leads to longer lasting changes, including greater self-awareness which gives us more control over our thoughts, even at times in which we aren’t actively trying to be mindful or enter flow.

One of the most common flaws in our methods for learning is the feeling of ease — reading through notes or listening to lectures might feel like you’re learning everything, but the truth is that learning isn’t supposed to feel easy, that’s an illusion. To truly learn, we need to be focused on what we’re doing, but also be aware of what’s not being explicitly stated, of the underlying patterns and ideas — which doesn’t come easy.

Mindfulness also improves our ability to see the flaws in our thinking. It helps us to take in what we’re learning but also to see where that information is lacking, and where we need to put in more work.

By combining the practice of mindfulness with the application of flow triggers, we can immerse ourselves more deeply in what we’re learning. This will allows us to improve our focus and productivity so we can learn faster and be more aware and open to the salient and subtle patterns, ideas and insights that make learning new things so intrinsically enjoyable.