Design thinking: How to access flow and your highest potential

I tried to start writing this article a number of times but stopped, realising that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to express in words what I was thinking. Quite appropriate, really, for a piece about altered states of mind.

Creating is not just for artists. Creation has the power to ignite, transform, connect and solve high-level problems for yourself, your business and for the people around you. But how do we access the spaces in our mind that encourage novel and creative thought? How do we do so free from the usual fears and non-stop, brain-numbing chit chat? How do use design thinking to support our team and our businesses?

Often referred to as the ‘altered states economy’, there are techniques, business models and products designed specifically to release us from the chaos of reality, to give relief from the thinking mind. It is a billion-dollar industry and by many interpretations, it is expansive: ranging from well-known commercial/entertainment products like Netflix, Facebook and online gaming to contemporary western adaptions of eastern practices such as yoga, meditation and the buzzword of the moment, mindfulness. Burning Man described as a “place to find out who you are, then take it a step further” is an example of a large scale creative event that approx. 70,000 people attend each year to access an altered state – entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and the leadership team at Google have been past attendees.

Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal explore the altered states economy in their book Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work. They analyse the things that release us from everyday thought patterns and push us to ‘ecstasis’ – a Greek word meaning “to get outside oneself”. The book delves into the extraordinary feats that people in “flow” can accomplish and the methods that help to induce that state. It explores altered state products and processes – from sensory deprivation tanks to pharmaceutical drugs, from meditation to peyote – and presents a broad range of techniques used by leaders in business, the arts and the military to access the individual’s highest potential. Most importantly, the authors maintain that these altered states of consciousness are not just for Navy SEALs or the development team at Google to access – they are for everyone.

Every minute of every day our senses are overwhelmed with information and stimulus of an intensity not encountered in any other period of human existence. We are constantly distracted by the lights and beeps of our screens. A 2014 study by the British unit of advertising buyer, OMD, found that the average person shifts their attention between their smartphone, tablet and laptop around 21 times every hour. How can we concentrate on the task at hand when there’s so many thoughts – unchecked and unconscious, deliberate and defined – running through our heads? In order to creatively solve problems, we need to find stillness. In order to design we need to quieten our minds. In order to discover, we need to disconnect.

These things are important to develop within oneself in order to be a better leader for your team, your clients and your business.

As a visual person my way of getting into flow is to generate a vision wall. I become a hunter and gatherer of all things “client” – their brand, images, quotes, reviews, logos, history, people, activity – absolutely anything I can find. I tend not to rely on what is provided but rummage and discover. I print them all out and stick them up in our room called the POD and just sit there and immerse myself in looking and discovering “who are you?”. In this immersive state of mind I can see things that weren’t apparent to me before the process, which allows me to extrapolate the language and ideas necessary to define and expand on what I see. I need to go into myself in order to access flow and this is usually done alone in my office with no noise and no disruption. This is my process for writing scripts, designing strategies and creating events.

A prime example of the recent corporate focus on cultivating flow is Google. In 2012 Google built a multi-million-dollar mindfulness centre – the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute – featuring a round the clock suite of meditation rooms decked out with sensor suits and neurofeedback devices. Even before this, Google were at the cutting edge of mindfulness in the workplace. One of their engineers from the early days – Chade-Meng Tan, known as “The Jolly Good Fellow” – has developed into a best-selling mindfulness author and Google’s very own personal and spiritual guru. The fact is, early on, Google realised the economic and cultural benefits of encouraging and helping engineers get into the flow – and stay there – in the highly competitive tech marketplace.

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