For over 10 years, my morning “fitness first” ritual one of my non-negotiables. Exercise has been proven essential for physical, mental, and emotional wellness, but for me it goes beyond that.
Exercise also produces dopamine, a chemical essential for optimal brain function and cognitive capacity. Dopamine helps the brain “plug in” so it can focus on the work for the day. As a person with ADHD, my system doesn’t produce enough dopamine on its own, so I rely on my morning workout to “plug in.”
When I don’t get the right stimulus from my workout, I can spend the day trapped in brain fog, with diminished focus, attention, and executive function ability.
On the other hand, when I get the stimulus I need, I can fire on all cylinders.
When it comes to the types of workouts that help plug in the brain, not all workouts are equal. The best workouts for plugging in my brain are workouts where I can get into a flow state.
That flow state in my physical activity translates to better flow in my cognitive work.
Flow creates flow.
You can imagine, then, how understanding the elements that make a workout effective for creating flow would be helpful. In addition, because patterns in one area translate to other areas of life, identifying these elements can give us direction to creating a better set up for our work.
Here’s a case study of a workout that helped me create flow, and the elements of it that were most relevant to creating that flow state.
An important caveat: not all of these will apply in exactly the same way to creating flow in a work context, but many of them will have apply in some form.
Case Study: The Workout:
This was the workout:
4 rounds for time:
- 500M row
- 20 wall balls
This workout was the metabolic conditioning portion of a CrossFit class that started with a strength portion focused on hang power snatches.
At the start of class, we did a warm-up of:
3 rounds of
- 100M row
- 10 air squats sitting to the medicine ball that we use for wall balls.
Followed by squatting with a ball to toss the ball to a partner, back and forth 5 times.
In the strength portion of class, before this workout, we did 5 rounds of
- 3 hang power snatches
- 45-second moderate row
11 Elements to Create a Flow State
Here are 11 elements of this workout that led to a flow state in the workout, which translated to a flow state after the workout.
(1) Physically Challenging Without Being Cognitively Draining
There’s a difference between workouts that are physically demanding or challenging and those that are cognitively demanding.
When movement gets too technical, it demands more cognitive resources, which drains those resources for other work.
Too much cognitive demand in movement impedes flow. But when I can get into a good rhythm with my workout I can get into a flow that translates from my workout to my work.
Snatches are cognitively demanding: they require attention to technique and form.
In contrast, rowing and wall balls are both simple and straightforward. They are not technically complex movements, and therefore don’t require intense thought or focus on technique.
This workout was just about finding a steady pace and enduring through four rounds. It was physically challenging — I felt the burn in my legs by the second round of rowing — but it didn’t require cognitive resources.
(2) Clarity of Tasks and Process
Related to the simplicity of movement was the clarity of the task, in three important ways:
(a) Clarity of Task and Parameters:
The “task” was clear in terms of its parameters and process: 500 meters of rowing followed by 20 wall balls, repeating four times.
There was no ambiguity: no question of how many meters, or how many wall balls. No question of how many rounds to complete.
(b) Clarity of How to Implement:
There was no ambiguity in terms of how to do the tasks. The movements required were clear and simple.
I had certainty in how to do the movements in this workout, and there was little room for error. I wasn’t worried about injuring myself by rowing or doing wall balls.
(c) Clarity of Process and Direction:
Sometimes in a workout, you don’t know what’s coming next. I recently did a class at a boutique boxing studio, where the movements were flashed on a board. I didn’t know at the start where I’d be going after the current set, and it kept changing.
Even in many yoga classes, you don’t know what’s coming up in the sequence that the teacher has planned. That leaves an opening for the nervous system to wonder about what’s coming next and worry if it can meet the demands that will be placed on it. That creates an energy leak that drains cognitive resources.
Here, there was no guessing about what may be coming next. I knew exactly where I was going and how to get there.
When you know what’s coming, your nervous system can relax. That frees up energy.
(3) Easy to Link the Breath
When you can find a flow in your breathing, you can find a flow in your movement. This is one of the principles behind yoga flow practices.
Although you always have to breathe (and you always are breathing), it helps to have movements where you can link the breath with the movement.
If the movement is too technical where I need to think about how I’m breathing, such as in a deadlift, it’s hard to get into a flow.
On the rower, I can “ride the breath” with my movement, inhaling as I recover and exhaling as I drive out and pull. Likewise, in the wall balls, I can inhale on the descent and exhale as I throw the ball to the wall.
This linking of each movement to a breath creates a rhythm with a steady pace of breathing, which calms the nervous system. It’s the essence of creating flow.
(4) Requires Attention Without Intense Focus
Even though these were simple movements with low margin for error, I couldn’t just “space out.” I still needed to pay attention to what I was doing.
In each round, I was focused on the total meters of my row and the number of wall balls I had done.
This means my mind was engaged enough to prevent it from wandering off into distracting thoughts that might deplete my cognitive resources as I was creating the dopamine surge.
(5) Specific Metrics
The nervous system loves the specificity of metrics. Anchoring movement and breath with a count creates a sense of security and safety for the nervous system.
But having to track too many things can quickly bleed over into cognitive fatigue.
In this workout, the rower keeps track of my meters, so I don’t have to count anything; I just need to focus on the screen. Twenty wall balls is a small enough number that I won’t lose track of my count mid-way.
I track my rounds of the workout by making four dashes on a white board. After each round, I rub one out. That ensures I stay on track without having to wonder, mid-workout, how many rounds I’ve done.
The workout also has a clear endpoint: after four rounds, I’m done.
The wall clock on the gym keeps track of the total running time.
Have you ever taken a fitness class where the movements switch every round? You can’t get into a rhythm because you’re always doing something new.
This workout is just two simple movements: rowing and wall balls.
The repetition here comes in two forms: each movement is a simple, repetitive movement and the short sequence is repeated several times.
The repetition of the same movements for four rounds allowed me to get into a rhythm. And rhythm creates flow.
Also, the duration of repetition wasn’t so long that it got monotonous or cognitively draining.
Four rounds was a sweet spot where I didn’t get bored and where I felt like I could aim to improve, or at least maintain my pacing. If this was a much longer workout, like 6 rounds, it might have felt too daunting.
(7) The Right Amount of Work in Each Segment
Having the right amount of work in each segment of the workout is crucial to creating flow.
If this workout was 200 meters and 10 wall balls for 8 rounds, it would require a lot more switching. That would increase the number of transitions and prevent getting a flow in each round of rowing or wall balls.
Transitions are places where energy leaks. While we often need to plan some in our day, the more we can minimize transitions, the better we can stay in flow.
In fact, I went into this workout with the goal to do each set of wall balls unbroken, to minimize transitions (and I met that goal).
On the other extreme, this would be a different workout for me if it was a 1,000 meter row and 40 wall balls for 4 rounds — or even for 2 rounds. The same amount of work in bigger chunks is a higher physical and cognitive demand. If the task was 40 wall balls at a time, I almost certainly would have had to break those up into sets, creating more transitions.
Whether in a physical workout or in other types of work, the best “work load” per segment is going to vary by person based on their “conditioning” level and how much they can handle at once.
For me, the workload of 500 meters and 20 wall balls for four rounds was a sweet spot: enough to create demand on the physical system while still allowing for a rhythm, without being so long that physical fatigue drained all available resources.
(8) The Right Type of Time Constraint
Sometimes we have workouts that are split into timed rounds, for example a limit of time in which to complete each round.
This would have been a much different workout if it were a “every 4:00 x4” workout. In that case, I’d be forced to keep an eye on the clock, which would detract my focus from what I’m doing.
On the other hand, without a time metric at all, there’s little incentive to keep moving through it. I might take more time in transitions, which breaks up the flow and opens space for cognitive fatigue.
Having the workout as four rounds for time gave me a constraint that didn’t require cognitive resources to monitor. Although in theory “for time” means “until you finish,” there is an outer limiter of the class end time. The running clock kept me moving through the rounds without too much transition time between rounds. That helped me stay in flow.
(9) An Effective Warm-Up
Never underestimate the power of an effective warm-up.
I didn’t just jump into this workout cold.
The warm-up we did at the start of class primed us for all the movements. In addition, the short row segments during the strength portion of class were a helpful respite from the technical movement of the snatches. They countered the cognitive demand of the barbell movement while also and continuing to prime the body for the row.
That helped me get into flow on the rower from the start of this workout.
(10) Community and Coach Support
The simplicity of this workout is such that it would likely be effective for generating flow even if I did it on my own.
That said, never underestimate the impact of community and coach support.
The nervous system won’t allow us to get into a flow state when it feels unsafe or uncertain. The essence of ADHD is that the nervous system is constantly scanning for threat, leading to scattered attention and difficulty focusing.
When you’re surrounded by other people doing the same thing, and have the encouragement and support of a coach cheering you on while you’re in the process, it helps create the feeling of safety and security that the nervous system needs to get into a flow state.
(11) Music Fitting the Energy
In my experience, flow state is always assisted by a good playlist. I have several playlists for different types of workouts, and for different types of work.
Certain songs can trigger us into the mood for certain activities; you probably have a go-to song that you like to play when you need to get pumped up, or one that you might play to wind down.
Music creates a rhythm that impacts our energy. The right music can keep us in the right rhythm, and give a boost to our flow.
It would have been a lot harder to sustain the effort for four rounds of this workout if suddenly the music had stopped midway through.
- If you’re uninitiated to CrossFit, here’s what a “wall ball” is: you stand close to a wall holding a weighted medicine ball. You squat down holding the ball, then throw the ball to a target on the wall as you stand up. You catch the ball off the wall as you squat down. ↩
- Hang power snatches are definitely a cognitively demanding movement. In this case, they didn’t interfere with the flow of the main conditioning workout, and the impact of the cognitive load was minimized through other factors, which I’ll dissect in a separate essay. ↩