Flow: How to Create Habits the Fun & Easy Way

In an interview on The Joe Rogan Experience1, mixed martial arts instructor Firas Zahabi explained that he’s a big believer in never being sore.

Whenever you’ve worked out, you should wake up the next day feeling good. It doesn’t matter what your fitness level is.

Even if it was your first day ever in a gym, you shouldn’t feel any pain.

When Rogan asked him how that would be possible, Zahabi explained it like this:

“Consistency Over Intensity”

Let’s say you can do a maximum of ten pull-ups. Does that mean you should try to do ten when you work out?

According to Zahabi, the answer is no. Instead, you should do five. Why? Well, consider these two scenarios:

  1. You hit your max every time you go to the gym. Working out that way, you’ll get sore, and you’ll have to rest. You might be able to do pull-ups twice a week for a total of 20 reps.
  2. You hit half of your max every time you go to the gym. Working out that way, you won’t get sore, and you won’t have to rest. You’ll be able to do pull-ups every day of the week for a total of 35 reps.

As you can see, option two leads to almost twice the training volume compared to option one. Over the course of a year, that will have a dramatic effect on your results.

Get in the Zone

According to Zahabi, working out needs to be fun and addictive. That’s the only way to make yourself do a lot of it.

To make that point, he refers to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research on “flow”:2

A state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.

If something is too hard, you’ll feel anxious. If something is too easy, you’ll get bored.

But if something is in that sweet spot where your skills match the challenge, you’ll find it enjoyable:

Research shows that people tend to be happiest and most productive when they’re in flow. But we rarely set ourselves up to experience it consistently.

The gym is an excellent example of that. Most people drive themselves into anxiety every time they go there. They push themselves to exhaustion and come to associate exercise with pain.

Zahabi’s advice is to instead optimize your training for flow. Work out in a way that is neither too hard nor too easy. That way, the exercise will be so much fun that you’ll naturally want to come back to it.

Optimize for Flow

This advice is applicable not just for exercise habits, but all kinds of recurring behaviors. In fact, anytime you want to create a lasting habit, it’s good practice to optimize it for flow.

Almost always, that means reducing the effort to avoid anxiety. And the way to do that is to start small. Here are a couple of examples:

  • If you want to meditate regularly, start with just two minutes.
  • If you want to read more books, aim for only two pages a day.
  • If you want to floss, begin with flossing just one tooth every night.

The idea, just like in the gym, is to operate within the flow channel. Instead of intensity, you go for consistency. Instead of big efforts, you go for small wins. And that way, you’ll create sustainable habits that grow naturally over time.

Footnotes

  1. Joe Rogan – How To Workout Smarter
  2. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi