Finding flow with the help of HRV

Many of us want to achieve things in life. Often and a lot. Only to notice after a while, more or less painfully, that the body and brain are not behind this at all. Let’s take a look at how to think in order not to fall into that trap, but instead create the conditions for sustainable motivation and drive, preferably with an element of flow*. We start from the body’s “alertness”, which can be checked with heart rate variability (HRV).

The body’s highs and lows

The brain controls with the help of our autonomic (unconscious) nervous system whether the body should go into overdrive, be at complete rest or somewhere in between. The worst high revs are usually reinforced by the brain with various hormones that create an even greater effect in the body. This is called stress or “fight or flight”. There is not really a good Swedish word for this level of the nervous system, so let’s use the English word “alertness”. Our alertness fluctuates throughout the day as a result of our sleep-wake cycle. When we are awake, it is also affected by our reaction to the environment and to what we do. Heart rate variability, or HFV as we call it, is a measurement that can be retrieved from advanced heart rate monitors and is the absolute best way to continuously monitor the body’s alertness. A high HFV corresponds to low alertness and vice versa.

The most important thing first – recovery

The body and nervous system need rest. Our alertness thus needs to be low for long periods of the day. The most important thing is good sleep, but even when we are awake we need to keep the physiological rpm down sometimes. When the nervous system gets too little rest, after a while the brain unconsciously goes into a “safest retreat to the cave mode” which manifests itself as depression, fatigue and low motivation. In the worst case, it can go as far as exhaustion or depression. Perhaps the most important thing you should do to maintain high performance and flow over time is to create a state in the nervous system that less often leads to depression and low motivation.

To set a routine with short activities

It is not as difficult as many people think to create a lively and responsive nervous system as a basis for motivation and performance. One recommendation is to set a clear routine and follow it, but where each activity is not so extensive or difficult. Each individual mental or physical fitness training routine can be as short as 5-10 minutes per day.

Here are some tips on routines as a basis for recovery-based motivation:

  • Set good sleep routines and adequate sleep times and follow them.
  • Exercise or move according to a short routine every day.
  • Work with breathing exercises according to a short routine every day.
  • Work with mindfulness or meditation according to a short routine every day.
  • Eat at roughly the same times every day.

That being said, remember that the body is an averaging machine. It’s not about being zealous, but about following a routine most days which means that the body both gets sufficient recovery and gets into a lasting rhythm. And you can use HFV as support in your routines to get down to speed and as a way to measure your overall recovery.

Setting your rythm

When you wake up in the morning, your brain pumps your body with cortisol, a stress hormone. This level then drops during the day and night. Around 10-12 hours after the puff, the body starts its melatonin production, our fatigue hormone. In parallel with this, the body’s temperature is regulated throughout the day, where we are usually the coolest at night. Our baseline of alertness is created as a weighting of these diurnal variations, which can thus be followed with HRV. Exactly how the swing in alertness looks is individual and you need to measure yourself up to it. It can take a while to get the hang of it because alertness also varies from day to day due to the external circumstances of the day. Typically, it is good to achieve a rhythm with higher HRV at night (lower alertness) and perhaps one or two periods during the day with lower HFV (higher alertness).

For those particularly interested: Blue light through the eyes outdoors in the morning and red light in the same way in the afternoon, are proven good for setting the body’s clock. However, avoid all types of bright light and especially blue light in the evening. Other hard core techniques to adjust the body clock include cold baths or cold showers.

Flow is an alert state

When you’ve got a handle on your recovery, your motivation and your diurnal variation, the really interesting stuff begins. Today, there are many scientific studies that show that you perform at your best when you are quite high on the alertness scale. The same applies to state of flow[1]. At the same time, you don’t want to be too high in alertness as it can create stress, anxiety and mistakes. How high you want to be depends on how advanced the task you have to solve is. Anyone who wants to read more about these principles is referred to literature on the Yerkes-Dodson law.

Below are tips on how you can work with your alertness to find conditions for both performance/flow and rest:

  • Once you’ve got a handle on your baseline in alertness over the day, try if you can to place important activities when you’re usually most alert and quiet restorative activities when you’re usually least alert.
  • Learn to moderate your alertness with your breathing. Focusing on inhalation increases alertness (via the sympathetic system) while focusing on exhalation decreases alertness (via the parasympathetic system). For practical exercises, we refer to Lucas Rockwood’s TED talk where he describes coffee, whiskey and water breathing.
  • If you have the opportunity, please study your HFV in real time while moderating your alertness. Then you learn faster and better.
  • Are you a procrastinator and need pressure to work well? Instead of waiting until the last night, you can unwind with breathing to be able to gas up and maybe a couple of cups of coffee…
  • Are you too winded to do a focused and good job? Breathe to slow down.
  • In the same way that the brain moves in cycles at night, it moves up and down in alertness during the day. Such periods often last for about 90 minutes. Learn to recognize these swings (or measure them), ride hard during the peaks and ease into the valleys

Finding flow is not just a matter of physiology

Of course, the possibility of finding flow is also based on the prerequisites being found in what you devote yourself to, that in any case it resonates to some extent with your goals in life and your personal strengths. Those interested are referred here to Martin Seligman’s research or books on “24 character strengths”. In short, his recommendation is that you apply for a job and project in life where you get to utilize many of your own strengths.

How do we remember what we learned?

For most of us, there isn’t much value in flow and a job well done, if you don’t carry the results and experiences with you later in life. Learning and remembering require the brain to reorder its synapses, so-called neuroplasticity. In conclusion, we therefore share requirements for neuroplasticity and learning:

  • Be aware and focused on what you are doing. Then chemical substances are released in the brain on the theme “this is worth caring about”, which opens up neuroplasticity.
  • High alertness and focus are required for the plastic changes to then take place.
  • The learning only “sets down” during deep sleep the night after, so don’t neglect your sleep.

  1. Flow (Csikszentmihalyi 1975) is a state of concentration, timelessness and euphoria, which occurs when we engage in a meaningful and appropriately challenging task. Research shows that flow requires a fairly high degree of alertness, a level that is affected by how advanced the task is ↩︎