John Hawkins Jr., M.S., L.M.H.C

One of the external triggers for flow (an optimal state of peak performance) is a “rich environment.” This consist of surroundings that exhibit novelty, uncertainty, and complexity. The reason being is this type of setting causes the brain to release dopamine and norepinephrine, which heighten focus and increases pattern recognition.

Flow and peak performance follow focus. Anything that heightens attention makes it more likely to achieve your potential. Furthermore, increased levels of dopamine and norepinephrine expedite the time it takes to learn. Not only will exposing yourself to a “rich environment” lead to accessing your full potential, you will get there faster.

Uncertainty Heightens Focus

Uncertainty in particular heightens focus. You don’t know what will happen. This will cause a huge spike in attention. Think of hearing that sound in the middle of the night. Is that your cat or has someone broken into the house? All your senses heighten and focus narrows toward the unknown source of the sound you just heard.

In relation to performance, when skill level is high and challenge level low, you begin to disengage and attention wanes. Pushing yourself consistently to go beyond your current skill level creates uncertainty. Taking on a new endeavor, such as a speaking engagement or lead position on a project, increases energy and focus as a result of that dopamine and norepinephrine boost.

Dopamine and Norepinephrine

Triggering dopamine and norepinephrine release doesn’t require taking huge risks; it can be induced simply by creating novelty in your daily routine. As simplistic as it may sound, taking a different route to work or brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand is sufficient to elicit these neurotransmitters. You can also vary the order of your routine or to do list.

Natural settings are a great way to stimulate flow states. These environments provide all three factors of a “rich environment.” Reflect on how experiences of awe and wonder in nature may have induced aspects flow states for you: loss of self-consciousness, time stood still or flew by, or a feeling of oneness with your surroundings.

Getting Your Biology To Work For You

As you understand these three characteristics of a “rich environment”, you can structure your work setting, training routines, or living space to make them more conducive to experiencing flow and peak performance states. As a long-distance runner, there are two things I do in my training to trigger more flow: I run in nature, which provides the elements of a “rich environment”; and I constantly vary my routes introducing new ones regularly.

Learning how to harness peak performance states is about getting your biology to work for you. You can then ride the neurochemical and neurological wave instead of attempting to drag yourself towards achieving your goals.

Integrating Habits With Novelty

One of the challenges I experienced in incorporating these principles into my performance goals was how to integrate creating the elements of a “rich environment “with the benefits of practicing the power of habits. The right type of structure is essential for success, yet dopamine hates routine.

What I have done to resolve this dilemma is to create consistent, and powerful, daily habits while allowing room for varying the activities within them, such as my example with my distance training. Another example could be in your workout regimen. Let’s say you are going to do arms, and you normally do three different exercises for both biceps and triceps. You could have nine different arm routines and vary them across three workouts.

Challenge And Pleasure 

Maybe, you are a sales manager. Rather, than going through your trainings in a rote manner, you could use each meeting to focus on different aspects of sales skills or development of a new marketing plan. Remember, dopamine loves novelty and uncertainty. Challenging your team to go just 4% beyond their current ability is the sweet spot for creating just enough uncertainty to trigger flow.

Taking the time to begin incorporating these components of a “rich environment” will not only lead to an increased level of performance, but it will be much more enjoyable. Dopamine is the brain’s chief pleasure chemical, which is also very motivating. Learning how to ride the wave of your neurochemistry will not only take you farther, but you will be more fulfilled along the way.


John Hawkins Jr., M.S., L.M.H.C.

John has helped thousands of clients overcome the hidden internal blocks which had kept them from achieving their maximum potential. Furthermore, he has assisted them in gaining clarity of their true life purpose, identifying their gifts and talents, and developing lives of greater meaning and significance. 

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