Have you ever had moments when you feel ‘in the zone’ completely focused? Everything is happening just as you wanted it to, you seem to be achieving things with little effort and it’s all going beautifully?
World Class performers aim to achieve this positive psychological state, and in sport it is often called called a state of flow. Flow is an experience of relative timelessness; of being engrossed in an activity or task, the pursuit of which is physically pleasurable in and of itself, and is cognitively challenging. The flow state has been described by the world’s greatest thinkers as the most productive and creative state of mind in which to work. People have described that when they are in the flow state, they almost enter a ‘state of ecstasy’, it’s as if they don’t actually exist!
The state of flow doesn’t have to be about any particular outcome, even though great outcomes could be produced through the activity. Sounds good doesn’t, but how could you achieve this state yourself?
The good news is that you don’t have to be a sports person to experience flow, or being in ‘the zone’.The important part of achieving the flow state is developing a high level of skill in the particular area in which you’re striving to achieve a flow state.
So, depending on your interests, skills and activity, you could experience flow when you are doing pretty much anything: surfing, working on a spreadsheet, hiking, giving a presentation, talking to friends, playing with kids, running, solving a maths problem, playing a game, doing yoga, dancing, gardening, the list is endless.
When you’re completely involved, submerged and engrossed in the process of creating something new you don’t have enough attention left over to monitor how your body feels (the fact that you’re hungry or tired) or to listen to your mind chatter.
Composing, for example, is an activity that requires intense concentration. The composer’s body and his identity disappear while he’s composing because he can’t split his attention to be able to compose well and at the same time to feel that he exists.
It’s as if his existence is temporarily suspended while he’s creating. He doesn’t have to consciously think of what he’s doing because he’s highly skilled and very experienced at composing. Imagine how great you would feel if you could achieve some of the key components of the flow state.
- Being so completely involved in what you’re doing, that you’re totally focused, concentrated and unaware of anything else going on.
- Having a sense of being outside of everyday reality, losing your sense of self. All of your worries and concerns just drift miles away.
- Experiencing a great inner clarity. You know what needs to be done and you get immediate feedback on how well you’re doing.
- Having total unnerving confidence that the activity is doable, that you have the necessary skills to complete the task successfully.
- Losing track of time because you’re completely focused on the present moment.
- Experiencing an intrinsic motivation; whatever produces flow becomes it’s own reward.
This is the important bit, if you want to achieve a state of flow in your activity.
A balance must be struck between the challenge of your task and the skill of you, the performer. There is a ‘sweet spot’ where the level of challenge is high and the skills that you have to meet that challenge are also high, and it’s at that point that you can enter the zone, or flow state.
The interplay between how challenging an activity is, and your skill level in that activity can make you feel various things:
A low challenge level, with a low skill level could result in Apathy. “I could easily do this but I can’t be bothered”
A low challenge level, with mediocre skill could result in Boredom. “I do this everyday and it’s getting very tiresome”
A low challenge level, with a high level of skill could result in a state of Relaxation, so be aware of this one!
With a somewhat challenging activity, with a high skill level, you will be feel ‘in control’ and you could enter the flow state by making the task more challenging. Worry or anxiety might result from an activity that is challenging, but the level of skill is low
Carl Lewis, nine time Olympic gold medallist described his thought process before a race saying “My thoughts before a race are usually pretty simple; get out of the blocks, run your race, stay relaxed”. He was able to simplify his approach to a race because he had put in so many hours of deliberate practice, and he knew he had done enough to win the race.
He knew that this approach would bring on the state of flow in his performance. So developing your skill level is important, vital. Pushing into unchartered territory because this is when you can really start to accelerate your level of skill.
Remember there is a balance to strike here:
- If something is too easy you’ll be bored, and your mind is likely to wander so you can’t achieve the flow state.
- If something is too hard you could become overwhelmed and you won’t be able to achieve your goal.
Get in your zone by finding the most productive and creative state of mind in which you can work.
Every time you engage in this skill or activity, push yourself past where you would normally. You have far more ability left than you ever knew who had, so you must start to tap into that!
Immerse yourself. Get fully, completely, involved in the process until you have enough no attention left over to monitor how your body feels.
It’s such an amazing feeling because you will undoubtedly surprise yourself at the ease at which you can surpass previous achievements. Give it a go!