On fire. In the zone. The flow state.
Whatever you choose to call it, we’ve all experienced this feeling at least once in our life — that moment when you’re completely engulfed by the task at hand, to the point that all else fades away. When the activity you’re doing becomes not just the most important thing in your life, but the only thing in your life, if but for a short period of time.
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, considered one of the world’s foremost experts on creativity, coined the term in the 1990 game-changer Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, and considered one of the world’s foremost experts on creativity called it a “flow-state.” Csíkszentmihályi said that when a person becomes “involved in an activity for its own sake,” he has entered this intense state of being that allows him to complete whatever task he’s involved in as if he were born to experience that very moment in time. Picture a robot that has been commanded to accomplish a goal, regardless of any extraneous circumstances: That’s the level of intensity we’re talking about here.
“The basketball court for me, during a game, is the most peaceful place I can imagine. On the basketball court, I worry about nothing. When I’m out there, no one can bother me…”
~ Michael Jordan
Getting Into The Flow State
‘The zone’ isn’t exactly a feeling that can be turned on and off on demand. But it is possible to optimize your chances of entering a flow state in a variety of ways:
1) Set a challenging, yet attainable goal.
Attaining the flow state is all about pushing yourself to your limits while not becoming overwhelmed. If a goal is too easy, it will probably be too boring to truly become engaged in. Not only that, but you probably won’t even have enough time to “zone out” into a flow state while completing a simple task; you’ll be done before you fully become engaged in it.
On the other hand, if a goal is too difficult, you’ll find yourself getting hung-up on certain mini-tasks on your way to completing the overall goal. Imagine trying to play in an NBA-level basketball game before you’ve mastered basic ball-handling skills; you’d constantly be looking down at the ball while you dribble, and you’d end up getting completely dominated.
One of the best ways to attain the flow state is to use the “Goldilocks method”: set a goal that’s just right for you. It shouldn’t be so easy that you can accomplish it without any effort, but it shouldn’t be so difficult that you start to get overly excited or frustrated.
However, it should be challenging enough that you consistently experience growth and “a-ha moments” as you work toward your goal. From all the studies that have been conducted around this phenomena, this is one of the primary methods of consciously evoking ‘the zone’ — doing your best to ride the mid-line between boredom and anxiety.
2) Focus your attention.
If you’re dividing your attention between numerous tasks, you’ll never experience flow. For example, if you’re trying to write an article about the flow state, and you have your Facebook page open on another tab, you’re not going to be able to get anything done. Even if you aren’t currently receiving any messages or comments, your mind will constantly be wandering to that little tab “just to make sure.”
Of course, some distractions occur that aren’t any fault of your own. It takes practice, but it’s definitely possible to shut all external stimuli out while focusing on a single task.
Think of Mike Trout coming up to the plate with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 9th. With 40,000 people screaming their heads off, cameras flashing all over, and the knowledge that sportscasters are blasting his name across the country, he has to be able to focus on a tiny white ball being hurled at him at 90 MPH. And a lot of the time, he comes through. This is no accident. He and other professionals, whether athletes, musicians, or stage performers, have perfected the ability to tune everything else out and focus on attaining their goal as if they exist completely in a vacuum. The ability to do this is due in large part to the performer’s:
If you’re unsure of yourself, it’ll be exceptionally hard to get into the zone. Or if you’re overly confident, say, due to ego, you may perform well, but not exceptionally. That’s because the flow state is a holistic (literally, a whole-body, whole-mind) state with a balanced amount of all the best ingredients in the moment. You’re not cocksure due to past successes, or anxious due to the possibility of future failure (or vice versa) but simply and totally present, calm and ready. All the data you need is already there, quietly self-organizing and at the ready in the background.
Referring back to baseball, picture the superstar who inexplicably goes through a summer slump, in which he can barely make contact with any pitch that comes his way. Without fail, when questioned about it, he’ll almost certainly say he’s “thinking too much” about it.
He’s “psyching himself out.” He knows he has the talent to succeed, but he’s allowing himself to believe that he can’t. This is the result of, for whatever reasons, a failure to keep the more unruly aspects of the automatic, unconscious mind in line — an inability to keep it from getting in there with too much static and debris to truly experience the clarity of the flow state.
The musician who can shred like Hendrix in his living room but faces serious stage fright when performing for a small crowd falls victim to the same feeling. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: they fear messing up so badly that they aren’t able to perform to their full potential, and end up messing up badly!
Those who are honestly confident in their abilities have learned not only how to push the fright of messing up down, but actually shrug it off completely. They don’t let their screw-ups define their abilities, identity or overall self-worth, and don’t treat them as if their world is crashing down around them. They’re forever returning to center.
Think of the actors on Saturday Night Live: sometimes they flub their lines, but even when the mistake is glaringly obvious, they push on. They wouldn’t get up and storm off stage in a fit of embarrassment. They understand “things happen,” and that even the most legendary comedians on the show have had their share of mistakes while on the air. Instead of letting a little slip-up ruin their set, they make up for it by delivering the rest of their lines flawlessly.
The best performers of any talent face hiccups in their ability to remain in the flow state once in awhile, but are always able to jump right back on track.
The flow state begins to take over when you’re focused on a challenging activity, and are confident in your ability to accomplish your goal. It should go without saying that, when all of these conditions are met, you will likely feel at peace with your abilities and yourself. This serenity is the final piece of the puzzle that allows you to truly experience the zone. When you feel serene, you feel as if you’re untouchable. As if you’re floating on a cloud. As if you’re truly existing.
Oddly enough, despite becoming intensely engaged in the task at hand, this serenity often causes you to experience life without paying much attention to it. In fact, you may have heard a sports commentator describe someone who’s “in the zone” as being “unconscious.” Like I mentioned in the intro, when you enter a flow-state, you become almost robotic in your operations, to the point that you are just going through the motions while simultaneously performing at your highest capacity. (In this sense it would be more of a ‘superconscious’ state than an unconscious one, but labels here aren’t that important.)
Pianist Frances Wilson explains, “The best performance is often the one you don’t remember much about afterwards.” Again, many times when an athlete is asked in a post-game interview about a specific moment during play, he’s unable to recall it. When you’re in a flow state, you lose a sense of time, and a sense of yourself. You truly become one with whatever task you’re focused on accomplishing, and you don’t stop until you’ve reached your goal.
5) Attainable flow state.
Okay, I know I’ve referred to how highly-trained professionals experience flow throughout this article, but I in no way want you to leave thinking it’s something only the greats can achieve.
I doubt many of you have been up to bat with 40,000 people watching your every move, but I guarantee most of you have experienced “highway hypnosis.” That moment when you realize you’ve been driving for five, ten, even 30 minutes on the highway without actually paying attention to what you were doing.
But you were obeying the rules of the road the whole way, and didn’t miss your exit, right?
That’s flow. You were confident in your ability to get from point A to point B, even while driving 70 MPH. You knew if you missed an exit, you would still be able to figure out where you were. You probably had the radio on and were singing along to your favorite songs without even realizing you were doing so. You were ‘unconscious’, in the same way the basketball star who hit five three-pointers in a row in last night’s game was.
If you approach every moment in life with the same ease and confidence you approach driving, you’ll realize it’s not all that difficult to ‘get in the zone’. And you’ll find that, when you allow yourself to enter this state, it’s much easier to get things done.