In sports, it’s called being in the zone.
I’m talking about those moments when self vanishes, time seems to slow down, and you are operating with maximum confidence. A sense of calm pervades, even though you might be surrounded by a frenzy of activity. Your focus intensifies and your actions and decisions seem to meld.
This is the psychological state known as flow, researched and pushed into the spotlight by University of Chicago professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
You might know what flow looks like from the outside if you’ve ever experienced a great jazz player riffing, or a skilled comedian doing improvisation.
And you probably know how flows feels if you meditate. If you’re in sales, it’s those times when you and your customer seem to be synced up in perfect harmony. A writer experiencing flow has the sense that the words on the page are being dictated by some outside source. When you and your best friend are so deeply engaged in conversation that an hour feels like minutes, it’s likely you’ve put each other into a flow state.
Runners, sky divers, surfers, and students engaged in deep academic pursuit are all secret or not-so-secret flow junkies.
Flow is big business. It’s fair to say that professional sports is really a giant flow industry produced for our viewing pleasure. It gives meaning to our lives, separating out the high points of experience from the everyday mundane.
So is there a way to hack flow, to trigger a flow experience? In Steven Kotler’s book, The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, he suggests the following strategy:
1. Find something you’re passionate about and establish a clear goal for improvement.
2. Give yourself a hunk of unbroken time for maximum concentration and focus.
3. Find mentors and coaches: expert input is a key for good progress.
4. Push yourself to the edges of your abilities.
Push yourself, but don’t shove yourself. Kotler reports that a quest for a 4% improvement in any skill, compounded over time, will achieve incredible results. It’s this kind of incremental growth that is an essential building block of progress. Trying to bite off more than you can chew is often self-defeating.
Flow is an ephemeral thing: easy to recognize, hard to pin down. In any given moment, there’s no surefire recipe for getting there. But by following Kotler’s steps, you can at least point yourself in the right direction. With a little practice, you could find yourself with a passport to the zone.