The crowd around you stops making noise. Time becomes distorted. Your brain stops all self-judgment and overthinking. You feel your best. But you are not relaxing; you are highly focused on performing your best.
Welcome to the flow, also known as being “in the zone.” You have probably entered flow at least once while fully absorbed in an activity you enjoy, whether in sports, creative pursuits, or business. But why do you need to be in flow to perform better, and how do you achieve it?
What is flow?
Flow is an altered state of mind that happens when a person is fully engaged in an activity. It is the mental state where effortless engagement happens, and every impossible thing becomes possible.
It was first discovered and researched in the 1970s by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose mission was to find what makes people happy in life. Studying people from various fields of work, he discovered they could find satisfaction by accomplishing an activity they enjoy for the pure pleasure of it, not expecting any external reward such as money.
People in flow are so immersed in a task that time disappears as quickly as external distractions, making it difficult to stop once engaged. “Sometimes, it’s like time is moving slow,” says eight-time Olympic gold medallist Usain Bolt about running while in flow.
Contrary to procrastination, which happens when faced with a situation that provokes negative emotions, such as not feeling skilled enough to accomplish the task, flow triggers positive emotions and a sense of control over one’s abilities.
Fortunately, entering a flow state is not only reserved for elite athletes, writers, or artists. Anyone can become effortlessly engaged in any task, whether it is academic or work-related.
How do you achieve flow?
Flow is achieved when you reach a balance of skills and challenge. The activity should be challenging enough for you but not frustrating to the point that you cannot execute it. If the challenge is too difficult for your present level of skills, feelings of anxiety and distress may arise. On the other hand, if it is too easy for your abilities, you may become bored and distracted.
Peak performance occurs when the difficulty level of the challenge is manageable, and you have the necessary skills to respond to that event. Like anything, the more practice and experience you have, the more skilled you become at any task.
Flow is a dynamic state, meaning that your experience will evolve as your level of skills increases. Adding additional challenges as your skills improve will keep you in the zone consistently.
The benefits of flow
Reaching flow allows for peak performance and, in turn, positively affects your well-being. Being in this mental state improves learning, skill development, productivity, and creativity, which leads to feelings of fulfillment and happiness.
Entering flow gives your brain constant hits of dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure and motivation. Your brain’s reward system triggers your intrinsic motivation towards a specific activity, increasing engagement and performance.
Once in flow, you are no longer driven by external pressures but rather by your inner state of mind. But how do you consistently achieve this state of effortless performance so you can feel and perform your best every day?
How do you experience flow?
Flow is still a complex state of mind under study, and no formula fits all. As it can cover a wide range of fields, from creative pursuits to education, sports, and the workplace, experiencing flow can be different from one person to another. There is also no magic pill to enter flow instantly. It can generally take 10 to 15 minutes of focused attention on a specific task to enter flow.
But there are a few general guidelines to make achieving flow easier, whatever activity you are pursuing:
“I don’t really want to have access to the internet every time when I’m bored,” said director Christopher Nolan in a 2020 interview about being distractible. “I do a lot of my best thinking in those kind of in-between moments that people now fill with online activity, so it benefits me.”
One of the movie industry’s best filmmakers, Nolan’s creative achievements illustrate how deeply beneficial it is for the mind to cancel irrelevant digital noise.
With flow being an inner state of mind, you must turn your attention inward and tune out all unnecessary external distractions. Simple things like switching off your electronic devices, wearing noise-canceling headphones, and finding a quiet time and space are necessary to activate the first steps to reaching flow.
Practice meditation and mindfulness
Once the outer world is tuned out, your inner world must also be perfectly aligned to experience flow easily. Mindfulness practices have been proven to improve performance and mental health. Meditation on a regular basis can also be a powerful tool to shut down the mind chatter you may experience.
Set clear goals
To enter that zone of effortless performance, you must have clear goals in mind so your brain knows it requires specific responses for a particular task. By setting goals, you are getting your brain familiar with the process it has to go through to reach the end.
Create a ritual
Much like setting goals, having a ritual or routine prepares your mind for the specific task you want to achieve. The mind understands patterns through repetitive actions, so each time you execute the same thing before your activity, it will automatically prepare you for the task to come.
Choose an enjoyable career
“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,” says six-time NBA champion Michael Jordan about work.
Michael Jordan could enter the zone by doing what he loved and also working hard to become increasingly skilled throughout his career. Just as the basketball court was Jordan’s peaceful place, you must find the peaceful place that allows you to practice your skills while enjoying what you do.
Growing with the flow
Ultimately, reaching flow is about consistently meeting the sweet spot between your abilities and the difficulty level of the challenge you face.
The frequency at which an individual experiences flow positively affects emotions, productivity, creativity, and feelings of accomplishment. It is much easier to choose a path you are passionate about so you can develop your skills while enjoying what you do every day.
Just think of an activity you are quite skilled at and love doing. Then, think of ways to incorporate it into your daily life. Now live your life to your full potential, and grow with it.