Remember high school and getting so absorbed in math you’d forget about pizza takeaways in the refrigerator? Or your stellar run at the tennis club last Tuesday—your hits were near-perfect and you won in straight sets. What about when you finished that sci-fi novel in 10 hours straight? All of these instances have one thing in common—you were what psychologists call “in the zone.”
Famed psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, currently Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University in California, described this state of mind as “flow.” He found in his research on elite artists, scientists and athletes that they routinely experienced this state. According to Csikszentmihalyi, when one experiences flow, they are going through a state of intense focus and concentration.
Csikszentmihalyi has appeared on TED. He has dug into the concept of flow in books, such as Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention. “When you are in the zone it would take something momentous, like a fire alarm going off, to divert your attention,” says Joan Kingsley, psychotherapist and author of The Fear-Free Organization: Vital Insights from Neuroscience to Transform your Business Culture.
While some can get into the zone easily, others struggle. You may experience a flow-like state during enjoyable tasks, such as playing the cello, but not during others, such as cleaning the toilet pot. Achieving a state of flow in daily life is not a do-or-die objective, but if you learn to achieve it for most of the tasks, it can definitely make life more rewarding.
“In the relaxed state of flow, breakthrough thinking occurs,” says Aimee Bernstein, psychotherapist and author of Stress Less Achieve More. “Performance is elevated, and you know exactly what to say, for example to your boss or girlfriend, without having to think about it.”
But it’s hard to achieve flow. We live in a turbulent world, and are forever consumed with the troubles of our personal and professional lives. Social media and information overload only make things worse.
However, with practice and discipline, you can learn to attain flow at will. Here are some practical suggestions:
Find the right environment: Different settings inspire different kinds of people to be creative. “Some people need quiet, some people are inspired by music, and some people work well in chaotic environments,” says Kingsley. Give some thought to what kind of setting is most likely to get you in the zone. Keep experimenting until you find what works for you best.
Challenge yourself: You need to raise the bar for yourself in order to achieve flow. “If you undertake an activity well below your skill level, you’re likely to be bored by it,” says psychotherapist Jim Hjort. An easy way to incorporate more challenge in life is to try and jump to the next level of your favorite activity. Been running 10 miles for the past year? How about aiming for 15 miles when you hit the tracks next?
Shut out distractions: External distractions can prevent you from getting into the zone. Sketching the design for the new client’s dining table? Perhaps, move to a quiet little corner in the office. Moreover, train yourself to be attentive. Workplace psychologist Christine M Allen, says, “If your mind does wander from the moment, gently notice this and bring your attention back to the activity at hand and to the present.”
Appreciate details: If you really want to lose yourself in an activity, you will have to learn to appreciate its smallest nuances. “Doing it itself is the reward. Fall in love with the activity,” says psychologist William Braun. “Love it for doing it, not doing it well, or doing it like someone else does it.”
If you’ve just begun playing the guitar, be assured you’re not going to become Jimi Hendrix in a week. Take your time—enjoy fiddling with the strings, play random notes, and listen attentively to your tutor. In a nutshell: enjoy your practice.
Be prepared: Think you can nail the office presentation by just going over your notes once? Think again. It’s quite unlikely you will feel in the zone during the meeting if you haven’t practiced the presentation at least five or six times in front of a demo audience. Preparation is crucial.
“For athletes or musicians this could mean 10,000 hours of practice before they can easily slip into flow,” says Kingsley. “For writers, this means doing their research. For chefs, reading a recipe over and over to make sure they understand all the steps.”
Not been feeling in the zone during your daily swimming sessions? Learn from these tips and get ready to dive into that pool.