The runner’s high. “Wired in.” Bringing your “A” game. Across sports, business, gaming, the arts, top players seek “the zone,” operating at peak capacity. It’s a phenomenon across cultures and throughout history. In this heightened state of intense focus yet relaxation, everything becomes effortless, intensely pleasurable, most effective. Time may seem to slow down. We’re absorbed in the present, not thinking of results. The more we can perform at this level, the more successful we are. How can we optimize this capacity?
Find your zone
Step one is to recognize the experience. We’ve all had glimpses of being in the zone. Think back. Pinpoint your peak experiences. What do you most enjoy doing? What are you best at? What’s most effortless, fulfilling for you?
Peak experiences occur most often when you’re doing something you’re very good at and done many times before. They happen when you’re active, doing something you’re passionate about and that’s challenging. Can you remember times when running, cycling, playing golf or tennis when you felt in “the flow”? Or perhaps your niche is making presentations, writing, or other creative activity, organizing teams, or developing a business plan? When you’re highly skilled and experienced at an activity that’s natural for you, you can easily slip into running on autopilot, acting without acting. The nervous system myelin pathways are so established the subconscious mind takes over.
The “autotelic personality,” one conducive to peak experiences, has been described as the person who prefers high-action-opportunity, high skills situations that stimulate them and encourage growth. In such high challenge, high skills situations people are most likely to enter the “flow” state. Entrepreneurs are autotelic personalities. Naturally creative, they thrive on challenge, risk, growth.
Identify your peak experiences. The more you’re aware of your zone, the easier it is to cultivate.
Discover your personal triggers
Now that you’ve pinpointed the experience, consider what helps you achieve it. Each person is unique. Consider your environment. Some people like a very orderly, structured atmosphere. Others thrive on lively chaos. What makes you tick?
Consider your circadian rhythms. Are you a night owl, coming alive as the day grows? Or a morning person, doing your best when fresh and awake? Take note of when you tend to have peak experiences. You want to recreate them.
What inspires you? Maybe you thrive on listening to music, surrounding yourself with natural beauty. Perhaps listening to motivational speakers, inspiring quotes or success stories elevates you. Visualization techniques - mentally seeing your goals - may help. You want to find what best moves you into that sweet spot.
Being in the zone is a mind-body experience. Both are involved. It’s a state of synchronicity between inner and outer. Find what helps you move into the flow. Are you best when well rested? Does activity, getting the endorphins moving, facilitate flow? Does caffeine help or hinder?
A state of flow occurs most naturally when both our skill level and the level of challenge of the activity are high. If our skill and the challenge level are both low, apathy results. When our skill exceeds the challenge level, boredom ensues. A challenge higher than our perceived skill results in anxiety. High and well matched skills and challenges promote flow.
Promote group flow
Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, the University of Chicago psychologist, in his book “Good Business: Leadership, Flow and the Making of Meaning” identifies three factors for stimulating “group flow” in the workplace: clear goals, immediate feedback, and a balance between opportunity and capacity. He applied these methods with Swedish police officers and found improved morale, greater happiness and increased performance.
If a worker’s job goals are not clear, flow is impaired. The worker must see how his task fits in with the larger organization plan. Similarly if job feedback is not immediate, the worker may lose motivation, restricting flow. When opportunity and capacity are well matched - high levels of both skill and challenge - flow is fostered.
To encourage group flow, create a lively, supportive workplace environment. Challenge, motivation, and group “gaming” type activities such as brainstorming and group problem solving in a positive emotional environment lead to “growth towards complexity,” finding work meaningful and fulfilling, which is a hallmark of group flow.