I’m sure you’ve all heard the expression about a top athlete ‘being in the zone’ or ‘on fire’ during a game or event when they are just performing way above their already high performing average. It’s a pleasure to watch an ‘unstoppable’ Nadal when he’s in such a state of play, literally hitting every shot with an inexplicable degree of accuracy and force combined. Same for the football player who happens to be having a great day, when everything he does just works like a dream and everyone looks to him to save the day.
You may have even had a glimpse of what that feels like yourself; we sometimes experience it when describing a span of time where everything we are doing seems to come together perfectly and all is ‘in the groove’. That day at work where you punch the air after hitting a deadline after hours of hard work, or putting together a complex jigsaw puzzle after hours at it.
The more modern description is a State of Flow. It is, described by the person who ‘invented’ the concept Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychologist living in the USA who spend years trying to accumulate knowledge and experience from top performers and their description of Flow. In his words, in an interview with Wired magazine, Csíkszentmihályi described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
I can truly say that my work over the past 3 years on seeking to experience Flow has really firmed up my belief that this state exists, and can be clearly experienced as such. Only the other day, I sat down at my home desk in the morning to work on a project that had a short deadline and suddenly I was interrupted by my wife who came in to check on me. It was 10 hours later and I hadn’t moved. Not to get a drink of water, food or to attend the call of nature. I was completely engrossed and delivered an amount of work that would have normally taken a week; and I didn’t even realise it.
That’s all great when it happens, but wouldn’t it be better if we could simply switch it on and turn ourselves into ultimate performers at will? According to Steve Kotler, this is possible. Kotler studied extreme athletes and adventurers to understand what parameters are common in those reaching a state of ultimate performance, or a state of flow, when they carry out life-threatening and hair raising stunts or performances. In his book, The Rise of Superman Kotler explains how extreme athletes are accelerating their flow states to perform better an how people can use the same tactics to accelerate performance in everyday tasks (Wikipedia). This is excellent news to people like me who aim to teach executives how they can take Flow to work. Indeed, friends like Steve Tendon are looking at ways of using flow (he coined the term ‘Tame Flow’) to use it for accelerating processes at work, but thats outside of the individual mind-flow state I reflect on here.
So first, we need to understand what factors are required to bring about this state. According to studies, there are a wide number of factors that may induce a flow state, and all agree that a whole range of factors need to be in play for Flow to happen. However it seems to many that it’s a bit like awaiting for the planets to align, and not exactly conducive to ‘switching it on’ at will. I decided to take a closer look at this from a personal perspective. Csikszentmihalyi characterized nine component states of achieving flow including “challenge-skill balance, merging of action and awareness, immediate and unambiguous feedback, concentration on the task at hand, paradox of control, transformation of time, loss of self-consciousness, and autotelic experience.” To achieve a flow state, a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur. Both skill level and challenge level must be matched and high; if skill and challenge are low and matched, then apathy results.
Reflecting back, I have many accounts both as an athlete or at work where I have been in states of super-performance or hyper-productivity. Thanks to Mikhail I’m starting to understand the nuts and bolts of it and wondered if I could recognise a smaller number of common factors that would increase my predisposition to flow, if not indeed ‘switch it on’ wilfully. These are my personal findings.
I need to be in an environment where you feel safe, familiar and with limited interruptions, in order to focus without worry of ‘attack’ that triggers a flight or fright response that switches flow off. Adrenaline, to me, is not conducive to flow, as some may think when describing the performance of dare devils. For flow to happen I want to be engaged but relaxed, not on edge. The perfect example for me is public speaking. Flow only started to happen when I stopped being petrified on stage. I’ll reflect on that later.
As much as the environment needs to provide the peace of mind of my being there, my emotional state must also be balanced. Whilst it is possible for me to use mindfulness techniques to focus away from destructive emotions; being at peace with yourself, your immediate relations and the outer world will predispose you to a state of flow much more easily than a troubled mind.
I need to find the task or challenge to require mental acuity, intellectual skill, and to be a source of stimulation. It it is too easy a mental challenge, it gets boring and I lose interest quickly. If it is mind boggling to a point that I need to keep looking up information and stopping to research, I lose my state of flow. Building a website is a typical example of a mental challenge that stimulates both my creative and logical brain cells. I’m not trained in web design so if the site requires too much complexity I get fidgety. If it’s all too template driven, I get bored. The issue is that as I enter flow state often, the challenges need to get tougher, so my expertise grows rapidly – far more than if I had to learn it by listening to someone else teach it.
Physical repetitive challenge does not create a sense of flow if there is no mental aspect to it. Running around a track doesn’t do it for me! Running on a cliff-edged trail or in the beauty of the Mont Blanc massive, figuring my way through a tortuous route in a foreign country might get me into a state of flow or at least increase my runners high. However the physical aspect is not necessarily required for flow. I do find, however, that for me to enter into flow, I need to have my body in top tune. The example of where I sat for 10 hours to finish a project was after I had done my 20km morning run and had a nutritive breakfast. If I hadn’t done that I’d probably have broken the state of flow, fidgeting for the excess energy.
Not to be confused with runners high, a flow state in running is different. It is not allowing your mind to wander off but to be mindful of your presence, your body, your heart rate and your sense of self. Akin to ‘staying sharp’ and ‘on the ball’ are expressions that come to mind. Running in an unknown environment usually means I can last far longer than if I had to run through morning traffic to get to work. No need to explain which is more conducive to flow.
If what I am attempting is being done ‘to tick a box’ then too, I find it incongruent with a flow state. For me, the reason or meaning of what I am doing is paramount to achieving flow. I need to have PURPOSE, PASSION & MEANING to be able to enter a flow state and play at a higher level. Psychologists describe this as an Autotelic state, described broadly as follows;
1. Containing its own meaning or purpose.
2. Deriving meaning and purpose from within.
3. Not motivated by anything beyond itself, thematically self-contained.
So challenging me extrinsically with reward is far less likely to induce flow than if I truly believe there is meaning un undertaking the challenge. Simply put, I need to have an intrinsic purpose to perform. Unsurprisingly, asking people “why” they are taking on a challenge really gives insight into how long they will stick to it and their chances of becoming totally engrossed by the effort.
I need to have PURPOSE, PASSION & MEANING to be able to enter a flow state
Setting the stage for Flow
Earlier I gave the example of public speaking as a way to describe, or even trigger flow. I find the most consistent example of getting into flow is my public speaking engagements. I focus on the above factors to ensure that they are as close to where they need to be for me to achieve a higher level of performance and deliver a motivational or educational speech that energises, inspires and amazes the audience. It requires far more than intellect or rhetoric to do this; you need to show passion, drive and purpose if you want them to believe, not just hear what you are saying.
The environment needs to be tested, rehearsed and with as little that can go wrong as possible. Test the AV equipment, rehearse your entry and your exit. Practice until you are sure the environment works for you.
Keep your emotions in check, especially if you can choose to postpone a major emotional issue to after your presentation or performance. Emotion as a fear of public speaking really needs to be addressed or it will make flow impossible.
Make sure the audience is there to listen as well as to challenge you. You need to be able to bring in mental acuity when asked questions. I thrive on awkward questions from the floor and this furthers my mental focus and flow when describing the way I ‘think’ when I take on my major challenges for charity. I use visualisation techniques to further increase my mental acuity and assure myself that I know my subject.
Physically, I need to be fit, healthy and energised to get into flow on stage. I will give a rotten presentation if I am not happy with myself, worried about my appearance, tiredness or energy levels. More often I will have fit in a good run (not excessively tiring) before the presentation.
The reason to me is paramount. I want to convey a message of purpose, meaning and solidarity to the audience and I truly believe in what I am saying. The most common description of my presentations from the audience is that they show PASSION.
For more information about my workshops on flow and public speaking engagements, please get in touch directly.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., Finding Flow, 1997
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row. ISBN 0-06-092043-2
Fullagar, Clive J., and E. Kevin Kelloway. “Flow at work: an experience sampling approach.” Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology 82.3 (2009): 595-615.
S. Kotler The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance (2014) 978-1477800836