Being in the Zone: Not as Elusive as You Might Think

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

The name Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi does not flow effortlessly off the tongue, yet this brilliant cognitive scientist was the individual who clearly defined the zone (a.k.a. FLOW).  “The Zone” is the spot in which an individual performs to their greatest potential. Tasks feel effortless. Results seem to simply fall into place. Csikszentmihalyi defined 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.”

Sounds pretty cool, huh? The difficulty lies in the fact that once an individual strives to find the zone, it seems to become an even more elusive encounter. Rather than fighting to find this enigmatic state, follow these few pointers and lead yourself to greater focus and energy in your tasks ahead:

1. Immerse yourself in activities which you truly enjoy. Flow states are most readily found when participating in tasks filled with personal interest, joy and satisfaction. Intrinsic motivation lends itself very well to feelings of comfort and euphoria. Do not confuse laziness with the zone. Although many consider sinking effortlessly into the couch as a source of great comfort and satisfaction, the truth is that boredom feels every bit as uncomfortable as anxiety. After reading this article, get up and find an intriguing task which puts your skills to the test.

ZONE

2. It’s all about challenge. The zone is experienced when challenge meets skill. If the challenge is too low for your current skill level, uncomfortable boredom starts to creep in as the natural result. If the challenge is too high for your current skill level, anxiety starts to taint the experience. The middle spot (shown in blue above) is the zone, where skill and challenge meet to create a highly successful and seemingly effortless sensation.

If boredom starts to set in, it’s time to elevate your expectations…

  • refine the goal/target – mental stimulation
  • pick up the pace – mental/physical stimulation

If anxiety starts to creep in and you truly want to be a high performer, do NOT lower expectations…

  • embrace the challenge – this allows an individual to accept the difficulty of the task and forge ahead with focused effort
  • a solid exhale is key – this encourages the body to relax and find its natural rhythm while slowing down mental processing to meet the task at hand

3. Perspective widens the zone. Expect a bit of discomfort along the way. A little discomfort means you are teetering on the edge of the zone. Within seconds you may find yourself well within it’s comforting grasp. To the contrary, a perfectionist approach will only narrow the zone, making it an even more elusive and frustrating place to find.

4. Take a break. Although the zone may feel like an effortless and euphoric place to experience challenges, there is still a cost associated with this type of performance. Under-recovery is the enemy of solid effort and effective long-term performance. Keep in mind the importance of perspective (see #3) and learn to stretch personal boundaries for boredom as well. Effective recovery allows even the highest performers to chase challenges with renewed energy, intensity and vigor while escaping the limitations of extreme anxiety levels along the way.

Rather than searching for the elusive zone which will only send it fleeting away, seek out thrilling experiences and attempt to embrace the discomfort within them. The road to success is guaranteed to be a bit bumpy, so why not strive to make it more enjoyable and rewarding by seeking out meaningful challenges along the way?

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