Being “In The Zone”: Living Life in FLOW
In the zone is a term we often hear in sport to describe an athlete who is completely focused and performing at a high level. They are able to block out distractions around them and devote all their attention to the task at hand. It may be running a 100m race on the track or completing a complex gymnastics routine. When an athlete is “in the zone” they are doing their best, possibly exceeding expectations.
What is a Flow State?
The phrase ‘in the zone’ derives from what is referred to as a ‘flow’ state, a term coined by the psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. He studied the work of artists, interested to know how they are able to maintain their concentration for hours, weeks or months while they complete a single work. What he found is that for the painters he studied, the ‘doing’ of their art was in itself highly rewarding – not just the finished piece. They were completely immersed in the process of creating, rather than simply doing it because they were motivated by having the completed article in front of them.
Most of us will have had a similar experience in some aspect of life. When we were so absorbed in what we were doing, time just flew, and we didn’t notice the many things around us that could have distracted our attention. The key element is that we are engaged in the process for the sake of the activity itself, not merely the outcome, any reward for completing, it or other external pressures. We are doing it because we ‘like’ and want to do it.
Essentially, we are ‘being’ not ‘doing’.
We can experience flow in many aspects of life. We may find flow in physical activity, dance, socialising, writing, dancing, cooking, gaming, or sex. We can also find it in our work. In fact, within our work, the more we experience flow, the more likely we are to feel fulfilled by what we do.
Not every aspect of our work will enable us to be in flow. Personally, I find that I’m in flow every time I’m coaching a client, delivering a training workshop or being on a stage speaking. I seldom feel in flow when I’m doing admin tasks, like responding to emails or doing accounting!
Flow and Fulfilment
Feeling a sense of purpose in the things we do is a component of happiness and fulfilment. We feel purpose when there is meaning in what we do. Sometimes, we need to dig a little below the surface to find and understand the meaning in what we do. Once we discover the meaning, we are more likely to experience flow when we are doing something. Essentially uncovering the ‘why?’ underpinning our work, either individually, for our teams or as an organisation.
When people don’t fully grasp the ‘why?’ there is less energy and less commitment, and performance suffers as a result.
Leadership and Flow
As leaders, once we understand our purpose (and that of the organisation we work within) we are more likely to feel flow in our work. We can help the people we lead feel more flow by effectively communicating purpose and bringing them together to work cohesively towards it. People generally feel more committed when they can connect with a purpose and have a role in making it happen.
Another way as a leader that you can get the most out of your team is by designing work to be more enjoyable, so people are motivated by the intrinsic rewards of the work. This may involve re-engineering how things are done or better understanding your team members as individuals, so you can map activities out in a way that they are doing the parts of the work they find most fulfilling.
Authenticity is a key trait of great leaders, and in being ‘authentic’ leaders are what Csikszentmihalyi refers to as ‘autotelic’. This means having a curiosity, an openness and a drive to find the intrinsic rewards of their work motivating.
Flow Outside of Work
For a wider sense of fulfilment in life, it is important to identify the things that enable us to feel flow outside of our work. One way of doing this is by keeping a journal. In mine, I ask myself the question every night before bed ‘when did you feel flow today?’ This reflection has enabled me to identify what activities induce a flow state for me – such as cooking a nice, healthy meal for dinner, a yoga session or going out for a run. The days when I have experienced more flow are almost without exception the ones inch which I feel most joy and fulfilment in life. Using this knowledge, I consciously design each day to include multiple activities, work and non-work, that give me that feeling of flow.
Finding Your Flow: Taking this Forwards
Identify the activities inside and outside of work that find you in a flow state – where you are so absorbed in what you are doing that time flies and you enjoy the activity for what it is, not the outcome.
Build your working day and your time outside of work to encompass more flow inducing activities.