Have you ever heard an interview with a pro athlete when they’re describing being “in the zone”? Things seem to slow down, and their reaction time speeds up. They know precisely what they need to do, and it just seems to happen. The state of flow (being in the zone) can easily be seen in athletes, musicians, actors, or other professions that we can observe. It’s more evident in them than others because they have so much practice being in the state of flow. Most likely, we have
all experienced this in a task that we thoroughly enjoy and are challenged by, and in that moment, we are our most creative and productive selves. If videogames are your thing, you’ve probably felt it quite often. Videogame designers understand the addictive feeling of being in the zone and strategically design the games around this idea. The great thing is that once we learn the nine principles behind this state, we will be able to apply it to our professional life, personal interests, goals, or anything else we so choose.
The state of flow was popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist who has researched this idea for over 20 years. In his book, he paints a picture of flow in this way:
“Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing time, although such experiences can also be enjoyable if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person, there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.”1
For our purposes, we can apply these principles to organizing our mini-goals to build towards our primary goal. Listed below are the 9 principles that, if we adopt, will systematically put us into flow.
Principle 1: Flow inducing goals- These are specific goals set that have a clear path and ending points that ensure you know when you have completed each task.
Principle 2: Effective feedback- Frequently evaluate where you are on the course to your goal so you can make corrections where needed. Clear mini-goals make this possible. The feedback also allows you to understand the overall map to your goal better and to see the future steps more clearly in your head.
Principle 3: Balance between current skills and challenge- This is where the idea of attainable goals comes in. We need to set goals that will challenge us, but that we can still accomplish. Your mini-goals will start off easier at first, and you can increase the challenge as you improve and near your main goal.
Principle 4: Action and awareness merge- When the first three principles are aligned, this one will naturally follow. It gets easier after the first few mini-goals when you begin to become self-aware and competent in what you are doing. The structure behind goals will become second nature, and you will be able to focus more on what you are doing.
Principle 5: Distractions are excluded- As your action and awareness increase, your focus will follow and become much easier to obtain. The more you are aware of what you need to work on to achieve your goal, the more quickly you can recognize distractions and ignore them.
Principle 6: No worry about failure- Our perception changes everything. When we have these mini-goals in place, we learn more about ourselves and our current topic at every little step. If we don’t get something done in the exact amount of time that we thought we would or do something wrong, it doesn’t matter because we learned, and therefore, are better than when we started this journey.
Principle 7: Self-consciousness disappears- Worries about the past and the future disappear because we have become so focused on what we are doing in the present moment.
Principle 8: Time is distorted- People say time flies when you’re having fun. This saying is incredibly accurate when it comes to flow. The scientific name for the state of flow is “transient hypofrontality.” “Transient” indicates it is only for a certain amount of time. “Hypo” means under or less than what is typical. Finally, “frontality” is referring to the prefrontal cortex. This means that when we are in flow, our prefrontal cortex, where our perception of time comes from, is temporarily resting.
Principle 9: Autotelic Activity- This is about enjoying the journey to the goal. You enjoy getting better because you’re getting closer to what you want. You know that the skills you are learning will also make you better in other areas. You may meet interesting people along the way. You get joy from bettering yourself.
When all of these principles are aligned, it is incredibly powerful for your success. They are all actionable principles that we can single out and develop to achieve flow in whatever activity we choose.