When was a time when you were in the zone? When you were so focused on what you were doing that time felt like it was suspended. This is a psychological term called flow, and it’s defined as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity”. Thanks Wikipedia.
Last night during my weekly Wednesday Hot Power Fusion class (a Hot Yoga class where the heat is cranked up to 105+ degrees) our teacher started talking about flow and being in the zone. I’ll admit, it was one of my least in the zone classes, but it got me thinking about what it means to be in the zone, and what kind of effect it has had on me, and, more importantly, how I can control it.
So let’s start with what it means to be in the zone. Well the definition above is pretty clear; it’s when you’re in a state of energized focus doing something enjoyable. The good thing is that flow can happen at any time. It’s a spike in productivity where you’re determined to get something done and accomplish the task at hand. One important factor that my yoga teacher talked about when she described it, which isn’t in the definition, is that it has to be just challenging enough for you to be involved. I think that this is a really important part of flow, being challenged. If the activity you’re completing is easy, you’re doing it without even thinking about it; that’s not flow. If an activity is too hard and you’re struggling to solve the problem or answer, you’ll break down, and that’s not what flow is about. That element of challenge is necessary in order to get into the zone.
I’ll find myself getting into a flow at work. This is one of the most rewarding times to get into the zone because it means that you’re a) enjoying the work that you’re doing, and b) being challenged enough that you feel like you’re being used to your full potential. I know that when I find a full time job, I’ll want to do something where I can get into the zone quickly and comfortably, because it’ll mean that I’ve found the right job for me.
Another place where I find my flow is the hockey rink. I think in a sense it may be easier for a goalie to get in the zone because we’re constantly on the ice, maybe we’re not always in on the action, but we are constantly focused on the play that is going on in front of us. I believe that a change of scenery, so moving from the bench, to the ice, really does impact a players zone. Some are better at switching on and off than others, and the athletes who can do that are the ones who can succeed.
Being in the zone is an amazing feeling because I’m fully utilized and I feel extremely productive. It gives me such a huge boost of confidence in what I’ve done because often the result of flow is a great one. It can result in a completed essay, a finished test, a shutout during a game, or completing a PowerPoint for a big presentation at work. Regardless of where flow happens you’re likely to see a good result.
The most challenging part of flow is being able to control it, and that’s where mental practice comes into play. Both of my parents are world class rifle shooters, and have competed in the Olympics (mom in ’88, and dad in ’92 and ’96). They didn’t just get there because they were good, but they got there because they had a strong mental mindset that carried them through their competitions. A rifle competition is set up so that you have 10 shots per target, and a total of six targets, so 60 shots in total during a competition. The best score you can get on a shot is a 10.9, for a best score of 109 per target. After every single shot, you have to reload, therefore putting you out of position and out of focus. The shooters who don’t do so well aren’t just unable to get back into position, but they’re unable to consistently get back into that mental state that you need to be able to hit your shot. That mental piece is so important, and it will make or break any competition.
It’s more important for athletes to be able to get into the zone, blocking out all distractions and focusing on the task at hand. A great example is when a basketball player has to take a free throw. In the NCAA, fans are constantly screaming and taunting the players to try and get them to falter, and the great players are the ones who are able to set aside their distractions and focus on the task at hand.
So why did I decided to write an entire blog on flow? Because it’s a tool to help you become successful in everything you do. It’s also a way for you to be able to determine if you’re enjoying what you’re doing. Flow and mental focus are extremely similar, and two human traits that I am very interested in. The more I coach, the more I realize that good athletes are talented and are strong and athletic, but great athletes are the ones who are not only physically strong, but also mentally strong. In my mind, coaching needs to have more of mental training, which doesn’t mean toughen the kids up by yelling at them, it means challenging them and forcing them to think about what they’re doing.
If you feel yourself entering the zone often, try to remember what triggered it; maybe it was a certain action, or a music playlist that helped you get to that state of focus. Regardless of what is was, keep it in mind moving forward and see how it will impact your life and what you do.