It’s easy to get "in the zone" when you’re doing something you enjoy. Whether it’s a hobby or work task, when you’re in flow -- the mental state of optimal performance -- you tend not to see anything else, but notice everything. Yes, it’s weird.
I remember being in this state of alertness the first time I got shot (yup, the first time): actions and perceptions slowed and awareness increased. Surrounding teammates seemed to move quickly while I moved slowly -- come to think of it, maybe that’s why I was the only one shot (that’s a joke).
The state of flow is indicative of a growth mindset, and if companies want to reach levels of optimal performance, they need to build a culture where flow overflows, where employees are pulled into work because they want to work rather than pushed because they feel they have to.
Sound impossible? It isn’t.
In fact, there are specific criteria that determine flow and, to my surprise, they don’t include alcohol (that’s another joke). Here are three characteristics of flow to consider before approaching your next task:
1. Clear goals
With clarity comes certainty in knowing what success looks like. When you have a clear picture of the ideal end state, it’s easier to make course corrections along the way when you get off track. Clarity forces your attention to be laser-like.
The famous Gorilla experiment is a perfect example. Participants were asked to watch a video clip of four people and count how many times a ball was passed between them. At the end of the clip they were asked if they noticed anything out of the ordinary -- such as, say, a gorilla? Surprisingly, nobody noticed a large furry animal completely out of his habitat because they were so focused on the goal of counting.
The takeaway here is this: When your mind has a clear goal, your focus becomes so acute to the extent that nothing else matters, and all you’re left with is the present.
2. Immediate feedback
The advantage of receiving feedback in the now is that it keeps your attention in the now, thus allowing you to stay focused on your task without letting it wander. With feedback being immediate, you can make course corrections more easily and rapidly.
3. A balance of challenge to skill
When you watch an entertaining movie, your attention is queued because you don’t know what’s going to happen next. You’re in the moment, your eyes are as large as saucers and your heart rate is elevated because there’s a degree of uncertainty in the moment. That uncertainty keeps your attention because you know that resolution is right around the corner.
Conversely, when you already know what’s coming next, how much attention do you pay to the present? Not much. That’s the power of a balanced challenge to skill ratio.
Stephen Kotler, in his book The Rise of Superman, cites how if a task is too challenging for your skill level then you can feel overwhelmed, stressed and just give up. But if there's not enough complexity, you get bored. The secret is in balance -- much like anything in life.
Finding flow isn’t easy -- it’s what separates ordinary performance from extra-ordinary. What will challenge you today?