Performance excellence is a universal human pursuit. No matter where we come from or what our IQ is, we all strive to be our best. But not all of us arrive at self-mastery.
I have been a performer in the top 5% for the majority of my adult life. However, my performance plummeted in all areas of my life when I fell into the depths of burnout and frazzle and lost access to my best self.
But what are the two degrees of separation between our ability to perform a task beautifully with a deep sense of joy as opposed to expending all of our energy without arriving at a successful outcome?
Flow is the term that describes the state in which we can perform and feel our absolute best.
The term was coined by Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihályi, who in the early 1970’s began the quest of unpacking the characteristics of the state that allows us to perform at the utmost of our ability. Dr. Csikszentmihályi’s work launched a massive, global effort to understand how we can access the super powers that have allowed fellow humans to accomplish the impossible. More recently, neuroimaging techniques have lent us incredible insights regarding the state of flow, such as knowledge of the specific alterations in brain function that occur with this desirable performance state of being.
What is flow?
Flow is a positive state in which we are able to perform a task at hand at optimal levels while also feeling a deep sense of happiness and joy. It has been described as “the sweet spot” or being “in the zone” where we are completely enamored and engrossed in the task at hand and experience an extreme sense of heightened awareness, so much so, that we often lose track of time.
When we find ourselves in flow, we are highly-focused, exceptionally creative, and feel a deep sense of fulfillment and satisfaction.
Research, which includes the use of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), has revealed that the part of our brain—the dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex—associated with the voice of doubt within us shuts down when we are in flow. That means that we are free to make decisions and access our creativity and innovation without having to waste any energy quieting the inner critic within us. We also know that the state of flow is associated with several pleasure-inducing neurochemicals, such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin.
The benefits of flow.
Being in the state of flow appears to have an incredible impact. We can:
- Learn twice as fast.
- Solve problems more effectively.
- Access solutions that we don’t have access to under normal circumstances.
In fact, research has shown that top executives are 500% more productive when in flow.
As we go through the mundane details of our daily existence, we may not often consider our ability to perform in a similar fashion to iconic athletes like Magic Johnson, But in actual fact, we are physiologically just as capable of doing what Roger Bannister did in 1954 when he broke the “four-minute-barrier”—running a mile in just under four minutes. Until Roger defeated that barrier, running a mile in under four minutes was not considered humanly possible.
Functioning at this exceptional level of competency and ability means we can not only accomplish whatever we set our minds to, but also that we can have more time for things that matter in life, like our family.
Tips on cultivating flow states
So, if all of us are capable of entering a state that has allowed some of us to conquer the 29,035-foot summit of Mount Everest, how do we enter this state of flow? A large number of scientists around the world have developed lists of the essential components of flow and suggestions on shortcuts that we can practice to become better at entering the state of flow. These methods can be personal, environmental, and/or social.
But here are some simple every day ways you and I can take advantage of the state of human performance excellence known as flow, backed up by scientific research and my own humble experience.
- Practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the conscious decision of choosing what we focus on. Whether we are Michelangelo chiseling the masterpiece David out of marble, or we are a teacher giving a long division lesson to fourth graders, mastering the art of quieting thoughts that distract and dilute our attention is a very effective way of increasing our ability to experience conscious, focused attention. The more often and the more consistently we practice quieting our thoughts, one minute at a time, the more competent we become at being able to access the present moment instantly.
- Practice setting clear goals and priorities for both the smallest and largest pursuits of your existence.
Get into the habit of creating intention for everything in your life—your day, your work, your role as a parent. If we don’t have a specific destination for any part of our lives, we will get nowhere specific. A razor-blade-focus on our goals is critical in activating the parts of our brain that are involved with excellence and peak performance.
- Practice consistently aligning your skills to your endeavors in all work and life tasks.
If you ask me to play the guitar solo from Jimi Hendrix’s classic song, Voodoo Child, I will absolutely fail miserably. I don’t have much skill in playing the guitar. If we want to have more moments of peak performance in our life, it is important that we do not allow a desire for external approval to dissuade us and take us off course from our true path. For example, we may want to please our parents by following their chosen career path of practicing law, but if we happen to be Michelangelo, our incredible artistry would be wasted in law school, and we would be miserable!
We need to be really honest with ourselves and brave enough to take an active role in recognizing what jobs match our current skills and what skills we need to become better at. Flow can only be achieved when our skills are fully developed and utilized, so that we can continuously and effectively overcome challenges associated with a job or endeavor.
- Commit to actively practicing positive states of mental activity.
Our built-in negative bias is an essential part of life and what has kept us alive for millions of years. However, it is this same conditioned way of negative thinking that short circuits our metabolic energy and shuts down the parts of our brain where creativity and innovation come from. We often don’t know how to bypass our negative bias, or we are too busy to do so. Starting each day with just five minutes of listing what you are grateful for in a notebook or journal can do wonders for allowing you to shift into a positive state, which is a potent precursor for instilling an internal path to the magical space of flow.
- Do what you love and love what you do.
In this fast-paced, competitive era that we live in, we forget the importance of doing what we are truly passionate about. Choosing to align our best skills with something that truly excites us and that also makes a positive contribution to the world we live in is a great way to get closer to what Dr. Csikszentmihályi described as the “optimal experience” in life: when our abilities are matched with what we love, what we are best at, and what makes a difference in the world.
Although we tend to look for happiness in checking off endless lists of status quo expectations, it appears that not much can top the immense joy we experience when we can access the powerful, intrinsic state of flow in ourselves – When we do what we use our best skills doing what we are most passionate about, while making a positive contribution to the world, while we are at it!
Unlike the adrenaline rush of winning an award, or getting any external approval, the state of flow represents our ultimate ability to be in control regulate our internal state and channel it toward realizing our smaller and larger noble pursuits.
We cannot underestimate the happiness that comes from human touch, teamwork, or any other source of happiness dependent on external sources.
But the happiness that results from our own flow is the only one that is sustainable, 100% within our control, and invaluable in reinforcing the intrinsic muscle of self-worth that forms the building blocks to our own self-actualization.