Updated: Apr 10, 2020
Have you ever felt that nothing seems to matter when you’re engaged in your activity and experiencing peak performance? You’re on ‘autopilot’ or you’re ‘in the zone?’ Perhaps you’ve heard others say they’re ‘at one with the music?’ Any idea what it all means, how you feel, and how you get there?
The article describes what ‘flow’ is, why it is important and how you can attain this desirable psychological state, which enables individuals to reach their full potential with enjoyment. It describes ways to relieve the stress and boredom in activities and importantly feel energized, focused and in control. You may have experienced ‘flow’ as a fleeting moment, but find out how you can experience the state more consistently.
‘Flow’ is a state of mind that enables optimal performance. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) defines it as ‘the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter’. When ‘flow’ is experienced, individuals report that time flies, whilst others feel under no pressure to make the best decisions with time in abundance. Everything falls into place. Tasks are effortless and challenges are exciting and enjoyable. There’s a sense of ease and comfort. It’s almost as if you’re at one with yourself and completely immersed in the activity and in pursuit of your goals. You feel a sense of power and confidence and any concerns and negative thoughts have vanished into the abyss. Sounds like a fairy-tale, yet the state does exist and many have reported being able to tap into the zone. However, consistently being in a state of flow seems to escape many who strive to replicate the experience.
So how does one get there on a more consistent basis?
1. The importance of autotelic motivation. Get involved in activities that you find truly enjoyable and exciting. Decide what it is you’re looking to achieve and set your goals so that you can relate to them. Make them self-chosen and self-directed; autotelic motivation will elicit a sense of pleasure, joy and satisfaction.
2. The challenge-skills balance. Don’t be afraid of extending the challenge a little beyond your comfort zone; be comfortable with a bit of discomfort, though be aware that extending the challenge to a level which is unrealistically achievable, will likely result in the onset of anxiety.
Allow for a broader perspective, rather than narrowing your focus with no degree of error. Accepting that some adjustment may be necessary will alleviate the frustration that comes from fixed mind-sets, and allow you to feel in control without needing to exert control.
Be wary of activities that become monotonous. These will likely result in boredom setting in. And when some activities may seem satisfying and relaxing, such as opting for the park bench for a whole afternoon, after some length of time even this may become just as unpleasant as extending yourself into the anxiety zone; step onto the effort ladder.
Finding that balance along the channel is achieved through constantly tweaking and adjusting the challenge in line with your skill.
Fig1. Flow Channel
3. Belief .Believing in yourself will help you face any challenge with confidence. Muhammad Ali once said “It is the lack of faith that makes people afraid of meeting challenges and I believed in myself.”
4. Feedback and planning. When things go well recognize what worked well. Use your experience to focus on successful past achievements to help you in your preparation and planning for the next activity, event or competition.
5. Arousal awareness. Are you the type of person who fires up before an event or activity? Does it facilitate your performance? Or are you someone that needs complete silence and calm. If you’re the type that performs best when psyched up, find ways to energise yourself just before the activity. You may be one that uses high tempo music with positive lyrics to fire you up, or someone who sets about doing star jumps on the spot. Whatever it is that gets you going, engage in the activity. If you’re one that needs calm, take yourself away from others and chaos. Breathing exercises, calming tunes and a few moments solitude can find you relaxing.
6. Time-out. Challenge and focus over long periods of time can result in a sudden realisation of tiredness after the event, despite the effortless state of euphoria experienced in ‘flow’. Like a battery that starts out fully charged, the mind and body needs recharging when energy stores are utilized and depleted. Finding time to relax and refuel, will reenergise and allow you to set out on your next challenge with positivity, confidence and excitement. In addition, find time to socialise and enjoy the company of others with positive interactions. Find social engagements and interests that take you completely away from your sport or activity to allow a complete break and rest.
‘Flow’ may seem hard to get hold of, and it may be a struggle to consistently replicate the feelings of euphoria and satisfaction ‘when nothing else seems to matter’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). But putting into motion the above, will lead you to live life with enjoyment, face frustrations with less anxiety and dullness, and help you to dip into that channel more regularly so that you are completely immersed in the moment.
Reference: Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow. The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York. Harper and Row.