What it means to be "in the zone" and how to achieve it more often
Have you ever been so focused and engrossed in a task that everything else around you seemed to blur into the background and you lose a sense of time?
A time when you were performing at your highest level but in an effortless way, almost as if someone else were controlling you?
Perhaps you lost a sense of time or felt a high level of enjoyment. It can be a fleeting moment in time where everything just seems to be clicking and it feels like you can do no wrong.
In sport, this is often referred to as “being in the zone” and is known in the psychological literature as a flow state.
Flow states are not unique to sport, however, and can be experienced when reading, writing, or anything else that engages you in some challenging way.
Overall, flow states are still a big mystery. Yet, there are some things the research can tell us about what they are, and how we might be able to enhance our chances of entering into them.
Characteristics of Flow States
In a recent review of flow states, researchers Norsworthy, Jackson, and Dimmock (2021) summarized what the experience of flow is like into three categories: Absorption, effort-less control, and intrinsic reward.
One of the most defining characteristics of flow states is that we become completely focused on the task at hand. In fact, we become so engrossed that we actually lose our sense of self, or self-consciousness in the process.
Neuroscience has shown through EEG measurements that the brain activity in a flow state is similar to a trance-like meditative state (Katahira et al., 2018) and areas of the brain that control conscious thinking, self-awareness, and conscious skill acquisition/movement are seemingly turned off (Ulrich et al., 2014). This is why people often refer to these states as moments that they were “unconscious”.
Another key characteristic of a flow state is the feeling that it is effortless. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2018) describes this type of effortless control as “the kind you do not have to think about, you’re just doing it” (p. 358).
It is a feeling of being in complete control while simultaneously not having to consciously control your movements, focus, thoughts, or emotions. It very much feels like it flows out of you.
The final aspect that makes up a flow state experience is that it is intrinsically rewarding - they are fun, satisfying, and/or rewarding all by themselves. Researchers found that in these moments of flow participants level’s of arousal (energy levels or levels of stress) have found a perfect balance.
This relates to a sport psychology concept coined by Hanin (2007) called the individual zone of optimal functioning (IZOF) which states that for a given task everyone will have a specific energy level where they perform their best - this is a central aspect of my coaching, is to help you find your IZOF.
How to Enhance Your Chances of Flow States
Based on the same review by Norsworthy, Jackson, and Dimmock (2021) the researchers present some overarching antecedents to flow, which I have broken down into some mental skill techniques and concepts from sport psychology which you can do to enhance your chances of entering into a flow state.
Create small goals
The research is clear that in order to achieve a flow state the task at hand cannot be too easy nor too difficult - it has to be just above your skill level where it is challenging but not discouraging. In sports, this is not typically in our control as we cannot decide who our opponents are or how they perform against us. However, what we can do is create goals that are more within our control that are a bit more challenging and make that our focal point.
Research has shown that making goals based on personal development or exploration, such as “I am going to see how well I can do” tends to translate to flow states better than outcome-type goals. (Norsworthy, Jackson, and Dimmock, 2021)
Inherent in the optimal challenge antecedent is a degree of self-efficacy, or that you have the ability to meet the challenge ahead of you. Utilize your self-talk and build yourself up before you perform and ensure that you truly believe you are up to the task at hand.
Reflect on your why
When in flow states we are highly motivated both for extrinsic reasons (winning, beating your opponent, etc.) and for intrinsic reasons (enjoyment, satisfaction, fulfillment). Before you compete reflect briefly on why you perform, what you enjoy about it, and why you want to put your all into it.
Regulate energy levels
Motivation is connected to energy, in that if we have a high level of motivation we are going to feel energized to accomplish the task. However, if our energy levels are too high that can cause anxiety and worry which do not correlate well with flow states. Finding your IZOF and managing your energy levels through music, breathing, meditation, or visualization can help your chances of finding a flow state.
Mindfulness and attention training
The authors of the review recommended attention training such as meditation or mindfulness exercises for 10-20 minutes daily to help train the mind to achieve a present moment focus.
Some of the apps I recommend to clients are Headspace, Calm, and Insight Timer.
With all of these recommendations on how to improve your chances of flow states, it should be noted that often the harder we try to enter into a state like this the more elusive it becomes. The trance-like state found during moments of flow must be effortless and of a calm, confident, motivated, and engaged energy.
If you follow these recommendations you may or may not enter into a flow state. However, I am confident that you will enjoy what you are doing more and improve your performance - which, as a mental coach, are two of my biggest goals for you.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper & Row.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., Montijo, M. N., & Mouton, A. R. (2018). Flow theory: Optimizing elite performance in the creative realm. In S. I. Pfeiffer, E. Shaunessy-Dedrick, & M. Foley-Nicpon (Eds.), APA handbooks in psychology®. APA handbook of giftedness and talent (pp. 215–229). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/ 0000038-014
Hanin, Y. L. (2007). Emotions and athletic performance: Individual zones of optimal functioning model. In D. Smith & M. Bar-Eli (Eds.), Essential readings in sport and exercise psychology (pp. 55–73). Human Kinetics.
Katahira, K., Yamazaki, Y., Yamaoka, C., Ozaki, H., Nakagawa, S., & Nagata, N. (2018). EEG correlates of the flow state: A combination of increased frontal theta and moderate frontocentral alpha rhythm in the mental arithmetic task. Frontiers in Psychology, 9(1), 300. https://doi .org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00300
Norsworthy, C., Jackson, B., & Dimmock, J. A. (2021). Advancing our understanding of psychological flow: A scoping review of conceptualizations, measurements, and applications. Psychological Bulletin, 147(8), 806–827. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000337
Ulrich, M., Keller, J., & Grön, G. (2016a). Neural signatures of experimentally induced flow experiences identified in a typical fMRI block design with BOLD imaging. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 11(3), 496–507. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsv133