Being “in the zone”

Have you ever had an instance when you were so immersed in an activity that you forgot about yourself and everything around you? Or perhaps you were so “in the zone” that you felt as if time had slowed down or sped up? This is a phenomenon in Psychology that is referred to as “flow.” It is an experience when you are highly engaged and so focused on the activity at hand that you forget about everything around you. This is an experience that many athletes often allude to. Take for example Kobe Bryant who describes what it is like to be in flow or in the zone:

You get in the zone and just try to stay here. You don’t think about your surroundings or what’s going on with the crowd or the team. You’re kind of locked in.

When you get in that zone, it’s just a supreme confidence… things just slow down. You really do not try to focus on what’s going on because you can lose it in a second. You have to really try to stay in the present, and not let anything break that rhythm.

Although this experience is most cited by athletes, it is something that everyone is capable of experiencing and has experienced in the past. Also, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, experiencing this high level of engagement can have a profound impact on the overall quality of your life. Not only can it help you cope with pain and suffering, but it can also make your life more rich, intense, and meaningful. Furthermore, research suggests that flow experiences are associated with increased individual and team performance.

What does flow look and feel like?

According to two of the leading researchers on this topic, Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi (2009), these are the characteristics of flow:

  • Intense focus and concentration on the present moment
  • A merging of action and awareness (Your focus and awareness are on what you are doing. If you are not in flow, you might be cleaning the house, but your focus is on the TV show you watched last night. Alternatively, if you are in flow, you are cleaning the house and your focus is entirely on what you are cleaning).
  • Loss of self-consciousness (You lose a sense of self and are not aware of yourself in that present moment. Your ego is non-existent. You’re not focused on what other people are thinking about you and nor are you focused on how you feel).
  • A sense that one can control one’s actions (It’s not that you feel like if you are in total control, because if you felt that, then you probably were not in flow. According to Csikszentmihalyi, it’s more that the issue of control, or a lack of it, does not even come up. In general, there is a sense that you are capable and can dictate what to do next in the activity).
  • A distortion of time (Either you feel that time has passed slower or faster than normal. You’re not aware of time when you are in flow. However, when you leave the state of flow, you look at the time and often feel as if it passed at a much slower or faster rate than you would have expected)
  • Experience of the activity is intrinsically rewarding (You enjoy the activity and the experience for the sake of it. There might be an end extrinsic goal in mind, but the flow experience itself is intrinsically rewarding).

Generally, when you are in flow, you’re not feeling any particular emotion (largely because of the loss of self-consciousness). However, when you get out of flow, you often feel happy. In his book on creativity and flow, Csikszentmihalyi writes that “in the long run, the more flow we experience in daily life, the more likely we are to feel happy overall” (p. 123). However, whether or not flow in daily life increases happiness largely depends on the activity that is producing flow. The activity must be complex and contribute to some personal, professional, or cultural growth. For example, a flow activity such as playing baseball or chess would lead to increases in happiness (personal growth), but an activity such as gambling would not (no meaningful growth).

How to get into flow.

To enter a state of flow, a few conditions must be met:

  • A balance between the challenge of the activity and the level of skill you have (A task that is too easy for you will leave you bored whereas a task that is too difficult will leave you anxious or uneasy. To enter a state of flow, you must engage in an activity where the challenge of the activity is equal to or slightly greater than your skill level. Of course, challenge is subjective. A professional athlete would find running a mile to be easy whereas I would find it quite challenging. The challenge you engage in should be based on your skill level and vice versa)
  • Clear proximal goals that provide immediate feedback about the progress being made. (think SMART goals here. The SMART goal you select should be challenging as well to meet the criteria of the previous condition. However, the goals you have should also be specific and easy to follow. A goal to “become a better basketball player” will not induce flow, whereas a goal to “make 80% of my free throws” has a better chance).

Practical tips to get into flow.

What I have shared above are the minimum requirements or conditions that must be met to enter a state of flow. However, I wanted to share a few additional suggestions and provide some examples of how you can introduce more flow and engagement into your day to day life.

  1. Have clear and specific goals in mind. As I said before, it is better to be as specific as possible. Try breaking down larger goals into smaller goals. What is the very next step you need to take to achieve your larger goals?
  2. Track your progress and know how well you are doing. Again, you need frame the activity so that it provides you feedback. In some instances, it is simple. When playing basketball, I can easily see how I am doing from moment to moment as I know whether I made or missed a shot. It is harder when I am a creator or inventor of some kind. For example, if I am a music composer, how do I gauge whether or not the combinations of notes I am creating are good or bad? How do I get feedback? In those instances, it is more difficult to get feedback, but the idea is the same. One solution is to internalize your field’s criteria of judgement so that you can give feedback to yourself rather than having to wait to hear from an expert. In other words, try to internalize and learn what other musicians view as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ music. How does your music compare to that? Or, what story is your music trying to convey and is the music you have created successfully doing so?
  3. Balance challenge and skill. An AP math student won’t be able to get into flow doing simple arithmetic whereas a fifth grader wouldn’t be able to get into flow studying Calculus. You have to see where you are at and do something that is equal to or slightly above your skill set. Because you cannot really adjust your skill level in the short-run, try adjusting your challenge level.  Rather than shooting 15 feet away from the basketball hoop, try shooting 10 feet away from the hoop first. With creative pursuits such as writing, composing music, or anything involving creating something from scratch, there is an added difficulty because you have less control. For example, as a blogger, how can I increase the challenge of my writing? Do I type with one hand instead? Not exactly. Perhaps I choose a topic that’s harder to research. When I hit writer’s block, I might tell myself to start off with just writing a paragraph summary rather than an entire page and then expanding the paragraph to a page afterward.
  4. Avoid distractions. Remember that three key symptoms of flow are (1) merging of action and awareness, (2) the loss of self-consciousness, and (3) distortion of time. Distractions can easily disrupt flow and even prevent you from getting into flow in the first place. When trying to get into flow, find a place where you won’t be so easily distracted. Perhaps go to a coffee shop rather than staying at home where your family will keep interrupting you. Disable the clock on your computer so you won’t keep looking at it every five minutes to see how much work you have done. However, distractions, of course, can come in many forms. They can be more serious such as health, family, or financial problems. While you will not have control over all these distractions, try to minimize the ones that you can control. For example, if you live a healthier lifestyle, you will have less personal health-related distractions.

Final words…

When people think about flow or engagement, they often think about momentary experiences. However, I think that we should aim to make it more of a lifestyle. The more engaged you are with each experience and activity, the richer your life will be and the less time you will spend ruminating over painful and difficult aspects of your life. You just won’t have the mental capacity or interest to do so. Furthermore, I think flow is a critical factor in one’s personal and professional development.

Think about it. I hate exercising. However, if I can find a way to induce flow while I’m exercising, I won’t hate it as much (since I won’t be focused on the displeasure of the exercise). When I finish exercising, I’ll feel happiness and satisfaction with the fact that I have exercised. That will help improve both my mental and physical health. Also, it is an endless cycle. Because flow is addictive and intrinsically motivating, the more you experience flow, the more you want to keep experiencing it. This means I’m more likely to keep seeking activities (such as exercise) that will induce flow.




The medicinal effects of engagement

Much of our pain and suffering in life comes from the past or the future. You studied really hard for an exam, but you didn’t get a good grade (problem of the past). You are worried that despite all your efforts, you wont do well on your exam (problem of the future). You’re annoyed at your husband because he disrespected you in front of his family (problem of the past). You’re dreading a visit from your in-laws (problem of the future).

This is not to say that problems in the present do not exist, however, we would save ourselves a lot of stress if we stopped ruminating over past and future problems. Think about it. You stress over an exam before you take it, and you stress about it after you take it. However, for those two hours when you’re actually sitting down and taking the test, how much are you really stressing over it? Not much. Why? Because when you are taking the exam, all you are focusing on is the exam. The exam is difficult and you do not have the mental capacity (or the time) to worry. All you are doing is focusing. In other words, you are engaged.

When you’re so immersed and engaged in an activity physically, cognitively, and/or emotionally that it requires your complete attention, you do not have the mental capacity to focus on your past, future, or even present pains. All you are focused on is the the one thing that you are doing which is demanding so much attention.

What I have learned over time is that focusing intensely and being fully immersed in the thing you are doing in the present moment is an extremely effective way to decrease pain and suffering to the point where I would say it is almost medicinal.

Engagement to Alleviate Pain Symptoms

When you are completely focused on the task at hand or on the event that is going on right now, you are focused completely on the present moment. As a result of this, you cannot be bothered by pains of the past or future. For example, I am not anxious about my presentation next week (a pain of the future) because I’m in the middle of playing a basketball game with my friends and am focused right now only on the game itself. I am not sad about the fact that my friend moved away because I am mid-conversation with her on the phone about a topic that we both are extremely passionate about. If the thing you are doing requires all your mental and possibly even physical energy, you just do not have the mental capacity to be bothered by what happened before or what will happen in the future.

The interesting thing about some pains, however, such as physical pains, is that they are present-oriented pains. For example, my neck is hurting extremely badly right now. My leg is bothering me and it is difficult to walk in the present moment. However, even with pains that are present-oriented, the reason they often become almost unbearable is that they demand our mental attention. We’re focusing on them. The pain is neutral, however, we are making a mental acknowledgement of that pain as unpleasant.

While engagement can not get rid of your pain entirely, it can certainly alleviate some of the symptoms you are having. For example, if your neck is hurting, but you’re in the middle of giving a presentation at work, you’re probably not focusing on it very much during that time period. That’s the beautiful part about engagement. It zaps your energy on the activity you are engaged in at the moment which doesn’t give you enough mental capacity energy to focus on the pain you have.

How to use engagement to decrease pain.

  1. Do something that requires your complete attention. Watching TV or doing something passive not going to work because it does not require your full attention. Even doing something active, such as walking, may not work because it’s passive in terms of mental activity.
  2. Try something challenging. Engagement is usually a result of a balance between the challenge of the activity you are doing and the skill level that you have. This is often referred to as “flow”. When you’re in flow, you’re in the zone. You’re so focused that you even forget about yourself in that very moment. This level or type of engagement can only happen when you do something that challenges you. Challenge yourself too much and you’ll get anxious. Not enough and you will get bored. Find that balance.
  3. Do something that matters. Engagement at work decreases when you feel your work lacks meaning. The same goes for hobbies and other activities – if we feel that they lack meaning, we tend to feel disengaged which will make us focus on our pain more. If we do something that matters, something greater than ourselves, then we will not focus on our own pains.
  4. Engage with other people. I have had instances in the past where I was living by myself and was physically in pain. I was all alone and was getting anxious about my health. I couldn’t stop focusing on my neck pains – it hurt a lot! What made things far worse was that I could not distract myself. TV was not working. I didn’t have any work to keep me occupied (it was a weekend). However, what I found was that when I interacted with someone outside, for those moments, I forgot about my pain. When I got back to my apartment, I still felt the high of that interaction and momentarily felt better. Interactions with others, regardless of whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, can have powerful effects.