Have you ever been so focused on the job in hand that you cease to be aware of things around you?
Have you ever lost track of time when doing something really interesting?
Many Psychologists call that state the ‘Flow’ state.
This concept was originally introduced by Psychologist Mihaily Csikszentmihalyi
Flow is so named because during Csikszentmihalyi’s 1975 interviews several people described their ‘flow’ experiences by using the metaphor of a current carrying them along.
Csikszentmihalyi is a Psychology professor at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California and is the former head of the department of psychology at the University of Chicago. He is noted for his work in the study of Happiness, Creativity and Subjective Well-being. Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, described Csikszentmihalyi as the world’s leading researcher on Positive Psychology.
Although Csikszentmihalyi brought the concept to Western Psychology, he acknowledges that he was not the first to describe the concept of flow.
Buddhists talk about ‘Mindfulness’
Mindfulness is a technique in which a person becomes intentionally aware of his or her thoughts and actions in the present moment, non-judgmentally. It plays a central role in Buddhism, with Right Mindfulness being the seventh element of Noble Eightfold Path, the practice of which is considered a prerequisite for developing insight and wisdom.
The concept of “being in the zone” during an athletic or dramatic performance fits within Csikszentmihalyi’s description of the Flow experience, and theories and applications of “being in the zone” and its relationship with competitive advantage in sport are topics studied in the field of Sport Psychology.
The legendary soccer player Pele described his experience of being in the zone: “I felt a strange calmness. . . a kind of euphoria. I felt I could run all day without tiring, that I could dribble through any of their team or all of them, that I could almost pass through them physically.”
In NLP we talk about uptime – that time when we are totally focused on the moment, when all our conscious thought processes are aligned to the job in hand. The more we are in this state, the better our sensory acuity is.
As Csikszentmihalyi sees it, components of an experience of flow can be specifically defined:
- Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible).
- Concentrating and focusing, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention. When hurtling towards the back of a car which has unexpectedly stopped, you may become aware of dust on the dashboard, or a crack in the windscreen or lots of other seemingly irrelevant details.
- A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.
- Distorted sense of time – the subjective experience of time is altered. It can seem that the split second before you brake and miss the car in front lasts for minutes.
- Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behaviour can be adjusted as needed).
- Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult but you may be able to perform at a much higher level than normal).
- A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
- The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action. When in the flow state, people become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action and awareness merging.
Not all of the above are needed for flow to be experienced.
The Flow State is a state of optimum intrinsic motivation and Csikszentmihalyi theorises that people are most happy when in a state of flow.
Intrinsic motivation can be influenced by external events (see NLP Communication Model) and Csikszentmihalyi suggests that groups can be influenced towards the flow state by:
- Providing creative spatial arrangements – chairs, flipcharts, whiteboards but no tables. This ensures that the group primarily work standing and moving.
- Safe Place – open and honest communication
- Organised working
- Group focus
- Clear goals
- Valuing individual differences and seeing these as opportunity, rather than obstacles.
To perform well as a coach or manager (or in any other field) requires a mix of ‘unconscious competence’ and ‘conscious competence’. The ‘conscious competence’ element of behaviour for a coach or manager is the ability to bring unconscious skills into the conscious and be ‘mindful’ of everything that happens.
Finding a way to access the Flow State, Mindfulness, Uptime or the Zone, (it doesn’t really matter what you call it – it’s all the same state) is really going to help you to increase your performance consistently.
Some techniques to help are: Self Hypnosis, Meditation, Yoga, Martial Arts and Anchoring.