by Wendy Barta
Have you ever felt like a ninja at work? Like you moved effortlessly making all the right decisions, saying all the right things at exactly the right time, closing a big deal, streaming inspired work products under tight deadlines without breaking stride or breaking a sweat? In fact you may have felt like it was an out of body experience where you didn't feel fatigued, distracted or even hungry as you lost yourself in the creative elements of the work.
Elite athletes frequently experience this same state known as "The Zone" or a Flow state. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a Hungarian professor of psychology, is the architect of the notion of Flow, a mental state in which a person is so intensely focused and fully engaged in the process or action that they become completely absorbed under conditions where a high level of acquired skill meets an equally high level of challenge. When athletes achieve Flow, they lose their sense of self, are extremely focused and accomplish phenomenal feats of endurance or performance. They achieve this elite performance under circumstances of extreme risk or challenge that for normal individuals may be registered as a threat and would likely cause a defensive reaction or retreat. Why do they see it differently?
Flow states are also known to be achieved in creative endeavors such as music composition or in computer coding, and yes, also in the life of a business ninja. So if it isn't the heart pounding effect of climbing an alpine peak in the Tour de France, the floating, rhythmic cadence of the elite runner or the extreme risk of slack lining across a deep crevasse that is the catalyst for Flow, then just what is it that allows us to elicit a Flow state and achieve our peak performance?
There are two fundamental preconditions to Flow experiences. The first precondition is that there is a perceived balance between the challenge at hand and the skills the individual brings to the challenge. (1)
We must achieve a level of proficiency, which takes practice and experience, for what we are trying to do. This creates a feeling of confidence that allows us to avoid perceiving the challenge as a threat and helps us to effortlessly make connections for quick and creative output. In order to sustain Flow, a consistent increase in the degree of challenge or added risk over time is required as well as the acquisition of new skills or proficiency to match it. The second precondition is discovering inherent pleasure in the endeavor itself. We have to like what we do to achieve Flow. Csíkszentmihályi suggests that our everyday challenges or opportunities seldom meet these conditions and thus achieving Flow regularly doesn't just happen. Arguably, we could achieve Flow states and the benefits of being in Flow more frequently if we were intentional about creating the right conditions for them to occur.
When we have achieved the two preconditions for Flow, understanding how our brains work for us and against us and what we can do to regulate cognitive states are essential to an intentional achievement of Flow. The mental state that is created during flow involves shifting the "work load" across complex neural networks that span multiple important parts of the brain, which allows our pre-frontal cortex, a problem solving center, to become free from distracting or disengaging input from the environment or other areas of the brain and focus on the tasks at hand.
We can increase the potential of achieving a state of Flow by continuously improving our skills and capability in targeted areas and by learning to manage our emotional and brain states through better self-awareness, self-regulation and reflection. Building expertise alone is not enough. Mental focus is a critical part of going above and beyond the usual.
1 Optimal Experience: Psychological Studies of Flow in Consciousnessedited by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Isabella Selega Csikszentmihalyi