Being "in the zone" isn't just limited to sports. Artists, authors, musicians, engineers, composers, all enter the paradox where time seems to stand still...and yet it seems to be over in an instant...there's a sense of relaxation but it's also intense...you have a sense of time but lose track fully immersed in deep and meaningful "work."
Although flow experiences have been around for thousands of years, it was in the 1970s and 1980s that Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied and helped popularize the modern concept of flow as a highly focused mental state conducive to productivity. In these years of academic study, he was fascinated with creatives who were completely engaged in "optimal experience." But what drew him to his work originally was growing up in post-war years observing people who appeared "happy" but who had lost virtually everything that would usually be perceived as security and peace of mind.
He explored how the addition of material resources contributed to happiness, or NOT...and, in particular, was able to substantiate through his research that after a certain basic point, beyond the minimum poverty level, increases in income or material resources don't necessarily relate to happiness. In other words, money doesn't make you happy. Nor does more money make you more happy. His findings were remarkable, and have so permeated our society today that this concept seems commonplace.
"A person can make himself happy, or miserable, regardless of what is actually happening "outside," just by changing the contents of consciousness."
What Csikszentmihalyi wanted to understand was where, in everyday life, do we feel really happy.
He wanted to look at what made creative people feel it was worth spending their lives doing things that many of them did not expect fame or fortune for, but were engaged in because the work made them happy.
Those he studied mentioned a state of esctasy, where they are able to harness a stream of consciousness...where existence is temporarily suspended...where the creative activity overtakes a sense of self...and time. Hours may pass, and it feels like only minutes have gone by.
Professor Csikszentmihalyi interviewed many writers, poets, and artists and all described achieving a mental state, a spontaneous flow, an effortless feeling you get when whatever you are doing feels like it is happening automatically, without thinking. Others describe it as being engaged in meaningful work where you are helping others, and that is when you are truly happy.
Masura Ibuka, the founder of Sony, described the mission of the company:
"To establish a place of work where engineers can feel the joy of technological innovation, be aware of their mission to society, and work to their heart's content."
This is a good example of how flow enters the workplace.
But, regardless of who or what organization was under study, Csikszentmihalyi cited seven (7) criteria that establish the state of flow:
You are completely involved in what you are doing—focused, concentrated.
A sense of ecstacy—of being outside everyday reality.
Great inner clarity—knowing what needs to be done, and how well we are doing.
Knowing that the activity is doable—that our skills are adequate to the task.
A sense of serenity—no worries about oneself, and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego.
Timelessness—thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes.
Intrinsic motivation—whatever produces flow becomes its own reward.
One important area of focus was to measure when people reported a positive experience where skills matched the challenge. There is a balance where people need to be challenged, as well as excited, in order to "enter flow." But, if a person's activity is related to something more passive, the feelings they report experiencing can be more negative—for example, boredom, or even apathy.
Others have expanded on the work, and some have found it useful to describe the "types" of flow (personalities), with such terms as "hard chargers" (adrenaline-based, thrill seekers, push themselves to physical extremes and high consequences); "deep thinkers" (take things apart, get lost in the system, immerse themselves in trying to discover a new or different or better way); "flow goers" (use meditation or practices of mindfulness to trigger flow); "crowd pleasers" (get their energy from entertaining, or making others feel good).
Many people enter flow naturally, others, unfortunately, do not. So how do you learn to create flow in your life? How do you find your own flow? How do you achieve this ecstasy—this happiness that helps you transcend time and a sense of self?
First, you must DO something. This is not a passive exercise. It is the state between anxiety and boredom where you are still engaged and challenged—the "flow sweet spot"—is, indeed, the magical place between boredom and anxiety!
A core idea is this balance of challenge and skill, as you "change the contents of your consciousness." Here's a really great animated book summary by FightMediocrity:
Get better at the skill, keep making it more challenging, and you will achieve flow.
Here is a video on the four "f's" of flow, where the author wanted to consciously generate more flow in his own day-to-day activities:
1, Focus—no distractions, no multitasking...total focus on a single task; a "warm up" exercise prior to engaging in flow
2. Freedom—free to express yourself, no self scrutiny...leaving your ego out of it, "let go" and let things happen automatically, trusting your skills without "overthinking" it or judging your ideas or work. Free your mind.
3. Feedback—the state of total engagement requires a knowledge of how you are meeting the goal. I think of Alex Honnold and his remarkable achievement of performing his free solo climb (no ropes, only his body) of El Capitan rock in Yosemite National Park in June 2017, AND living to tell about it! This is about being aware of each move and whether it is bringing you closer to your goal.
4. Four percent—Steven Kotler, in continuing Csikszentmihalyi's work, suggests from his research that a challenge that is 4% greater than your skills—slightly harder than what is comfortable for you—pushes you to the zone where you are engaged entirely in the task at hand.
Oh, and here's the Prof. M chart to show the relationship between skill and challenge and the mental state associated with each correlation: