Flow. The Zone. Ideal Performance State. Runner's High. Being at one with...
Each of these refers to an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform at our best. An inverted U model shows the relationship between performance and arousal, where either over-arousal or under-arousal reduces performance. This model is specific to the individual, and specific to the task, so the inverted U is not always symmetrical. We discuss this concept further in Arousal Regulation - Psychological Skills Training.
Understanding and being able to enter this state has massive implications for the fields of human performance, be it physical, business or otherwise.
The Zone is a state of complete immersion and absorption in a task. Action and awareness merge and the perception of time changes. In fact, brain scans have revealed a reduction in the activity of the pre-frontal cortex - a region of the brain responsible for higher order functioning. The adage 'time flies when you're having fun' now has a scientific explanation; 'having fun' = 'the zone', and a reduced perception of time means that when 'in the zone', the part of your brain responsible for time perception becomes less active.
It's a long-held belief that we only use 10% of our brains at any one time, and if we could learn to harness more, we would operate at a higher level of functioning. Brain scans show this is not true. The down regulating of the pre-frontal cortex by a process called 'Transient Hypofrontality' means that complete focus can then be placed on the task at hand - allowing us to enter The Zone.
Changes During Flow:
Being in The Zone alters our neurochemistry, which improves both physical (due to the presence of chemicals and hormones which increase strength/power/endurance etc) and psychological performance. The psychological improvements come in the form of improvements in:
- Motivation and productivity (500% more productive in a flow state).
- Creativity (400% more creative in a flow state).
- Learning (flow state cuts learning time in half).
Based on the work of Csikszentmihalyi; Kotter and Wheal have identified 17 flow triggers which you can learn more about in the work of these authors.
- Intensely focused attention.
- Immediate feedback.
- Clear goals.
- The challenge/skill ratio.
- High consequences.
- Rich environment.
- Deep embodiment.
- Clear goals.
- Equal participation.
- Sense of control.
- Always saying 'yes'.
- Foster creativity.
Four steps of flow:
- Struggle Phase: Working hard, training hard. Information overload. Often associated with stress and anxiety and associated adrenaline and cortisone.
- Release Phase: Taking the mind off the problem - escaping the struggle. The subconscious mind takes over the conscious mind.
- Flow State Phase: Optimal performance where we feel and perform at our best.
- Recovery Phase: A dramatic 'low' that occurs as the 'feel good' chemicals of the flow state drain away. Correct physical and mental recovery practices are important here. It's also important to accept this phase will occur and give permission to feel low. Resilience is important. This stage can explain the 'manic-depressive' or 'bipolar' shifts in mental state experiences by top level performers and entrepreneurs.