We have all heard of being in The Zone, but can we actually get there? Researchers say we can.
Here are some pointers to help you
What do world-class athletes and high-performing CEOs have in common? They function from The Zone. And don’t think that doesn’t apply to you, even if you weren’t in the last Olympics! Because every human being can own this state.
The Zone, also known as “flow”, is that state where we perform any activity — athletics, management, artistic pursuits, or even parenting — with full immersion, energised focus, and complete enjoyment of the process. Named by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, this state of flow — characterised by complete absorption in what we do — is actually a natural internal state that has been around for thousands of years.
How do we access the flow?
The big question is, how do we access it? Being in The Zone has been considered an elusive state, accessible only by elite athletes, who by luck, or by a state of grace, fall into this mesmerising flow of peak performance. This may sound like a frustrating proposition for us mere mortals, who wish we could distill and bottle the active ingredient for being in The Zone.
To understand the mechanics behind this peak performance phenomenon more fully, let’s hear a great Zone story from Billie Jean King — considered one of the greatest woman athletes of all time. Even with all her extraordinary achievements, including a record 20 Wimbledon wins and 39 Grand Slam titles, her Zone experiences were her most cherished peaks:
Billie Jean King
“On my very best days, I have this fantastic, utterly un-self-conscious feeling of invincibility… I appreciate what my opponent is doing, but in a very detached, abstract way, like an observer in the next room… When I’m in that kind of state, I feel that tennis is an art form that’s capable of moving both the players and the audience…
“When I’m performing at my absolute best, I think that some of the euphoria that I feel must be transmitted to the audience… The perfect shot is another matter. They don’t come along very often, but when they do, they’re great. It gives me a marvellous feeling of almost perfect joy, especially if I can pull one off on the last shot of the match…
“I can almost feel it coming. It usually happens on one of those days when everything is just right… and my concentration is so perfect, it almost seems as though I’m able to transport myself beyond the turmoil of the court to some place of total peace and calm… That perfect moment happens in all sports… It’s a perfect combination of a violent action taking place in an atmosphere of total tranquility….
“And when it happens, I want to stop the match and grab the microphone and shout, ‘That’s what it’s all about.’ Because it is. It’s not the big prize I’m going to win at the end of the match or anything else. It’s just having done something that’s totally pure and having experienced the perfect emotion…”
[Billie Jean King, excerpted from The Supreme Awakening]
This is a perfect description of all the elements that make up Zone performance — un-self-conscious invincibility, detached observation, perfect concentration, tranquility, euphoric joy, and the sense that this kind of experience makes life worth living.
Integrating the Zone into practical life
To put it in simplest terms for practical life — as described by The Rise of Superman author Steve Kotler — “Flow is an optimal state of consciousness, a peak state where we both feel our best and perform our best.” Could we add, ‘all the time’, or just, ‘most of the time’, at the end of this description?
Perhaps there is a magic key to transforming an elusive phenomenon into a more integrated state of life. Advancements in brain research are paving the way for the application of solid metrics to unlock what has been previously perceived as only a subjective experience.
Peak performance researchers, such as Dr. Harald Harung and Dr. Fred Travis have uncovered the key active ingredient in peak performance — mind-brain development. They found an integrated state of brain functioning to be the common neurophysiological signature in the world-class athletes, CEOs and top-level musicians they have studied.
Sustaining the Zone as a leader
In our organisation, we have observed the same underlying patterns on a behavioural level in our leadership consultant work with top managers. There is a sustained internal state that can be developed over time, which we have coined, “The Integration Zone”. The Integration Zone takes peak performance and the zone to the next level by placing this profound heightened experience into a matrix of sustained development. One CEO, who runs a $6 billion company, described his Zone process: “Two of our senior team and I organised the biggest deal in our Corporate history. This involved long hours, tight time frames and multiple go/no go hurdles etc.… and multiple possibilities for stress. Despite this I personally felt like I was in the eye of the storm… all is calm and relaxed.”
Practical tips for being in your integration zone
In case you are intrigued by these potentials for human development, let’s translate these concepts into practical tips that may be useful to incorporate into your life during this holiday season. There is a variety of beneficial approaches, but here are four of the most significant:
1. Meditation, or quiet time
—Produces a state of ‘restful alertness’, essential for stabilising The Zone
Meditation with its host of physiological and mental benefits has entered the mainstream. The cover story of the November issue of Scientific American, for example, explores the neuroscience behind the benefits of meditation. Decades of research have shown that meditation produces significant changes in both the structure and function of our brains in a positive direction. Even the conservative American Heart Association (AHA) cited meditation as one of the most effective tools in regulating cardiovascular health and increasing longevity.
From corporate boardrooms to school classrooms to veterans with PTSD, people are harnessing meditation for its capacity to reduce our stress levels and to think and act more clearly and coherently. There are numerous forms of meditation, but one with some of the best documentation is Transcendental Meditation (TM). Encouraged by the benefits of its practice, leaders such hedge fund magnate Ray Dalio and iconic film director Martin Scorsese, health spokesman Dr. Oz, Oprah, Ellen and David Lynch have inspired their entire teams to incorporate meditation into their daily regime.
What does meditation actually do to optimise performance?
It settles down the chatter of the mind to allow you to bask in the mind’s most settled state. The essential qualities of Zone performance are inherent in this settled field — complete absorption, merging of action and awareness, self-referral, and effortlessness.
Regular practice of meditation seems to stabilise these qualities, which were also found in the behaviour of all high-level zone performers. Researchers such as Travis and Harung also found that the brain signatures of long-term meditators are very similar to top-performing athletes, managers, and musicians.
If you’re not up to a formal practice of meditation, just creating some quiet time during the busy holiday season can work wonders. Creating a few moments of inner stillness opens you to up to what we call our “core essence”. It is there that you can connect with your more significant desires and values. Then you can move with coherent clarity towards you goals. Peak performers always have clear goals, since the clarity of their attention facilitates that all-important state of restful alertness. The Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu summarized it perfectly: “To a mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.”
—Creates the mind-body coordination necessary to sustain peak performance
We don’t need to elaborate too much on the health benefits of exercise. JUST DO IT. Since ancient times, far-seeing leaders have understood the value of exercise. Even the Buddha, in 500 B.C., proclaimed, “To keep the body in good health is a duty, otherwise we shall not be able to keep our minds strong and clear.” One major study involving 1.2 million Swedish men (Åberg et al., 2009) found that those who were physically fit at 18 had a higher IQ, were more likely to go on to university, and were more likely to secure better jobs.
This perspective underscores a deeper point here — the intimate connection between mind and body. A healthy body sustains a healthy mind, and visa versa. To cultivate the Integration Zone, it is beneficial to choose exercise that you love. With many at the gym, you’ll see people exercising with disconnected drudgery, as they run treadmills or ride stationary bikes while reading or watching TV.
Something may be better than nothing, but this exercise style treats the body as a disconnected machine. Zone performance is cultivated by activities in which you can absorb yourself in completely, and especially, that you derive joy from. When I dive into the pool or a lake in the summertime, I become like a fish in water. Smooth, effortless flow describes the experience, and I always come out refreshed, even rejuvenated. Find the exercise program that does that for you. “Intrinsically rewarding”could be your exercise mantra.
Meditation and exercise are proven practices that support The Zone. Now let’s shift to the cultivation of the subjective mindset that also goes for the gold.
3. Gratitude and acceptance
—Abiding acceptance of all that life delivers can enhance your inner flow
It’s valuable to cultivate an attitude of gratitude, but this mood also has deep roots in the mindset that nourishes our peak performance. Whenever we are in gratitude, or at least the state of acceptance, we experience the immediacy and perfection in the moment. This is also a characteristic quality of Zone performance. Each moment is an unfolding sequence of perfect moments. And the player is riding that wave, where every decision or choice point flows effortlessly and perfectly into the next.
The opposite of this mindset is resistance. Whenever we strongly resist our environment, we may find that we step out of our flow. We do not mean to condone passivity. Sometimes we need to fight for what we truly believe in. Then you are fully in that moment. The famous Serenity Prayer sums up this point: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
4. Learn to ‘let go’
—Letting go seems to be the prerequisite to shifting into that flow state
Interviews with extreme sports athletes reveal that the sense of letting go preceded their shift into the super fluid awareness of The Zone. This step may seem similar to the acceptance of step 3, but is a more dynamic choice than simple acceptance. Letting go is neither a retreat nor a giving up of your goals. Rather, it is a powerful approach of re-shifting your awareness to encompass new possibilities. What seems like surrender might be a downshift from a smaller frame of reference to something much bigger and better.
Remember, we don’t have control over the fruits of our actions; we have control over our actions alone. Just take the best aim you can and shoot. Leave your self-conscious insecurities behind by putting complete undivided attention on the task at hand. Act from unanticipated moment to unanticipated moment. Give respect to your boundaries and others’. Devote your action for the sake of others (not just your own ego).
Mr. Flow himself, Csíkszentmihályi, has the final word here: “It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself, rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were.”
Cultivating your Integration Zone experiences
We have now covered the full range of choice-points for stepping into your Integration Zone. Boiling it down to the bottom line, we could summarise:
Zone experiences require engaging in those actions and mindsets that are conducive to The Zone. And avoiding those activities that are the opposite of this flow. This means fostering peak experiences through:
- Single-minded immersion in your tasks
- Clarity with your goals
- Effortless quality in activity
- Loss of excessive self-consciousness, and
- Intrinsic joy in your process.
Conversely, if you don’t want to be in your optimum state of performance, you could:
- Engage in multi-tasking
- Maintain unclear or muddled goals
- Strain or offer resistance to your work
- Display self-conscious anxiety about how you are doing, or
- Be involved with projects you just don’t like
What is your choice? When it is laid out like this, the path ahead seems pretty obvious–go with the flow!
Michael is also applying these principles in executive development with New Mavericks. New Mavericks Co-founder, Raamon Newman, also contributed to this article.
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