The Fascinating Psychology of “Being in the Zone”
Basketball players see the future. Runners feel the center of the earth. They’re not insane. They’re “in the zone.” But, what does that mean, really?
Without context, that tunnel-vision feeling sounds more like an acid trip than lucidity. Athletes, creatives, and psychologists alike report “being in the zone” as a a hyper-focused, sometimes spiritual, state of mind where anything is possible. It’s when we’re the most productive, creative, and powerful. So, how do we get there?
It’s hard to explain, right?…most people say, “when you’re there, you just know.” But that answer isn’t good enough. We want to know what “the zone” feels like to others – and how to get there more often.
What does it feel like?
In his autobiography, Second Wind, the Celtic’s Bill Russell writes:
“It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion. During those spells I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken.”
“I would visualize the jolt of pain entering my body through the soles of my feet was energy coming from the core of the earth. My feet became a conduit that allowed my body to tap into an infinite energy source that propelled me forward like I was plugged into a nuclear reactor.”
Bergland used the same visualization to break a Guinness World Record running 153.76 miles on a treadmill in 24 hours.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines “being in the zone” as “flow” — a state of heightened focus and blissful immersion. In this Ted Talk he describes the experience like this:
“There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other… Sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger.”
Christopher Bergland (the ultrarunner from above) describes a state beyond Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow.” Bergland calls it “superfluidity.” And we want to go to to there.”
“It is a state of performing with zero friction, zero viscosity, and superconductivity — it is a state of absolute harmony and endless energy. Superfluidity is to fluid performance as orgasm is to coitus—it is an episodic and ecstatic climax that strikes you like a lightning bolt when you are in a state of Flow.”
How do we get there?
In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says we enter “flow” by striking a balance between skill and challenge. Check out the chart below:
Too much challenge with too little competency, and we feel stressed (impromptu speech at the board meeting? no thanks). Lots of experience with too little challenge, and we’re bored (Words with Friends against a beginner? yawn).
According to Csikszentmihalyi, the secret to getting “in the zone” is the Goldilocks principle: “not too hot, not too cold…just right.” You want to feel inspired, but not overwhelmed. Apply it to your squat weight, your career path, and your sex life: not so much challenge that you burn out, not so little that you get bored.
And when you’re there? You’ll just know.
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