Many of us have come to understand that being “in the zone” occurs when someone is consistently operating at peak performance levels. But what does it actually mean?
Is “being in the zone” just a glib attempt to explain the unexplainable? Or is there an actual, scientific basis for the phrase?
In other words, is “the zone” real?
What Being “in the Zone” Feels Like
To understand being “in the zone,” it would seem wise to consult athletes familiar with the concept. Unlike artists, stock traders and gamers, athletes – even superstars – are widely available for interviews immediately after an in-the-zone moment.
Several descriptions are common.
1. Total concentration
Outside stimuli like crowd noise, field conditions and even the actions of opponents are muted or even shut out entirely as an athlete “in the zone” focuses solely on their target (e.g., a basket, goal or touchdown catch). In many cases, athlete’s claim their concentration is so intense that the ball and target seem oversized relative to their surroundings.
2. Effortless activity
Athletes commonly report that they don’t have to think about their actions when they’re “in the zone,” often referring to their state of mind as “unconscious.” To put it another way, they’re aware of what’s going on but don’t have to plan or overthink their next move. They just do it instinctively.
3. Total Control
These athletes say that being in the zone gives them an unusually acute sense of control over their actions. But they don’t feel as if they’re pressing. Their incredible performance comes easily and naturally.
4. Sense of Time
Most athletes who describe being “in the zone” say that time seems to slow down and everything happens in slow motion, giving them longer to see an speeding baseball or imposing pass rusher. Some, though, say things appear to speed up so much that they lose track of time,feel disconnected and vaguely recollect the moment. . They’re surprised when it’s over.
5. Sense of Ecstasy
Athletes who’ve gone through this experience agree that they feel a sense of pure bliss when they’re “in the zone,” far beyond their normal, day-to-day enjoyment of the game.
Those recollections are somewhat illuminating, mainly since so many people have similar descriptions of their experiences “in the zone.” But emotions and memories are not scientifically backed evidence. So, do these feelings correspond with anything that researchers or scientists know?
The answer is a resounding yes.
The Concept of Flow
It was more than 40 years ago that positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first presented his theory of “flow.” (Positive psychology is defined as the study of the elements that make life worth living.)
Csikszentmihalyi has written numerous books and articles on the subject, including his most important work, the 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. His research has become instrumental in several disciplines ranging from education to occupational therapy, and of course, sport psychology.
So exactly what is flow?
Csikszentmihalyi’s work centers around the concept of a “flow state,” which he describes as the “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” This state occurs when a person is completely immersed in an activity that other factors like ego and time become irrelevant.
Reading the work of expert scholars can be difficult. But Csikszentmihalyi received worldwide attention after his landmark Ted Talks depicted flow as the secret to happiness. He also elaborated on his findings in mass media interviews to make his ideas easier to grasp.
For example, in Wired magazine, he described a state of flow as:
“…being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
Does Csikszentmihalyi’s description of flow experiences sound familiar? It should, as it echoes the same “in the zone” feelings reported by superstar athletes. Here’s the problem, though.
An average person playing a game of pick-up basketball may be totally into the game. They may leave their ego behind, maintain their focus and play their heart out – but that doesn’t mean their jumpers will fall through the net like you’d expect from somebody “in the zone.”So, there must be more to achieving a state of flow that requires more than desire and concentration.
And there is.
Achieving the State of Flow
Not everyone can experience flow, even if they have the will to do so.
Csikszentmihalyi has identified nine components necessary to finding flow. They include having clear goals, receiving immediate feedback, and suppressing self-consciousness. Key among them is matching the task’s difficulty with a person possessing a sufficient skill level., as long as the task is indeed difficult to achieve. (Matching low-difficulty tasks with low-skilled individuals results in apathy, not flow.)
That’s why an average basketball player can’t achieve a state of flow, no matter their desire. Tunnel-vision isn’t enough. They simply lack the required skill-level to get “in the zone” when playing basketball. But that same person may possess the required skill to get “in the zone” for other sports or challenges.
Csikszentmihalyi says there’s one big reason for this discrepancy between elite athletes and everyday ballers: personality.
People most likely to reach a flow state have what’s called an “autotelic” personality, meaning they participate in an activity because it is rewarding in and of itself – not because they’re trying to hit external goals.
Persistence and curiosity are common traits among these people. So they enjoy situations, like prolonged practice sessions, that most people would find monotonous. An individual’s level of autotelic experience has shown to correlate with their ability to achieve a flow state.
Other Visions of Flow
Csikszentmihalyi is far from the only expert who’s associated the concept of “flow” with being “in the zone.”
- New York Times best-selling author Steven Kotler, the creator of the research and training Flow Research Collective, explains the mental state of flow in his book The Rise of the Superman as “high-speed problem solving…being swept away by the river of ultimate performance.”
- Psychology professor, Nathan DeWall, identified three steps for exercising willpower and self-control to achieve flow. They are very similar to those put forward by Csikszentmihalyi: setting standards, monitoring feedback and harnessing energy. In fact, as a desk-bound academic, DeWall personally followed the steps he outlined to become a successful ultra-marathoner.
- Even the creator of the famed “Hierarchy of Needs,” psychologist Abraham Maslow, weighed in on the concept – even though the term “flow” hadn’t yet been introduced by the time of Maslow’s death.
It’s clear that the ability to be “in the zone” is not totally within our control, as genetics and other personality traits out of our control play a significant role.
However, what is clear is that if we identify our specific skills, and work toward meeting Csikszentmihalyi’s standards, we can hope to find flow – and happiness – in our everyday lives.