Getting into the zone can be a very tricky endeavor. It seems like sometimes were on, and sometimes were off. There is a story of a Zen monk who when asked by his student how to reach “enlightenment” said it pretty much happens by accident. This surprised the student and he became angry, wondering why the master put him through so many hours of meditation, tests and exercises to have it all come down to accident. “Ahh”, said the master, “but all this training makes you more accident prone!”.
In the same way, performing in the zone is a very fragile state, but there are ways to help get your mind and body more flow prone. We mentioned some of the pre-requisites for getting into flow states in previous blog posts, but here I would like to touch on one of the more important “triggers” that research has shown to be fundamental to achieving flow. This being the balance between your perceived level of skill, and the challenge of the activity. Having the right balance between your skill level, and the perceived level of demand of any given activity is crucial to creating ripe conditions for flow. If you perceive challenge to be too high, and your skill level to be low, then we can get overwhelmed and anxious. If skill exceed the challenge, then we get bored and do not grow. This is illustrated in the graph below:
Whenever we have too little skill, and perceive the challenge to be too high relative to this skill, we experience anxiety. For example, if you put a novice basketball player on the court in an NBA playoff game they would most likely feel overwhelmed and would want to go hide in the locker room. On the other hand, when we feel our skill is quite high compared to the perceived level of challenge then we tend to experience boredom. The example of this would be the reverse, where an elite basketball player plays with junior high kids. There is a good chance they would be somewhat bored.
The sweet spot is in between the two elements so that we are neither too anxious, or too bored. We need to find an activity that provides just the right amount of challenge that you are pushed to step outside your comfort level and as a result you are fully engaged and invested. A good rule of thumb (though not an exact science) is to have challenge around 4% higher than your skill level. This way you are just outside your comfort zone in order to stimulate the process of skill acquisition and learning, but not too challenged that you are overwhelmed. This 4% doesn't seem like much, but it has a cumulative effect over time as increasing the challenge just a small percentage at a time daily, weekly, or monthly will eventually increase your competence and you will find yourself slowly moving up the graph. So the question is, how can you increase the level of perceived challenge by 4%? Depending on your activity, you can do this a number of ways, such as challenging more experienced players to a 1 on 1, playing when you are extremely fatigued, or pairing up and competing with a teammate to see how many points both of you can get during practise.
One of the most potent ways to increase challenge however, is by incorporating risk into your game. Risk can come in many forms; physical, social, emotional, financial, etc., and increasing the element of risk has be shown to be a very effective trigger for flow. This is why extreme sports athletes tend to experience being “in the zone” more often, as there is a high degree of risk involved. Jumping off a cliff, or free solo climbing a mountain comes with a lot of physical risk, and risk has been shown to ignite our fear response, which narrows our focus and heightens our awareness, thus increasing the likelihood of a flow state. Of course I am not telling you to put yourself in harms way, but rather finding just the right amount of risk in order to increase your focus.
For example, I went for a trail run the other day, and I somewhat misjudged the conditions. It was early spring in Alberta, with winter just ending so the trails were still a bit slippery and icy. So although not intentional, I found myself in a pretty risky situation. There were some steep inclines on this trail, that if not careful I could of slipped and fell down hurting myself in the process. But I took up this unanticipated challenge and found myself with a heightened sense of awareness and focus. This high risk came with a high reward as I dove into a flow state weaving my way through the trails. Although, the new trail running shoes I got definitely helped keep me on track (literally)!
Ask yourself what areas do you feel you are not taking risks in, and think about ways in which to increase the perceived level of challenge. It will be different for everyone, but start with amping up the challenge just 4%. No need to go overboard, as putting yourself in situations you aren’t ready for can be a bad idea. Get to the point where you are just slightly out of your comfort zone and train there. Once it becomes comfortable again, move it up another 4%. In this way you slowly increase skill, as having a heightened awareness and deep focus are crucial to skill acquisition. We know that during the learning process of any skill, our brain is constantly in a state of neuroplasticity where it can change and increase the rate of communication between neurons, making them more efficient. So in a way, putting yourself in flow can help you learn and grow faster than in “normal” states. Track your progress and in time you can master any skill while enjoying the moment by moment experiences.
As always, feel the force, and don’t force the feel.