Being in Flow

I have just been watching an inspiring programme on the Olympics. It fills me with emotion and passion when I see people willing to sacrifice things in order to pursue their dreams. Especially when I see people that are in there 30/40’s coming back from retirement for the chance to perform at the 2012 Olympics in London.

I also watched a programme on the bravery of our forces in Afghanistan, the fact that there are young people of 18 and 19 performing the most heroic acts without regards for their own safety also feels me with pride that we have some extremelly talented and brave people in this country. If we could tie this passion and bravery into the business environment imagine what we could achieve as a country/nation?

I am fortunate to see how talented people in the UK are in all of these areas.  I wish I could bottle the talent that is out there. I will highlight a key element of what I think assists someone wanting to be the best they can be.

THE PRESSURE ZONE

I often talk about a key element of success which is the ability of a person/team/organisation to step into the “pressure zone”. This zone is a key place in business/sports/life that enables one to test their abilities/skills and to maximise/seize the opportunities that exist there. Almost like being in the eye of the storm and being very comfortable about being there. “There are few things in life worth having that are obtainable without having to step into this zone”.

My own belief has always been that you should put yourself into this zone as often as you can but what does being in this zone actually mean?

Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the positive psychology concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields.[1] According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow.

The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task. Csikszentmihalyi (1975) originally identified four flow components:

  • control;
  • attention;
  • curiosity;
  • intrinsic interest.

Csikszentmihalyi (1993: 178-9) also defined eight dimensions of the flow experience: The 8 dimensions:

  1. Clear goals and immediate feedback,
  2. Equilibrium between the level of challenge and personal skill,
  3. Merging of action and awareness,
  4. Focussed concentration,
  5. Sense of potential control,
  6. Loss of self-consciousness,
  7. Time distortion,
  8. Autotelic or self-rewarding experience.

In my opinion when you are comfortable and operating at your best you are in total harmony with your mind, body and belief/self confidence/spirit which are all working seamlessly together for optimum performance. Lets look at the dimensions to flow, the first of which is the “challenge to skill balance”. If we do not feel we have enough skill in a particular field we experience anxiety, if we have too much skill we may feel that the competition is too easy and therefore we may not operate at an optimum level (our best level) because of boredom. If we can understand this balance and what it means to ourselves i.e. that we do not have too much anxiety or feel too much boredom we can maximise our performance more consistently. The important element is that I can get myself into this state more often and most importantly when I need it. It means that I am conscious of having the required level of skill to operate at the appropriate level (I find people to assist me at this level). It also means that I never underestimate the opposition or situation I find myself in (and lower my guard).

Another element is when we do not feel separated from the event that we are experiencing, it is as if we are at one with the activity we are conducting. We are able to understand each moment because we have thought through each element/phase (viusalising prior to the activity what we want to achieve and possible contingencies that we need to have) and can hit the goals/game plan we structured prior to the event. It also enables us to adjust throughout because we can give ourselves clear feedback on the evidence that is in front of us. We are also in tune with our bodies and mind. Another element is that our concentration is clear, we are aware of not only the detail but the strategic intent and that all of these factors are perceived in a positive way. More importantly we can be in this place for hours and still be focussed. In this place there is also a sense of control, we feel as if we can do nothing wrong, it frees us from a lack of confidence or any fears that we may have.

This in turn means that we are not concerned with anything expect the situation that we are dealing with. Time also takes on another dimension. It can be almost as if time slows and you find that you have lots of time to make a decision or indeed that an event that takes hours seems to be over in a flash. Once you have been in this zone and performed to your potential there is a also a wonderful feeling of euphoria that can last for hours.

How do we then get into flow more often– The first element is to step into the pressure zone as often as possible, see any challenge as an opportunity to learn from the experience. You should relish the chance to perform to the best of your potential (seek out the toughest of situations to test yourself). The biggest obstacle in getting into flow will always be yourself. Forget about others (external distraction) and how they see you, just trust in yourself. Set yourself clear and realistic goals in every element of your role especially in training or preparation. Take advantage of any feedback and use it constructively. Also listen to your body and what it is telling you (ensure you are healthy (regular check ups) and taking in the correct food/water). Always concentrate on what you have to do and do not be distracted by what your competition is doing. Do not fight the environment you are operating in; it is the same for everyone. Stay in the present by concentrating on your processes. That means forget about outcomes and just concentrate on what you are actually doing. Control the things that are within your gift. Do not allow negative thoughts to invade your mind, concentrate on the positives. In terms of controlling time, by simply being in flow, time will adjust to your own individual needs, whether that is in speeding it up or slowing it down.

The most important element is to remember to enjoy what you are doing it will free your creativity.

We make the mistake of not realising that we control flow and the more we practice the skill the easier it becomes to exist there under extreme pressure.

The break over Christmas has been enjoyable and I am currently working on the plan for the New Year. For the first three weeks I am in Sri Lanka with the England Under19 Cricket team. This is the first test of the programme that we have been running to enhance the performance of the team from a multi-dimentional perspective by enhancing their skill levels and mental toughness in all areas of cricket. I am looking forward to all aspects of this trip especially in giving us a start point en route to our goal of the 2012 World Cup. There is nothing like a test like this, operating in someone else’s environment in conditions which suit them will be a true test in a busy diary of matches. It also means that I have to train hard over Christmas which enables me to enjoy the festivities but with one eye on my own physical training. Having trained in very cold weather for the last two weeks I am looking to warmer weather.

The down side of being away for three weeks means that all of my other projects will need careful management when I return. I will also be away to Dubai/Iraq/Europe during February which means the year starts with a bang. This year will also see me clarify my five year plan, finally finish two books I have been writing and continue to undertake a significant academic project. I wish you a wonderful New Year.

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