Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Opinion | The trick to peak performance is finding your elusive state of flow

To experience a state of flow, we need be able to intensely focus and give it our all

Neeta had been pacing backstage for about 20 minutes. The band on stage was playing its last song. She was up next. The grounds of her alma mater were packed. She was told there were about 3,000 students, and they had all come to watch her.

She had been rushed that afternoon. She’d made her way through Delhi’s peak hour traffic, reaching the venue just in time for the sound check. She got her hair and make-up done, and then finished her vocal warm-up. As she heard the crowd cheer, she knew they were warmed up too.

The butterflies in her stomach that had persisted all day finally settled. She felt a sense of calm, which she knew would explode into high energy in a few moments. She heard her name being announced and the crowd erupt into a roar. One deep breath and mic in hand, she walked on to the stage. The next 90 minutes were going to be hers.

Speak to a performer after a great show, or a player after a great game, and they may tell you of having been “in the zone" or simply “in a state of flow".

The words may be different, but the state of mind is the same—one of perfect inner clarity and intense focus. They all describe it as a time when they discovered they could scale new heights almost effortlessly. Scientists too describe this as being “in a state of flow".

Our brain is flooded with chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, endorphins and norepinephrine, which heighten our abilities, strengthen motivation and creativity, and allow us to soar. They give us an intense natural high.

American author and director of the Flow Research Collective Steven Kotler studies states of flow across adventure sports such as skiing, skateboarding or climbing. He finds that it is this “high" that drives athletes as they chase the next big wave or scale a cliff. With their life often hanging in the balance, the only way out is by being completely in the moment, completely in the flow.

What really matters

Why should any of this matter to us? Well, it turns out that the state of flow is a peak performance state, one where we are able to do things we otherwise couldn’t. It is, in fact, open to any of us—if we only know how to reach it.

A 2013 McKinsey study points out senior executives reported being five times as productive in a state of flow than otherwise. Yet since “flow" is poorly understood in the business world, and few leaders have a process for preparing for a state of flow, for most of us, this is a huge opportunity.

One can’t even start to imagine what a leader may be capable of if she could regularly enter this state of peak performance. The benefits of flow go far beyond raising our game to unexpected highs. Those who regularly experience a state of flow report greater levels of well-being and satisfaction with life in general. Their experience of “unison" with something greater adds meaning and joy.

The rush of chemicals in the state of flow is our brain’s way to hack performance when we are working on something critical. But it also creates an experience of being in “one of life’s great moments". Long after the moment, we treasure its memories.

So what can you do if you want to regularly experience a state of flow? One simple rule is that “flow follows focus".

To be able to experience a state of flow, we have to be able to intensely focus and give it our all. The first thing we need is to remove all distractions, internal or external.

For some, exercise helps. For others, it is a certain kind of music. For someone else, it could be meditation, yoga or walks. We each have to find our way, and our own method of dealing with or removing distractions.

Our choice of work matters. It has to be worthy of our all. It is easier to be intensely focused when you care about what you are doing, and about doing it well.

It helps if your work is just a bit more challenging than anything you have done before. If it exceeds the capabilities you have by just a bit, you will develop some more abilities.

Do this often enough and you may begin to see exceptional growth in a short period of time.

As we begin the new year, here’s to some more flow in all of our lives.

Shalini Lal is an organizational development and innovation consultant with more than 20 years of experience.

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