On June 7 in the 2010 finals series between the Celtics and the Lakers, three point sharp shooter Ray Allen broke a NBA finals record when he hit 8 3 pointers for the game, 7 in the first half. By any measure, during that game Ray Allen was in the zone. This feeling that you can do no wrong, that all you need is a little space to get off your shot and you know its going in. Being a Phoenix Suns fan, the Lakers are my natural enemies so I was rooting for the Celtics this series. And I kept waiting for Ray Allen to have another seminal performance in the series. Although he had some decent games, he was never able to repeat that experience.
Being in the flow is such an exhilarating experience. This moment when you're doing something just beyond your natural abilities and you're able to perform the task with excessive focus and concentration and your natural surroundings seem to fade away. And some performers seem to find that place within themselves almost at will.
To continue the basketball analogy, Michael Jordan is often cited as the greatest basketball player of all time, a player who was almost every game unstoppable. Incidentally, he was also a player who had this ability to get into the zone almost at will.
Why do some people have this ability to get into this state much easier and with greater frequency than others? Looking at this from another perspective, there's been a lot of study in psychology about how to help people obtain happiness and fulfillment in their lives. It has been found that people report a much higher rates of fulfillment when they are able to experience this flow state on a regular basis.
In fact a whole branch of psychology known as positive psychology has been created to study this state generally being defined as being in a flow state. It has been found that to get into flow certain properties of the activity have to be present. Also, certain personality characters tend to be present for people who are able to get into flow regularly. Knowing these characteristics may give us a hint on how can have these experiences on a more regular basis.
But first, what is flow:
"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. "
The psychologists Csíkszentmihályi identifies the following ten factors as accompanying an experience of flow:
1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one's skill set and abilities). Moreover, the challenge level and skill level should both be high.
2. Concentrating, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).
3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.
4. Distorted sense of time, one's subjective experience of time is altered.
5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).
7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
9. A lack of awareness of bodily needs (to the extent that one can reach a point of great hunger or fatigue without realizing it)
People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action awareness merging.
10. Not all are needed for flow to be experienced.
These personality traits include curiosity, persistence, low self-centeredness, and a high rate of performing activities for intrinsic reasons only. People with most of these personality traits are said to have an autotelic personality.
There have been times where I've experienced flow. Growing up, basketball was my favorite sport. And when I've played on the playground with friends I remember having some of those experiences - losing track of time, playing at the peak of my ability, and have feelings of deep enjoyment.
However, when I tried out for my school teams - when I had chances to perform before an audience of my peers - when, at least in my mind, the outcome of my performance may affect my social standing. I got anxious and my performance suffered tremoundously.
This experience highlights some of the barriers of flow - when you're doing something for an external benefit - to meet someone elses expectation. or what you're trying to do is too difficult for your abilities causing anxiety. When you're distracted - maybe you're thinking of whose watching you. Or you're worried about how you might be graded or judged. Or you really don't enjoy what you're doing. Or you have something on your mind in another part of your life that hasn't been dealt with.
I've recently have been exposed to this research on flow and I've wanted to see how I could apply some of the lessons I've learned in many aspects in my life. At PayPal, I've found that things liek long buidl times, excessive interruptions, too much blending of my personal life and work - are all impediments to flow. In computer programming, being in hackmode is also synomous with flow. Being in a job that's challenging and interesting, being able to turn off distractions. Making sure there's enough time allocated at home to deal with home family life so that you have enough space at work to do work. These are some of the challenges and ideas I've come up with to make my job at PayPal more fulfilling intrinsically.
Why do I want to feel flow in my job and in my life?
Because "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."
And those are feelings I want in my life as much as possible.