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Flow State: Unaware Ecstasy

Posted Dec 29 2012 11:28am
Have you ever been so preoccupied and focused with an activity that nothing else matters?  In this experience time seems to slow down and activity becomes effortless.   It's common to access this state while participating in a particularly demanding sport.  Many people have also reported entering this state while performing the mundane such as weaving, gardening, and stamp collecting.  In this state, the person becomes 'mindless' and acts without questioning what should be done and how.   This 'mindlessness' is actually the "flow state" or "the zone".  During this period you do not reflect on your emotional state, think about the past or the future, you become fully present in the moment.   Amid some of Micheal Jordon's most challenging games he said the basketball net appeared as big a a bathtub and couldn't miss (and didn't!).  MJ's success lies not only in his extreme competitiveness, but also in his ability to quickly and frequently enter the flow state.  

We all strive for happiness in our lives and a strong argument can be made that achieving flow epitomizes the facets of happiness. The godfather of creating and finding the optimal experience of flow is Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi (pronounced "Chick-Sent-Me-High").   He has developed a system of steps utilized to achieve that 'sweet spot'.  Check out his TED talk:



9 Factors of Achieving Flow:

1. You must have clear goals for what you are doing - if you are playing a sport, goals are built in like scoring and winning.  As a trail runner maybe your goals is to beat your best time or sustain a certain heart rate.  If you are house cleaning perhaps a goal of finding areas that haven't been cleaned before and testing yourself against a "CSI" blue light. 

2. Concentration and Focusing - detailed concentration on a limited field of attention.  Focusing on your breaths and heart-rate while running;  watching the seams of the baseball turn before you hit it.

3. Not feeling self-aware - no inner thoughts of yourself and your problems.  No thoughts of grocery lists or late credit card fees.  Not being aware that you are happy, sad or indifferent.   A lack of awareness of bodily needs like hunger or fatigue.

4. Distorted sense of time - You might feel like things are going in slow motion or not realize that you've been basket weaving for 2 hours when it only seemed like 20 minutes.  

5. Activity can't be too hard or too easy.   A chess grand master will hardly enter flow when playing my 7 year old son yet if he played against the ghost of Bobby Fisher, the flow state likely occur.  

6.  Direct and real-time feedback - seeing success or failure while doing the activity.  Striking out while playing baseball; playing a hard song on the guitar without making a mistake.  

7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity - knowing that your actions will make a difference.  

8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.  Creating art; running on your favorite trail; putting on the 18th hole.

9.  People become totally absorbed in their activity, and awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself.  Skiing down a double black diamond and not thinking about falling or hitting a tree, only focusing on the what's in front of you.  

Not all of these components are needed to enter flow, they are merely indicators that help.  If you have ever been in flow you can learn to recreate that sensation.  Here is how to do it:
  • Make sure you activity meets most of these criterion:  its' challenging, intrinsically rewarding, it has a definable goal, it takes deep focus, and has real time feedback.
  • Building an physical anchor prior to your activity.  Many athletes use music as their anchor.  Before a game an athlete may choose to listen to a specific song and if done successfully with enough frequency this triggers the brain for flow.  Other examples of anchors are squeezing your left earlobe, a specific stretch, shadow boxing, reading a passage, a certain food etc. Make sure the anchor is unique enough where it won't be set off or used at inappropriate times. 
  • Have a clear memory of the flow activity you'd like to recreate.
  • Close your eyes and visualize the exact thing you'd like to do while simultaneously performing your anchor.  
  • Get in a good posture.  The body affects the brain and if you are slouching or breathing badly it will be unlikely you'll be able to re-create the optimal experience. 
The more you practice the better you will get at recreating your optimal flow state and soon enough you'll be able to do it on demand.  Booyah!

Doug Joachim - NYC www.JoachimsTraining.com
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