Flow – The Way to Optimal Performance

Psychologist, Mihaly  Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced chik sent mee hai ee), popularized the ‘flow’, but the idea has existed for thousands of years, under different names. What is flow?

Flow is a state of mind, a tool for peak performance, and a pathway to meaning.  You can find flow whilst doing anything. Mihaly said: “The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought flows inevitably form the previous one, like playing jazz.”  

Athletes call this ‘the zone.’  When they  are in ‘the zone’, the athlete is completely absorbed in activity.  Other concerns disappear. The athlete performs at the peak of his game, fully aware of his actions, but oblivious to everything else. 

Zen Buddhists meditate by focusing on a single breath. By focusing on a single breath, they enter a state where temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self) vanish.  The Zen practitioner  becomes what he is doing. This is the ‘eternal now.’  It is the flow.

Artists, musicians, and professionals strive to live in the flow. When you have ‘flow’, your work becomes play, and you transcend other distractions.

Okay, this sounds mystical, even cosmic.  Fair enough, but ‘flow’ comes down to three pragmatic steps; namely:

Mindfulness: Focus attention on what you are doing, right now. Don’t worry about tomorrow, opinion of others, mobile phones, social media, or whatever. Devote yourself to the task.  Full stop.

Mastery:  You need proficiency in your activity: Mihaly talked about a ‘challenge-skill’ balance.  The activity must be challenging, but within your capacity – whether that is playing a piano concerto, writing an essay, or baking sourdough bread.  Do your best, and you will gradually improve, but the ‘flow’ is mastery, in the moment.

Meaning. Your activity must be worthwhile for yourself, for others, or for your community, while adhering to your values.    

Mindfulness, Mastery and Meaning – when these three elements overlap, we flow.  Our performance improves. We find meaning. We are happy.

This is simple, but not easy.  Work on any of these three components and you will boost your performance and find meaning. You will know the flow.  

Young woman surfboarding at summer resort

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