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"In the groove", "in the zone", "in the bubble", and "on auto-pilot" are all ways to describe what the Japanese call "muga", and what Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced CHICK-sent-me-high-ee) dubbed "flow" in the 1980s.
Flow can be defined as a period in time in which one becomes so completely involved in an activity that all other thoughts and emotions – what some consider the "self" – are excluded from consciousness.
Raise the stakes and improve your skills
Whatever the immediate activity we’re participating in, we need to continually find a way to 1) set clear goals, 2) find ways to measure progress and 3) raise the stakes when we become bored. In order to consistently achieve the flow state, we must continue to increase our skill set as well as the challenge, in order to avoid becoming disinterested, overwhelmed, or apathetic. This means striking a unique balance in which Dr. Csikszentmihalyi and Dr. Susan Jackson label the “C/S Balance” (challenge/skills) in their book “Flow in Sports”. The activity needs to be challenging, but not so challenging that it’s perceived as an impossibility. As your skill level increases, you’ll need to continually increase the level of personal challenge in the activity.
Along with the built-in challenges your activity provides, you may need to create your own challenges in order to captivate your interests. For instance, if you’re a kickboxer sparring with a beginner, you may need to create more demanding contests than simply “winning” or “scoring”. Instead maybe you focus on another metric such as “number of thigh kicks landed per round”. If you can make it more challenging, chances are you will not only have more fun, your skill level will continue to grow and you’ll find yourself in flow more and more often.
Maintain a positive outlook
As human beings, we constantly focus on “what could be” instead of “what is”, always looking to our expectations instead of our present action. Becoming focused on an outcome, whether it’s positive or negative, takes us out of the present and further away from flow. Instead, we need to be focused on the process at hand by concentrating on our strategy, on our tactics, or on our approach. Bruce Lee said it best when he said, “The great mistake is to anticipate the outcome of the engagement; you ought not to be thinking of whether it ends in victory or defeat. Let nature take its course and your tools will strike at the right moment.” (Tao of Jeet Kune Do, p12)
Unfortunately, to make matters worse, we’re usually inclined to focus not only on a possible outcome, but a resoundingly negative one. Fear is motivated by our expectations, and when these expectations are encouraging, flow is feasible. Tony Blauer, a pioneer in performance enhancement research as it relates to martial arts, teaches the word ‘fear’ as an acronym – “False Expectations Appearing Real” or “Failure Expected, Action Required”. In essence, what this means is that we’re usually not scared of anything when we’re certain of the outcome, but when the outcome is unknown, we automatically project onto the situation the worst possible thing that could happen to us. This creates instant anxiety and disallows us from acting without reserve due to expectation of impending failure. Instead, we need to focus on the possibility of a positive outcome, which will then leave us feeling challenged instead of concerned.
Practice, practice, practice
The old maxim “nothing breeds success like success” is a critical belief for optimal performance. In order to have confidence that you’ll be successful, you need to have experienced it. You need to fine-tune your skills until you forget you have them, and then let yourself go with the performance. Preparation inherently builds self-confidence and initiates a positive spiral whereby self-confidence can ultimately lead to the flow state time and time again.
One may also practice with “emptying the mind”. Try the following exercise: Sit down, and close your eyes in a quiet, dark room. Focus solely on your breathing, and try to clear your mind of all conscious thought. The length of time in which you are able to clear your mind during inactivity will directly relate to your ability to empty your mind under pressure. Consider this: If you cannot absolve your thoughts while sitting alone in silence, how will you possibly be able to function on auto-pilot, without negative self-talk, during a rigorous activity? Improving your skill with meditation or quiet thought is crucial to achieving the flow state. While it’s possible to achieve it without meditating regularly, it becomes increasingly easier once you have enhanced control over your interfering thoughts.
Although the flow state may seem attainable at first, you must make sure to avoid a struggle to achieve it, as you’ll be creating yet another diversion that will have the opposite effect on your mental state. You will move further and further away from clear concentration due to your intent to “find the flow”. Remember that those who have achieved the flow state repeatedly describe it as an almost effortless condition where things just seem to “click”. Therefore in order to reproduce this state, we need to replicate that feeling of effortlessness by not taking our actions too seriously – literally learning to go with the flow.
The flow state will help us be our best, both as “artists of life” and as everyday people. It’s believed that those who experience flow regularly are generally more confident, more self-assured, and happier than those that do not. When we can consistently view our actions as though they “just happen”, instead of something we need to deliberately initiate, we have successfully achieved the state of flow.
Thoughts on achieving flow? Comment below!