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  • Janine Friedman

Getting Into the "Flow"

Have you ever done something where everything just flowed and you felt completely present and "in the zone"?

According to psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow occurs when a person is fully emerged and fully engaged in what they are doing. The person is achieving extraordinary performance almost effortlessly. You feel your best and you perform at your best.

Typically, these elements are present during a state of flow:

  • feeling so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter

  • the ego falls away

  • time flies

  • every movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one

  • your whole being is involved

  • you are using your skills to the utmost

  • it is so enjoyable that people will do it for the sheer sake of doing it (think: runner's high)

According to Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, the creators of The Leadership Challenge(known worldwide as the most practical model of leadership development), leaders should strive to help their employees get into this state of flow. It allows them to work to their highest potential and can occur with the right balance of challenge of task and skill level of the individual. If the task it too easy or too difficult for an individual, flow cannot happen.

Just as important, you should strive to get yourself into the flow in your daily work and life. A 10-year research study conducted by McKinsey & Company found that our output of work during a flow state is equal to 5 times the output of our normal working state. So, 4 hours of work in a state of flow can result in 20 hours of productivity.

Albert Einstein was working from a flow state when he developed the theory of relativity and other breakthroughs. Artists (musicians, writers, painters, etc.) create masterpieces from this state. Championships and gold medals are won in this state.

Athletes consciously strive to be in flow and many will work with sports psychologists to enter into this optimal level of performance. Basketball players who are scoring a lot talk about the rim seeming huge, so it is easy to score. Baseball players on a hitting streak say every pitch seems like a beach ball, because they are so locked in. Mindfulness is an important tool for helping them get there.

Phil Jackson, professional basketball coach with 11 NBA titles, used mindfulness to help his players enter "the zone". Mindfulness, he states, "is an easily accessible technique to quiet the restless mind so you can focus on what's happening in the present moment".

Athletes know they need to stay fully present in order to perform at their highest level. The same holds true for the rest of us. Whether you are working on an important project at work, trying to come up with an innovative process or service, or looking to get the most out of your time with your family, practicing mindfulness can help you get "into the zone".

I have been fortunate enough to experience this state many times in my life. The first time I entered "the zone" was when I was playing soccer in college. We were playing against a higher-ranked team, but we simply played triangles around them. Every pass seemed to flow effortlessly and it was if we intuitively knew where our teammates were at all times, without even looking. I've also been lucky enough to experience a "runner's high" many times. What typically happens is that when I come back down to reality, I realize I have just run several miles without even trying. In my career, I enter the flow state when I am training or coaching on a topic that I know is going to make someone's life better. Traveling with my family also brings me to this state.

When I look back and think about what helped bring on the state of flow for me, I realize that mindfulness had a lot to do with it. Being completely present (not worrying about the future or regretting the past) was a pre-curser to each experience. In college, my soccer team worked with the sports psychologist who helped Greg Louganis get back to winning Olympic medals for diving after he suffered a devastating concussion from crashing his head on the springboard. He taught us to meditate and visualize. In training and coaching, I aim to be completely present so I can tune into the needs of the people in front of me. On vacation, especially at beautiful places, I am more about being and less about doing, and that helps get me into the flow.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Am I doing everything I can to ensure my employees are working "in the zone"?

  • When was the last time I was in the flow state?

  • What can I do to get there more often?

Please feel free to share your experiences of being in the flow state and what typically gets you there.

Please contact me if you are interested in learning how to create a state of optimal performance to yourself or your team.


"Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, First Harper Perennial edition 1991.

"Increasing the 'Meaning Quotient' of Work", by Susie Cranston and Scott Keller, McKinsey & Company, January 2013.

"The Leadership Challenge, 5th Edition" by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, Jossey-Bass/Wiley 2012.

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