Getting in the Zone

When I started my research, blogging, and posting about Creativity a few years ago, I jumped head first into a very deep and broad pool. We often think of creativity in terms of its definition; the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others. But, the definition only describes what we think creativity is, not where it comes from, how it manifests itself in our daily activities, whether we can call it up at will, whether it actually exists, or what, if any, the related aspects of creativity are.

One aspect of creativity is what is commonly called The Zone. It’s the mental state we adopt when we’re fully immersed and engaged in an activity we’re passionate about. It’s a heightened state of consciousness and completely focused motivation where our emotions are channeled and positively aligned in the service of performing or learning. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term flow to describe this mental state, and I’ll use this term from now on. Other philosophies that could be related to or incorporate flow are Chi (China), Prana (India), Mana (Polynesian culture), rLung (Tibetan Buddhism), and Humors/Vital Energy (western culture).

Flow is more studied and researched in sports than in the arts, though flow transcends disciplines as well as cultures. Individuals from all walks of life have experienced instances of flow, described as being on autopilot, the outside world diminishes, the senses are focused, you know what to do and how to do it without thinking about it, there is a feeling of selflessness and timelessness, of being outside reality, hours seem to pass by in minutes or minutes expand, passing slowly.

But, what actually is flow? Csikszentmihalyi determined the human nervous system is only capable of processing information at about 110 bits/second. To hear and understand one person speaking requires about 60 bits/second. When there are three people speaking to you at once, you generally have a difficult time separating out who is talking about what because your brain is having trouble processing all that information (180 bits/second is 70 bits/second more than your brain can handle). So, Csikszentmihalyi theorizes when you’re fully engaged in creating something new, or immersed in working on a task or learning, you’re using all your attention bandwidth and don’t have enough left over to do well at that task and, at the same time, monitor how your body feels, or to address your issues at home, or even realize if you’re tired or hungry. Your brain stops recognizing these things – your body and everything non-essential to the task at hand disappears from your conscious thought processes – your existence in space and time is temporarily suspended.

It’s recognized that flow, similar to inspiration, can’t be called up at will. It simply happens when the conditions are right. Research has shown those conditions to be when a person is experienced in the skill being exercised, physically relaxed, mentally calm, experiencing low anxiety, is energized, optimistic, mentally focused, self-confident, and in control. Flow is temporary, involuntary, and not necessarily associated with a successful performance outcome (winning, for example), although mastery of the basic skills necessary for the task seems to be a pre-condition for the occurrence of flow. Cskikszentmihalyi says a truism of creativity is you can’t create anything new with less than 10 years of technical knowledge and immersion in a particular field; that it takes that long to begin to change something in a way that’s better than what existed before. Malcom Gladwell, in his book Outliers also stated it generally takes 10,000 hours of practice to become proficient in any task (20-hours a week [3 hrs/day] for 10 years). Of course, if you spend more time practicing, you’ll shorten the 10-year estimate. Does it take 10 years of practice at something to be able to engage in flow? It helps, probably, but I think it’s not a requirement. However, the more skilled you are at what you do, the easier and more frequent flow occurs. I suspect individuals who have the ability to engage in deep concentration probably experience flow even when they are working on relatively unskilled tasks. So, I think the ability to focus your attention is a key component to flow. I experience flow, in various degrees, when I’m photographing, writing, teaching, listening to music, taking a walk, and I certainly did when I was actively rock climbing and skiing as well as back in the day competing in sports in high school.

Getting to a state of flow is a balance between skill and challenge, between the point when you’re excited about something but not over-challenged by it (stimulation), and when you feel comfortable but not really excited or challenged (control). If you are pushed beyond your comfort zone at the stimulation level you can move into flow with a small increase in skill level (i.e. learning something new). If you are comfortable but not excited, you can move into flow by increasing challenge in the control area (i.e. driving) – see chart below. The mean level of challenge and skill (the central point on the chart) is different for each individual and changes for each individual throughout their life. Csikszentmihalyi says, though, if the mean level is known, a person could accurately predict when they will be in flow.

Flow Diagram

The seven characteristics of being in flow:

1. Focused concentration – being completely involved in what you are doing, there are clear goals and feedback
2. A sense of ecstasy (ecstasy means to “stand beside” or to be in “a state beyond reason and self control”), a balance is reached between challenge and skill
3. Great inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done and how well you are doing, action and awareness merge
4. Knowing the activity is doable – that our skills are adequate to the task, we have control
5. A sense of serenity – there are no worries about oneself, there is a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego, a loss of self-consciousness
6. Timelessness – being thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes or minutes are expanded, passing slowly
7. Intrinsic motivation – flow is a self-rewarding experience

Flow is a fragile thing. It comes and goes only under certain conditions and can easily be interrupted if you become distracted. A sound, a touch, a thought not related to the task can put an end to your run of creativity. Your self-consciousness about your activity and how you look or are perceived by others is a barrier to flow; if you think you’ll look ridiculous to others or be judged negatively in any way, you won’t be able to get into flow. Flow is a fleeting thing, like inspiration. You have to take advantage of it while it’s there.

How can you encourage flow?

1. Choose an enjoyable, challenging activity. Do something you love that challenges your skill level
2. Eliminate distractions. Turn off your phone, TV, email, social media. Find a location without distractions and where you are not likely to be interrupted
3. Think before you do. Do your research and preparation before you engage in the task. Stopping to do research or other unrelated tasks will knock you out of flow
4. Let go. Give up expectations about yourself and the results of the activity. You’ll be distracted by comparing what you’re doing to what you expect to achieve and risk narrowing your focus too much, removing any flexibility to change if your flow takes you down a different path. Don’t second guess what you’re doing. Go with the flow
5. Forget time. Placing a time limit sets expectations. Once you’re in flow, time will melt away, anyway. Once you think about how much time you’re spending on a task, other issues of the day will intrude and kick you out of flow
6. Control/ignore fear. Leave your ego at the door. Your self-consciousness will sabotage your flow.
7. Practice. The more practiced you are in your activity, the easier it will be to enter a flow state.

But, flow (being in The Zone) is not a magic bullet. It’s only a state of focused concentration. While being in flow can help your creativity and productivity, it is not necessarily a solution to a problem or will lead to the creation of great work. And, if you think about it too much, or try too hard to enter a flow state, it won’t likely happen. So, there’s the paradox; when you’re in flow you can’t think about it and when you’re not in flow you can’t think about it. Usually, you recognize flow once you’re on the other side of it. While you’re in flow, you experience that sense of being “in the moment”; it’s very pleasurable and you feel very productive. It is a good place to be. As more research is done on this elusive mental state, perhaps one day we’ll be able to harness it and use it in a more productive way. Until then, enjoy the ride.


Csikszentimihalyi, M. 1990. Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. Harper & Rowe, NY.
Csikszentimihalyi, M. 1996. Creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. Harper Collins, NY.
Csikszentimihalyi, M. 1997. Finding Flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. Basic Books, NY.
Gladwell, M. 2008. Outliers. Little, Brown & Company.
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