For hardcore sports fans and casuals alike, there are few more beautiful things than watching an elite athlete when he or she is “in the zone”. When an athlete is in the zone, their shots seem to fall effortlessly, their passes connect through the slightest of windows, and opposing defenses might as well be nonexistent. The entire time this is happening, the athlete will often appear nonplussed and relaxed, as if these feats are a leisurely walk in the park.
These moments are inspiring for us to watch as spectators: they often leave us wanting to dominate our lives in the same way the athletes dominate their sport. Athletes create lucrative public speaking careers post-retirement based upon this ideal, and Nike and Michael Jordan built a business empire on this same premise; maybe, just maybe, wearing a pair of Jordans can help you get in the zone, too.
Even if we may never match the exploits of Michael Jordan or Tom Brady, many of us have experienced "the zone" while we’re working, or perhaps while playing video games or pursuing a hobby- that “flow state”- that point of complete immersion into a task or goal where everything seems to work effortlessly. In that state, time seems to distort, we become completely dissolved into our tasks, and productivity and efficiency go through the roof. Distractions seem to fade and accomplishing tasks and reaching goals are no longer a grind but are instead an enjoyable prospect.
This augmented productivity is why people will do everything to get into flow state and stay there, and why management and executives will do anything to help their employees reach that point. In the 1950s, in a world free of many of today’s distractions; a corporate flow state was thought to be achieved via uniformity and nearly mindless commitment to the job. In this world, office cubicles might as well have been pods in a beehive. IBM was a poster child for this ideal; in fact they even had a corporate songbook and stories abound about “big blue” disciplining members of their (mostly male) workforce for not wearing sock garters.
Silicon Valley startups famously began to ditch the beehive mentality en masse in the late 1990s and instead offered unconventional, more holistically centred takes on office space. The idea behind these spaces was that homelike comfort would help employees relax, decompress, and get into flow, so it would feel effortless to code for hours on end. A generation later, some of these ideas have proliferated to nearly every industry; even accounting firms and law offices have beanbags and foosball tables around the office these days.
But what if both IBM and 90’s tech startups had it all wrong? What if “flow” doesn’t depend on where you are, but what’s confronting you? An exciting new study from Stanford published in Nature Communications explores the science behind flow state and provides insight on how to manipulate flow state to help accomplish our personal goals. Even if you’re not concerned about productivity, studies have also shown that flow state is beneficial to overall wellbeing, so pay attention.
How To Get Your Mind Into Flow State
David Melnikoff, Ryan Carlson, & Paul Stillman- the study’s authors- studied over 2000 participants and used a mathematical model to draw new conclusions about flow state. They found that overall, the keys to flow state are uncertainty and curiosity. In essence, there has to be just enough uncertainty about a task to make you curious about the task. In addition, your level of curiosity will be contingent upon your skill level for the task at hand.
How does this work? To paraphrase an example from a university article on the study, if a master pianist sees a familiar piece of music, there would be no uncertainty about playing it well. If a beginner pianist sees the same piece, they likely wouldn’t even know how to begin playing. No flow state can occur in either of these cases because there’s no uncertainty.
For flow state to occur, there must be a degree of difficulty between “I think I can do this” and “this may not work, let’s see what happens”. In other words, as Melnikoff states, your curiosity has to be piqued as to what the potential outcome of the task might be: “The task has to start as an open question that your actions answer”. In the case of the pianists, if the virtuoso pianist sees a new, complex composition that is within his or her wheelhouse, then flow state can exist.
Melnikoff also says that adding uncertainty to tasks where people have lost interest is a great way to increase productivity and engagement by getting into the zone. To paraphrase another example, many companies will attempt to motivate employees by giving a single prize to their highest performer at the end of a quarter. This often detracts from overall flow because the majority of participants will assume that they can’t win, therefore reducing uncertainty and employee engagement. However, adjusting the approach of these contests can inject some uncertainty into the equation and can create engagement; for example, offering a wide range of prizes based upon end rankings and other factors.
Be Like Mike: Use Flow State for Everyday Work
In summary, the research proves that flow state depends on reducing uncertainty and piquing curiosity. There may already be some uncertainty in the situation, or we can add uncertainty to the situation ourselves.
Michael Jordan was known for pushing himself to overperform in otherwise mundane matchups by creating challenges for himself. In addition, Jordan would let his curiosity and imagination combine to turn the slightest interaction (or perceived slight) into an invitation to prove his worth. The pandemic-era Last Dance documentary was live proof of that; there are scores of compilations on YouTube showing what happened when Jordan “took it personally”.
Perhaps MJ knew all along about what Melnikoff, Carlson, & Stillman proved about flow state in their study. Perhaps he knew that challenging our curiosity is one of the greatest gifts of the human mind. Perhaps, in this case, whether we have the shoes or not, we all should want to be like Mike.
How Can We Add Flow To Day-To-Day Tasks? Real-Life examples:
In The C-Suite: