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How to train your mind to get in "the zone"

With exercises and effort, anyone can train their brain to be more creative, says Dr. David Fessell.

The Next Idea

Is there a “state of mind” that aids innovation and creativity?

Think for a moment about the last time you were totally immersed in a hobby, music, or sport. Things just seemed to flow, time became imperceptible, and everything seemed almost effortless. Might you have experienced this when writing? Running or gardening? Creating poetry, music, or dancing? Or even tinkering?

Are such times rare or non-existent in your life? These experiences of “flow” are rocket fuel for innovation and creativity—and you can have more of them.

These moments are known by various names: “flow;” being “in the zone” for athletes; or being “in the pocket” for musicians.

The term “flow” was coined by the psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi in his 1990 book, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.” This heightened state of focus and attention usually occurs when your skills are relatively high, and the challenge is similarly high - a good internal match so you can stretch at the edge of your ability.

Clear goals also help, like the well-defined rules of sports, or the structured parameters of poetry or music. Fast (or even instant) feedback also fosters flow. While writing music or creating art, you can hear the beautiful melody or see your artistic creation emerging.

During flow, you will usually feel a very high level of control over yourself and over your immediate surroundings. Self-consciousness melts away as awareness merges with the activity

Emerging brain science indicates there are circuits in the brain somewhat analogous to brake and gas pedals. Flow, to some extent, may be a state of “letting up” on the brakes. When the conditions are right, when you feel psychologically safe, then the brakes can ease. It can happen solo or with a duo or group, such as with a team of improvisers, or with creative partners like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak or Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

So, can we consciously let up on the brake and push down on the gas to create flow?

Tim Ferris, the author of “The Four Hour Workweek,” and “Tools of Titans” watches the same animated video over and over when he’s writing one of his best-selling books. Tony Robbins, the speaker, executive coach, and author  likes to put a song on repeat to prime and sustain his flow states.

Having more flow in your life can start with developing awareness of such moments. When do times of flow happen for you? Are there particular circumstances or surroundings? Is there a pattern to your physical, mental or emotional state? You can track these and other elements to get a better picture of what cultivates your personal flow state. Eventually, you can quantify the patterns and find more consistent ways to cultivate flow.

Visualizing prior flow states in pictures, video, or your mind may also help, as can positive self-talk and affirmations expressed with emotion. Entering a designated space and making it your own by closing a door, engaging in specific movements like stretching or yoga poses can be used to set the stage for flow. For similar reasons, team sports use a huddle, and phrases like “Let’s go!” Such rituals can be very elaborate and effective, involving detailed movements, shouting, and facial expressions, like the pre-match “Haka” ritual of some New Zealand rugby teams.

Last year, I started juggling, and I now experience fleeting moments of flow with this rhythmic activity. I sometimes juggle as a two-minute mini-vacation. It’s striking how such brief experiences can feel soothing, renewing, and energizing, as the flow reboots the mental and physical circuits. More recently I started taking golf lessons. On those rare occasions when my swing is just right, it feels like hitting the “sweet spot” on a tennis racket. Perhaps this discovery shouldn’t have surprised me – both involve swinging at a ball - but it did. Now I look forward to more of those fleeting moments of flow on the golf course.

Not surprisingly, the pleasurable state of flow can also be felt with activities that are not inherently beneficial, like gambling, video games, or excessive work. At work, deep in the state of flow, you could lose track of time and miss an appointment, meeting, or time with your children or spouse. It’s paradoxical that even your self-care could suffer from such a seemingly beneficial state. The dangers of flow have been recognized, as well as its potential for compulsion or addiction. Managing flow in a healthy way, by cultivating it in activities that are beneficial for you, others, or both, can enhance well-being and physical, mental, and psychological health.

Being in the “zone” is a gift. One can’t bottle it or necessarily force it to happen on demand. Curiosity and persistence can help cultivate these moments, and those are behaviors that are more fully under our control. We can dial up our curiosity by asking “what if” questions and by engaging with those around us. Standing in line at the grocery story can be an opportunity for fun and playful encounters, cultivating the very curiosity that feeds flow. For persistence, we need look no further than the children around us for inspiration. Thus, while flow is fleeting, we can cultivate and experience it more and more with awareness and attention. As with meditation, when presence is heightened, the body’s systems can reset. Our internal “flight or fight” system takes a well-needed rest. Even small doses - a few minutes a day - can enhance life and promote well-being. 

With time and experience, you can get creative with flow. Try a new hobby, dance or yoga class, a new sport, or outdoor adventure. Give yourself five to 10 minutes in the morning or evening for journaling using the “hot pen” technique - writing continually, pen not leaving paper. Add music, video, or movement to an existing pleasurable event. Give the gift of flow - to yourself and to others. You can support a colleague, partner, or child by helping provide the environment, time, and space they need to flow. Ask those you’re close to what helps them flow, and watch the conversation unfold. Simple attunement to psychological safety, with our words, body language, and tone of voice, helps create the conditions for flow. Give yourself and others permission to flow.  Beware--creativity and innovation will be fertilized. Breathe in deeply, drink fully from flow, and live the benefits.

Dr. David Fessell is a professor of radiology at the University of Michigan Medical School.


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