As a college athlete, I was constantly seeking to create any sort of competitive edge. Whether it was squeezing in an extra workout or making sure I had my lucky gum before the game, every habit and superstition was geared towards optimizing performance when I was competing. Every once in a while (two or three times a season), the stars would align and my performance would go through the roof- I’d found the zone. I tried everything to recreate this experience, but it was fleeting and often felt impossible to purposefully construct or recreate.
Athletes often talk about experiencing the same phenomena: an amplified state of consciousness where time slows down, specific details are enhanced, and sense of self disappears. It goes by different names; some mention a runner’s high, or being in the zone, others refer to seeing the ball well, or the game just slowing down for them.
Bill Russell, a core player for the Boston Celtics during their streak when they won 11 championships in 13 years, offers a description.
“When it happened, I could feel my play rise to a new level. . . . It would surround not only me and the other Celtics, but also the players on the other team. . . . At that special level, all sorts of odd things happened. The game would be in the white heat of competition, and yet somehow I wouldn’t feel competitive. . . . I’d be putting out the maximum effort . . . and yet I never felt the pain.”
However it’s described, achieving this state of flow is often associated with pushing the limits of possibility for human performance. And while sports metaphors can sometimes distract or over-simplify when used in the business world, flow is a sports term that definitely translates well to the business environment. At XL Group, we often use it to describe a kind of peak productivity, particularly for creative tasks.
In the context of a professional environment, flow is a state of consciousness where we become totally absorbed in what we’re doing to the exclusion of all other thoughts and emotions. We feel strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the apex of our abilities. Flow combines a balance of excitement and awareness, where relaxation can meet high-level performance.
Whether the context is sports or business, the principle of flow remains the same. Csikszentmihalyi, the foremost expert on flow, calls it the challenge-skills balance: when there is perfect alignment between the challenges we face and the skills we think we have, flow is achieved.  This balance is delicate, however: if we tackle a project that is too ambitious, it will result in anxiety. If we stay in our safe zone and don’t challenge ourselves enough, the result is boredom.
In exploring the challenge-skills balance, the lesson for me is to be discerning in the projects and roles I select, since they need to provide the opportunity for me to achieve this delicate state. If I’ve chosen correctly, I should see a number of benefits:
- Increased Productivity. This McKinsey Study explains that executives are five times more productive in flow. So if we’re able to increase the amount of time we spend in flow by 20%, we’re actually doubling our productivity! As someone who often tries to power through by pure effort, sometimes it’s a good reminder that working smarter, not harder can be the right answer. Examining the drivers of flow and what may be blocking it is often worth the time it takes.
- Rapid Growth. Hitting the perfect challenge-skills balance causes us to learn and grow and improve our mastery of the subject very quickly. As we continue to achieve flow, our skill level increases, requiring us to seek new, more difficult challenges in order to achieve flow again. As the best athletes thrive in situations where all their potentials must be applied in order to succeed, seeking to maintain a state of flow causes us as workers to constantly raise the standards for ourselves and improve our performance. This creates a virtuous cycle that maximizes how quickly we learn and develop.
- High Job Satisfaction. Research shows that achieving flow “brings enhanced positive mood, increased task interest, and increased organizational spontaneity.” If I’m able to get into flow at work, it proves to me that I’m engaged, satisfied, and motivated with regards to my responsibilities, my colleagues, and my overall work environment. Similar to professional athletes who achieve great things because they don’t consider what they do as work, regularly achieving flow is a core contributor to both happiness and success.
So if you find yourself feeling unproductive, stressed, bored, or unhappy, ask whether you can make the appropriate adjustment to find the right challenge-skills balance. You’ll appreciate the benefits, and hopefully find your instance of flow.
 William F. Russell. Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man. 1979.
 Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. FLOW: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. 1990.
 Caruso, Andrew. Sports Psychology Basics. 2005.
 Jackson, Susan & Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow in Sports. 1999.
 Eisenberger, Robert. “Flow experiences at work: for high need achievers alone?” Journal of Organizational Behavior. 2005.