Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi is the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. ‘The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… the best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile.’ He actively measured flow states using the experience sampling method, and his results have been academically verified. In his view, there are eight components of the flow experience:
- Complete concentration on the task in hand, where ordinary stresses and worries are suspended
- Clarity of goals and immediate feedback
- A feeling of heightened control over one’s actions
- A sense of effortlessness and ease
- A balance between the challenge presented and the skill required to meet it
- A complete loss of self-consciousness; a silencing of the inner critic
- A transformation of the usual experience of time, which either flies by or seems to move incredibly slowly
- The experience of involvement in the chosen activity is intrinsically rewarding, requiring no external motivation for its completion.
Obviously, these components vary depending on the person and the activity. Some undertakings are necessarily ongoing, such as writing a book or composing an opera, and can take months, even years to complete, and the experience of flow will inevitably be patchy. To get into the zone fast, there are valuable lessons to be learnt from great athletes, who do not have the luxury of waiting around for the flow state to magically descend upon them. They need to channel it on demand, and the most successful athletes become remarkably adept at doing so. The rest of us can learn how to do this too.
Basketball player Kobe Bryant, who tragically died in a helicopter crash with his young daughter Gianna and seven other people in January 2020, was considered to be the most impossible shot maker in the history of the National Basketball Association. In 2000, Kobe and his team, the LA Lakers, got a new coach, Phil Jackson, who introduced them to group meditation. Kobe said: ‘It wasn’t an option for us… he’d turn the lights out and we would meditate as a group.’ In the three seasons following Jackson’s appointment, the team won three consecutive NBA titles. ‘Seeing the poise that we played with, the fact that we could be in a hostile environment with fans yelling and screaming and pressure situations, and it having no effect on us… because we were never too high or too low, we were just in the moment and felt very secure in who we were.’
Phil Jackson understood that physical training was not sufficient. ‘As long as we run and pump iron to build up physical ability, we need to build mental strength, so we can focus and get one-pointed attention and be in concert with one another in time of need. When things going wrong, you sit on the bench, take a breath and reset yourself. You do it through mindfulness, come back in and collect yourself.’
Kobe was sceptical at first, but later said: ‘I bought into the deeper connection of the game. Phil’s teams never rattle, they are always in the moment, always in the present, always extremely calm, always looking at the reality of the situation, not letting emotions cloud our execution. This comes from being in the meditative state that he would teach and preach from day one.’
Kobe and his whole team operated in flow. Fans watching knew they had to make that one last shot for the win, with seconds to go, following a time-out for a team discussion of tactics… everyone knew where the ball was going. The opposing team’s efforts at anticipation, placing double, even triple defences against them were doomed. They would get the ball and make the score time and time again. Statistically it was impossible, but that’s what flow does; it enables the happy person who is able to channel it defy probability.
Almost as good as watching him play was listening to his interviews. ‘When you get into that zone, it’s just supreme confidence. You just know it’s going in. There’s no if. It’s going in. Things just slow down. You don’t try to focus on what’s going on, because you can lose it in a second. Everything becomes one noise. You don’t hear this or that. You just stay in the present, you don’t let anything break that rhythm. You become oblivious to everything that’s going on around you. You kind of get locked in.’
Kobe began to meditate on his own, every day. ‘It sets me up for the rest of the day. It’s like having an anchor. If I don’t do it, it feels like I’m constantly chasing the day, as opposed to being in control and dictating the day.’
He took an enormous amount of inspiration from Michael Jordan, the legendary basketball player known the world over, even to people who know nothing about the sport. The two of them played against each other in the early part of Kobe’s career and the latter part of Jordan’s. Jordan’s nickname was Air Jordan, because on the court, he could fly.
Jordan was also coached by Phil Jackson during his time with the Chicago Bulls. A star player, Jordan was used to having the ball. ‘There’s no ‘I’ in team, but there’s an ‘I’ in win,’ he was fond of saying. Jackson persuaded Jordan to pass the ball to his teammates, to act as a decoy, as he was such a star player that opposing teams had built up their defence specifically to neutralise him. By learning to trust his teammates, and by sublimating his ego, Jordan helped to elevate his team to the top of the league. Jackson said, ‘The largest icon the NBA has ever had understands [he doesn’t] have to have the ball in [his] hands all the time.’ Phil Jackson hired George Mumford, author of The Mindful Athlete to work with Jordan. ‘These things really work,’ said Jordan. ‘You feel that the crowd is silent, and that moment begins to be The Moment for me… as soon as you get into that state, things start moving slowly and you start to see the court very well. Then you read what the defence is trying to do… and I saw it at that moment.’
Both Bryant and Jordan were phenomenal athletes, but it was their intelligence, their ability to read the game, combined with ironclad one-pointed focus, that propelled them to world class stardom.
What can be learned from such superstars? To get into the zone, you need to connect with your unconscious. This is where meditation, mindfulness, visualisation and altered states such as daydreaming come to the fore.
Whatever the activity, cultivating the right environment can be crucial to finding flow. This is as individual as a fingerprint. I do my best work in the small hours, when I’m cold, tired, hungry, sometimes busting for a pee, but so focused on what I’m doing that my physical needs are completely sublimated. Others require an almost perfect state of physical comfort before they can even begin to contemplate working. I’ve found that whenever I am resistant towards doing something that really needs to be done, I promise myself that I’ll just do five minutes. Once I’ve started, I find that ten minutes have gone by, then fifteen, and I’m getting into what I’m doing, and I’m usually quite content to carry on working. Some people swear by routine, others need novelty. Working within natural circadian rhythms is all to the good; the human race seems to be divided fairly evenly into larks and owls; possibly a hang up from caveman days, when our ancestors needed someone on watch against predators at all times.
Above all, to get into the zone, you need to do whatever it is you want to do without trying too hard. Unless you’re an absolute natural, you need to put the hours in to practice an activity before you reach a basic level of skill. Bryant and Jordan were both in possession of a phenomenal work ethic, and not only put in hours and hours of daily physical practice, but they matched that with mental focus. They studied the game. They watched reel after reel of footage, analysing game plays and moves, discussing each endlessly with other players and coaches. They asked questions and challenged themselves and each other, and it’s no exaggeration to say that they ate, slept and breathed basketball; the game was the medium in which they lived. Yes, they were both born with talent, but as James Baldwin said: ‘Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.’