Getting in the zone, or being in flow as it is often called, is usually something thought to be the domain of elite professionals: Athletes, musicians, actors, etc. But the truth is, we all have the potential to experience it and not just within the traditional definition of being in the zone.
The common definition of being in the zone is:
The mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.
This usually refers to a short period of time (minutes or hours) when somebody has an intense and undivided focus on an activity. Actions become effortless and senses are heightened. An extreme recent example of this would be Alex Honnold’s free solo climb of Yosemite’s 3200-foot El Capitan without a rope.
But what if you could take the characteristics of being in a state of flow, and apply it to life in general?
I believe you can, and when you do you enrich your life:
- Your ego settles down and you feel uninhibited, somehow going beyond yourself.
- You gain a sense of personal control and a feeling that you have the potential to succeed
- You can deal with anything and make something good come from it.
- You gain a great sense of power, freedom, and expression.
- It feels like you can do anything!
So if finding flow in a broader sense is just as rewarding, how do we go about experiencing more of it in our life? In my experience there are three broad rules you have to understand and follow to create the right conditions for living a life in the zone.
Three rules to live your best life
The inspiration for this article was actually taken from an interview with Johnny Wilkinson who is widely acknowledged as one of the best rugby union players of all time. A man who has a deep appreciation of what it means to be in the zone.
This is him describing the moment when, with just 26 seconds of the game remaining, he dropped the goal that put the score at 20-17 and won England the 2003 World Cup.
“As I dropped the ball I was so in the moment I wasn’t even there. This is the strange thing, when people ask “what did it feel like?”, I don’t have that memory. What I have is just a memory of seeing the ball drop, seeing it tilt slightly in and forward, which for me means it isn’t going to go a long way but it will be very very straight. And it dropped right on the slot and I just remember seeing my own leg hit, and I remember the sensation, and then all of a sudden I looked up and I saw the ball pretty much between the posts. And at that moment I clicked back in, it was almost as if I hopped back into the experience and sort of went “my god we’ve done it”.
But what is more interesting is the understanding Jonny has arrived at with reflection since retiring from professional rugby. This insight goes far beyond what happened on the pitch, and the lessons are valuable for us all. (The quote at the beginning of each section is from the same interview.)
Focus on now
“Absolute engagement in life. It’s only when you stop and think about how things might turn out that you get pressure. And how things turn out has nothing to do with your performance.”
This can be incredibly tough to do but you can’t control the past and you can’t control the future, and if you try you become stuck. When you try to live in the future you get anxious, and if you try to live in the past you become regretful.
Think right now about any area of life that’s currently causing worry or waking you up at night. Modern life is busy and there are probably multiple versions of you juggling lots of different plates, so it is no wonder that feelings of stress and being overwhelmed are now commonplace.
Focusing on what you do have, and not on what you don’t have is a lesson I learned many times over in the military when more often than not situations would quickly escalate beyond the tools you have with you. But by focusing on what was available, as well as maintaining a positive outlook, the job always got done.
Achieving this state of letting go of everything except what you can control, and not worrying about the rest, is probably one of the hardest mindsets to achieve. There are many things you can do to help practice this, and one of the simplest but most powerful is some form of daily meditation.
As Tim Ferriss pointed out after interviewing hundreds of the best performers in the world:
“Despite the fact that these are people from tennis to surfing to cryptocurrency to fill-in-the-blank, like any field you can possibly imagine — some type of morning mindfulness or meditation practice would span I’d say 90% of the respondents.”
This is likely to enhance your ability to focus on the present moment, to manage distractions, and to see the challenge and your skill level more clearly. By practicing mindfulness seeing your thoughts and not getting caught up in them, you will know it is possible to stay connected and move through distractions—internal or external.
There are many ways to achieve this, and personally I like the Waking Up App by Sam Harris.
“Put someone on the line and say how much do you want it? And the answer is be all you can be now and enjoy the hell out of your life and explore like mad.”
In all of us we have two competing thoughts: On one hand you desire to explore everything you’re capable of and on the other, to control everything. We are desperate to find out how good we can be, but are also trying to preserve our reputation by not failing at anything.
But if you don’t explore your own boundaries how are you ever going to find something you haven’t already got? Which means that progress as a person, whether that is as an athlete, a parent, a business leader, or whatever, only comes when you expand your comfort zone.
And what usually stops us doing this is the thought of what happens if this goes wrong?
Fear of failure. Of looking stupid in front of others. And not meeting the expectations we place on ourselves.
In an ideal world the attitude to failure is that it’s an absolutely integral and central part of any worthwhile endeavour in any area of life. It should be relished as a psychological tool to motivate, a practical source of essential feedback and even the motivation that makes eventual success feel so good when it finally comes.
Unfortunately we do not live in an ideal world and instead it has become the norm that failure is bad. But temporary failure is an essential part of improvement and of long term success. And if you really want to improve in something you have to actively seek out those situations that really expose you to your weakest, most amateur limitations.
It is crucial to do this gradually with small steps so that you don’t create such a traumatic experience that you never try it again! Pick times, places and situations where you can control the level of exposure to some extent.
The psychological aim of this is to let go of the fear of failure and win back the feeling of having nothing to lose. None of us are perfect, we all make mistakes and we all fall down. Through failure we can identify errors, receive reminders about them and eventually overcome them.
Enjoy the journey
“It’s the beautiful thing about being on the verge of something, it’s so much better than having it.”
The big secret of the happiest people is that they aren’t forcing progress. It comes naturally to them because their mindset is aligned with the actions they take.
We all have hopes and dreams, goals we want to accomplish and things we’d like to change about ourselves or our lives. BUT if you are not happy before you reach those destinations, it is very unlikely you will be happy after them.
Don’t misunderstand this, there’s no doubt that happiness is the result of achievement. As James Clear rightly says:
“Winning a championship, landing a better job, finding someone you love — these things will bring joy and contentment to your life. But so often, we wrongly assume that this means happiness always follows success.
How often have you thought, ‘If I just get this, then I’ll be set.’
Or, ‘Once I achieve that, I’ll be satisfied.’”
Assuming happiness comes after success is something we are all guilty of in some way or another. And the modern world only heightens this feeling because society defines success in terms of material things.
How often have you heard, or said the following:
“I know I’ll be successful when I have a big house, a few nice cars, and I make several hundred thousand pounds per year, and I can holiday to exotic places whenever I wish. Once I reach that, I’ll be happy.”
BUT the trouble with this type of mindset is that once you reach a milestone, you will always shift your attention to the next one. So you end up pushing ‘true happiness’ farther and farther into the distance.
There will always be more. More success (whatever that looks like for us individually). More money, bigger houses, faster cars. We have to decide, at what point we are ‘’there’’? What if we were there now? What if we already have everything we need to be content and simply enjoy our lives, even if there’s more we’d like in the future?
When you learn to love the journey, firstly you’ll find you get better results anyway, and secondly you aren’t putting off your happiness to some unknown point in the future.
Think of those occasions where you’ve been so excited in the build up; Christmas, your birthday, or any special occasion. The weeks and days before hold as much (or argue) excitement than the event itself.
If you can replicate that in all of your endeavours then you are in for a life full of amazing experiences. But this can be a hard state of living to arrive at.
The best way I’ve found to get there is by following a path that truly aligns with who you are as a person. Passing Special Forces selection was immensely satisfying but I didn’t need it to make me happy, because I was already happy. I was serving in the military, doing the job I always wanted to do, and every day I was working towards my goal of attempting selection.
Each one of us has a story about ourselves that drives our behaviour. We have an idea of who we are and what is important to us. Essentially you have a “story” operating about yourself at all times and these self-stories have a powerful influence on decisions and actions.
This is because whether you realise it or not, you make decisions that match your idea of who you are. When you make a decision or act in a way that fits your self-story, the decision or action will feel right. When you make a decision or act in a way that doesn’t fit your self-story you feel uncomfortable.
Working out what your real story is and then working to change it if you need to can be a long and hard process. But until you do you’ll be in for an even longer and harder life.
- Listen to Simon Jeffries on the Evolve to Succeed podcast.