The Flow of Optimal Performance

Optimal performance in anything we do comes from our ability to “forget ourselves” and enter that inner state often called the “flow” or “zone.” When we are in it, we do your best; when we are not, we under-achieve. The key is getting ourselves into that state.

Very few people know how to access this optimal state of being. Most of us have a couple of these experiences in our lives, but it doesn’t happen often. The good news is that we can learn pretty straight forward methods and tools that make this highly desireable state far more accessible. No, I am not talking about drugs or magic pills.

Flow Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Flow Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, has been researching this inner state for many years. In an interview with Wired magazine, Csíkszentmihályi described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Mihaly’s research coincides with my own: a key to generating a flow experience is being in the sweet spot of the intersection between skill level and the challenge at hand: being skilled enough to not have to think about the task to perform it, and being challenged by the task enough to have it draw you out of your ego self to execute it well.

The flow is a shift of inner state out of ego and into Being. You have experienced this shift before, likely more often than you might initially realize. Certainly, if you think about it, you can recall a time when you skied “over your head,” played tennis “out of your mind,” delivered a speech “beyond expectations,” had an intimate conversation with a loved one that “blew your mind,” or simply lounged on the beach in silence and got “transported” to some other place.

I know this inner state of optimal performance well, and am convinced that my ability to generate it was the foundation of my own excellence as an athlete. In the 1980’s at the Optimal Performance Institute, I taught students how to intentionally create this inner zone, and watched hundreds of them deliver personal bests once they learned how to produce it in their activities and lives.

At OPI, we found very clearly that performers could learn to use breathing, body awareness, mental rehearsal, focusing, and concentration techniques to increase their flow experiences. When I first started teaching this work right after graduate school at Stanford, I was concerned that some people might consider it “touchy feely.” Back then, it sometimes was, only because we didn’t know how to talk about it in really pragmatic ways. But now, thirty years later, we certainly do.

Flow is extremely important to conscious change leaders because the more we can support stakeholders in this direction, the more committed to our change initiative they become and the more they contribute to its success. Plus, what could be more important for ourselves than learning how to manage our own inner state to perform consistently at a higher level? Knowing how flow works in us also gives us greater understanding of these deeper human dynamics so we can design our change efforts to unleash more of the potential of our workforce.

The best approaches to this “inner management” are multi-dimensional, addressing body, mind, emotions, and spirit, because they are more direct, complete and effective. Over the next six months, I will begin to offer programs through the Change Leaders Network that will develop and apply three distinct levels of flow experience:

1) Level One: Optimize: How to Manage Your Inner State for Optimal Performance and Fulfillment;

2) Level Two: Transform: How to Re-Program Self-Limiting Behavior Patterns;

3) Level Three: Mastering: How to Transcend Core Beliefs on the Path of Personal Mastery.

Stay tuned for these development opportunities.

In the meantime, please let me know your personal stories of flow and performing optimally, “out of your head,” where you excelled at an extraordinary personal level. How would you describe those experiences? What were they like for you?

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World-renowned executive coach
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Professor, University of Michigan
Co-author with Warren Bennis of JUDGMENT: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls

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Director, Unified Change Management
United States House of Representatives

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Microsoft US

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Professor and Chair, Department of Management & Organization
Marshall School of Business
University of Southern California

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Mayor, City of Lloydminster

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Robert J. Marshak, Ph.D.
Senior Scholar in Residence
MSOD Program, American University
Organizational Change Consultant