My last year of high school brought two momentous developments. One, I got contact lenses. And two, I decided I was tired of being a nerdy bookworm and wanted to be on the tennis team. My mom (who was making huge sacrifices so I could pursue music) said okay, as long as it didn’t affect my piano studies.
So I’d finish class mid-afternoon, train with the tennis team for a few hours, come home and practice piano for two or three hours, and then do my homework. There was no room for dilly dallying or wasted energy and it was one of the most focused, productive times in my life: I was #1 on the tennis team, graduated high school in three years and achieved my dream of being accepted into Juilliard. All thanks to being in a sustained state of flow.
In today’s world, however, my guess is that most people don’t experience flow on a regular basis, if ever. Not at work, where the Gallup poll says up to 75% of people are disengaged. And probably not at home, where the average American watches more than 27 hours of TV a week.
In fact, as I wrote a few months ago, we spend most our time in survival mode, focused on perceived threats in our environment and bodies and keenly aware of time. It’s not that we’re not getting things done. It’s that we’re in automatic pilot, checking things off without consciously experiencing, much less enjoying, the activities in our lives.
This, to me, is a waste of evolution. We need to get out of survival mode and into “the flow zone” – that place where we’re so engaged in what we’re doing that we lose track of time and our body, and feel connected with the world around us.
One surefire way to get there is to calibrate challenge with ability, so that we’re stretching to our limits while still feeling a sense of control.
It’s possible in every kind of activity: One CEO client thrives on the challenge of high-stakes meetings. Another pumps up his focus in the tedious work of filling out detailed reports by engaging his senses, sitting near a breeze from the window and listening to high-fidelity records. And in his book 18 Minutes, consultant Peter Bregman tells how he amped up his mundane waiter duties by adopting different accents for every table he served.
In the coming months, I’ll be sharing specific techniques and examples of how we can choreograph the routine of our lives to induce more flow. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. When’s the last time you were in the flow?