Flow and Mindfulness

You know what it’s like to be ‘in the zone’. You will have outdone yourself, achieved your personal best, been immersed in a task with no consciousness of time… You were in “flow”[1].

You were in “the peak of self-regulation, the maximal harnessing of emotions in the service of performance or learning”.[2]  Whether it was presenting, chess, rally driving or dance, your underlying state will have been the same.

It’s a relaxed but highly focussed state, thoroughly absorbing and satisfying, almost addictive and stress-free. It’s definitely the best place to work in as often as possible.

What does flow look and feel like?

“Rapt, unbreakable concentration; a nimble flexibility in responding to changing challenges; executing at the top of your skill level; and taking pleasure in what you’re doing – joy.” [3]

What is happening in this optimal performance zone?

A state of neural harmony where the disparate areas of the brain are in synch, working together. This is also seen as a state of maximum cognitive efficiency. Getting into flow lets you use whatever talent you may have at peak levels.

Mastering your game

It is well known that to master a domain of expertise and operate at the top of your game takes at least 10,000 hours’ practice. These people are often world class in their performance. But the interesting thing is, the level of focussed practice has made the activity relatively effortless, even at its peak.

When you are in flow, only those brain areas relevant to the activity at hand are activated. This contrasts with the brain of a person who is bored, where there is randomly scattered neural activation. When you are stressed, you have lots of activity in the emotional circuitry which is irrelevant to the task at hand, and which suggests an anxious distractedness. This is like emotional ‘noise’ – no wonder you can’t think clearly and feel drained in a stressed state.

Top performance for organisations

An organisation will only perform to the extent its employees can contribute their best skills at full force. A productive concern would be increasing the moments of flow your people have (or even staying in the zone of engagement and motivation).

Here are some things I learnt over many years’ leading in performance:

  • Match the demands to fit the person’s skills. Measure their optimal level of challenge; are they bored, mastered it, challenged or in the panic zone? You need to know and adjust the challenge or support (emotional or practical).
  • Practice the relevant expertise to raise skills to meet a higher level of demand. I used to drill myself in specific parts of the sales process, as I did with piano scales.
  • Enhance concentration abilities so you can pay more attention, because attention itself is a pathway into the flow stage. Tests have found that ‘multi-taskers’ performed lower than people taking cannabis! (re-think the way you focus on a task and don’t allow distractions?)
  • Notice when you’ve (or others) left the zone of positive stress and peak performance, so you can make adjustments. The most obvious signs are:
  • Drop in performance. You can’t do the task as well, whatever way you measure it.
  • Wandering attention, loss of focus, or boredom (lack of engagement, it has nothing to do with having nothing to do!)

Other more subtle clues that can show up before a noticeable drop in performance are:

  • Someone seems “off” compared to how they normally do things, or seems very rigid in how they respond rather than considering alternatives, or someone who is cranky and easily perturbed. Any of these can mean anxiety is impairing their cognitive efficiency.

How to get flow into your life

Getting into flow is about a balance between the demands of the situation and a person’s skills. Flow often occurs when we are challenged to use our abilities to their utmost. But that optimal point varies widely from person to person.

There are certain kinds of public speaking that frazzle most people, but that get me into flow. I have very fast responses, I go well on adrenaline, so I find it exhilarating and strangely relaxing!

A great way of enhancing the likelihood of getting into flow is to regularly practice methods that enhance concentration and relax you physiologically. Just like a fitness routine – do them every day, or as many days as you can – e.g. yoga 3 times a week, meditating every morning, or riding your bike to work – all help you stay in a positive, calm, and a more focused frame of mind through most of the day. The regularity and practice gives your brain and body the chance to recover and relax from a high-stress job. The key point is to find one you like and practice it regularly. There is a lot of neuro-science behind this!

Did you know the regular practice of mindfulness brings reduced stress, increased productivity, more creative problem solving, and improved relationships. The shift occurs over time, and the biggest change seems to be in the first months of practice. Apart from the anti-stress benefits, practice improves your mental concentration skill. We now know that the more we are distracted, the less effective we become.

“The cardinal rule of all concentration enhancement techniques is to focus on A and whenever your mind wanders off to topic B or C, D, E, F, and you realize that it has wandered, bring it back to A again.

“Every time you bring the wandering mind back to a concentrated state you’re enhancing the muscle of concentration. It’s like being on a Nautilus machine and doing repetitions for a muscle, only you’re strengthening a muscle of the mind: attention” (Goleman).


[1] The zone of optimal performance is known as “flow” in the research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at the University of Chicago.

[2] “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights”, by Daniel Goleman.

[3] Daniel Goleman.