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Home>Practice Management>Practice Builder>The Psychology of Optimal Performance at Work: Living in a State of Flow

The Psychology of Optimal Performance at Work: Living in a State of Flow

When you were so completely absorbed in doing something you love that hunger didn't even matter?

Allyson Lewis, 10/25/2012

Most important, in flow, the relationship between
what a person had to do and what he could do was perfect.
The challenge wasn't too easy. Nor was it too difficult.
It was a notch or two beyond his current abilities, which stretched
the body and mind in a way that made the effort itself a delicious reward.
That balance produced a degree of focus and satisfaction that easily
surpassed other, more quotidian, experiences. In flow, people lived
so deeply in the moment, and felt so utterly in control,
that their sense of time, place, and even self melted away.

--Dan Pink, author of
Drive: The Surprising Truth
About What Motivates Us

Learning new ideas and concepts is one of the many reasons I love being a financial advisor and a writer. Both of these professions constantly challenge me to grow and change.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (former head of the department of psychology at the University of Chicago and described by many as the architect of the concept of flow) lists the components of flow in his best-selling book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

As you read this list, think about how important each of these components is to the way you have created the daily work models for your financial advisory practice.

According to Csikszentmihalyi there are eight components to experiencing flow. They are:

1. The chance to actually complete the task

2. The ability to concentrate on what we are doing

3. Clearly defined goals

4. Immediate feedback or results

5. Intensity that removes the awareness of the worries and frustrations of everyday life

6. A sense of control over one's actions

7. The absence of concern for self

8. A distortion of time that makes hours feel like minutes and minutes feel like hours

In my book, The 7 Minute Solution, I try to describe to my readers what it is like to experience a state of flow:

When was the last time you were so engaged in a specific task that time stood still? When you were so completely absorbed in doing something you love that hunger didn't even matter? Living in a state of flow is choosing to live moment by moment at your optimal level. Living in flow calls out the very best of you. It is being in the zone and living to your highest and best. Flow is only experienced in the present moment. Flow cannot be possessed, it cannot be captured--it can only be lived. When you have experienced flow, you will know it. In those moments, you live as you are intended to live, while at the same time reaching just a little bit farther.

Moments of flow are amazing. They take your breath away. When your skill set and your mindset finally match your goals, you find yourself increasingly working in that "zone" that athletes often speak of.

Crossing the White Line, Stepping Into Flow
Steve Cox is a friend of mine. From the time he was a toddler, he was a kicker. By the time he turned eight, he wanted to be a kicker in the National Football League. So every afternoon Steve and his father took three worn-out footballs and walked to the high school field to practice. Snap after snap, his father would hold the ball, and through the years Steve would kick--hundreds of times, and then over the years thousands of times--and with each kick, Steve's skills improved. As Steve said, "God made me with a leg. I could generate a leg speed of over a hundred miles per hour. That's what made me different."

In 1981 he was drafted into the NFL by the Cleveland Browns, and four years later he was traded to the Washington Redskins. His job was to punt and kick off, and he was brought into games for long field goal attempts.    

In 1988, when Steve was 30 years old, the Washington Redskins played in and won Super Bowl XXII. As I sat in his office, there were amazing photographs of him at all ages. Small and fading photographs of a 10-year-old child competing in The Punt, Pass, and Kick Program, to photographs of his college teams, all the way to posters of him playing in the Super Bowl. Even sitting in his office I could feel the psychological emotion of happiness, accomplishment, challenge, and years and years of hard work.

When I asked him to describe working in a state of flow as a professional kicker, he said that each time he stepped onto the field, it was a now-or-never moment. Cox explains that getting into flow was a mental state of "crossing the white line": "It's not about crossing the hash mark to kick the ball. It's about crossing the sideline of the football field. From the moment you step across that white line, you have to have already decided in your mind that you had made that kick. The moment you step over the sideline--that's when the kick is made or missed."

Being in flow is not something Steve had to think about. When he lined up to kick a field goal or kick a punt, he had between 1.1 and 1.3 seconds to react. Tens of thousands of people yelling, every moment captured in front of a nationally televised audience of millions--1.3 seconds. Steve described those intense moments, "I was so fully focused in the moment, so not thinking of anything else. I didn't hear the crowd. I didn't fear the threat of the defense. I experienced complete tunnel vision, and I felt overwhelming calm in exactly that moment."

That is living in flow.

Aside from playing on the winning team in Super Bowl XXII, Steve had another opportunity to match his skill-set with a huge challenge. He shared with me one of his other career highlights when he made a 60-yard field goal in a 1984 game against Cincinnati. When the coach signaled him to go in, Cox's heart pounded with excitement. "I knew this was the time. I took that single step across the white line, and that was all it took. I had dreamed about this moment. I had made hundreds of 60-yard field goals on the practice field, and I had made thousands of 60-yard field goals in my mind. The moment I stepped across the white line, I was 'in the zone.'"

The seconds ticked by in slow motion as the ball hung in the air, but, Cox says, "I already knew the outcome of this kick. I had decided the moment I stepped across the white line." That day, in a moment of flow, Cox became the second man in the NFL to kick a 60-yard field goal. Today, only seven men hold that record.

Flow happens when the challenges you face are just slightly higher than the skills you possess. Flow is constantly calling you to be more in life. Steve Cox began his career kicking sticks in his back yard when he could barely walk. He spent two to eight hours almost every day of his teenage and adult life practicing and perfecting the skill he loved. He kicked tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of kicks.

Living in flow has a price that most people are not willing to pay. Flow requires practice, learning, and effort. It requires looking a new challenge in the face and saying, "Bring it on."



Time strategy expert and best-selling author Allyson Lewis has spent the last 29 years developing and teaching concrete, actionable business ideas all over the country. In her latest book, The 7 Minute Solution, she shares strategies to help you Prioritize, Organize and Simplify® your life for greater meaning and productivity. Take advantage of the worksheets, webinars, and more--subscribe to the FREE Member Tools area of our website http://www.The7MinuteLife.com and follow her on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/AllysonLewis.SevenMinutes and Twitter: @allyson7minutes

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