Flow Experiences, the Zone and Optimal Performance

Flow is the state of optimal experience when the body and mind are pushed to the limit to complete a difficult task. It is these moments that bring us happiness and fulfillment in our lives.

Flow is an intrinsic experience of our own making that is not dependent on outside factors. It is a source of mental energy, motivating action and focusing attention. This state involves complete concentration, creativity, and deep enjoyment. When applied to sports it is often referred to as being in the zone.

Hungarian Psychology Professor, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, developed the idea of of flow through his extensive research in positive psychology during the 1970s. He describes 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.”


The Four Criteria for a Flow Experience

  1. The presence of a challenging activity.
  2. The perception that skills match the challenge.
  3. Clear goals.
  4. The availability of instant feedback concerning performance.

Compare the criteria for a Flow experience with the seven characteristics of the Zone and you’ll find it is essentially the same thing. When an athlete says they were in the Zone they are describing a Flow experience.

The Seven Characteristics of the Zone

  1. Being totally absorbed and focused on the activity.
  2. Experience of an inner clarity and understanding exactly what is required, knowing that their skills are matched to the task.
  3. A sense of ecstasy – being outside everyday reality.
  4. ‘Being in the moment,’ focusing completely on the present. Unaware of time passing – a sense of time slowing down.
  5. A deep passion for the activity leading to higher levels of performance.
  6. Sense of serenity – no anxiety, no ego so no worries about the outcome of action.
  7. No sense of effort. The activity becomes easy.


Enter the Flow State – balance challenge and skill

Flow DiagramFlow is reached when both the challenge and skill required are high, top right in the diagram (source: Wikipedia). On the opposite end is apathy where the challenge and skill level are low. Anxiety results if the challenge is high and skills are low. Flow is a dynamic state. As skills increase the challenge must also increase and vice versa to prevent boredom.

Flow Creating Activities

According to Csikszentmihalyi’s studies flow is easier to produce and more often experienced at work. A job has the built in criteria for flow – goals, feedback, challenge and skill. Of course the right combination of these are necessary to reach this optimal state of performance!

Free time activity can also bring about flow though some are better than others. In a study with US teens flow was observed 13% of the time while watching TV, 34% of the time while engaged in hobbies (music, reading, movies, social interactions), and 44% of the time while playing sports and games.

My Flow Experience

I love classic style cross-country ski marathon races. Although this story is from my 2010 race which I hoped to repeat this year, I can say I had moments of being in the Zone during my ski last weekend. When asked why I race, it is for these experiences…

A few weeks before the race I had set mt goal, a top three finish. As the race neared I re-set my goal to win. At the start of the 45 km event I quickly went to the front of the field. I was skiing hard and focusing on each stride – kick, glide, pole. I could hear my competitors breathing hard behind me. I felt good and kept up the strong pace for the first mostly flat 15 km. My opponents and I came into the feed station together at the base of the first challenging climb. I was determined. I skied away in the lead and pushed on towards the steep slopes. Passing skiers as I worked my way up the snow covered hill I felt great! Although others seemed to be suffering, stopping and walking, I didn’t notice my effort. I just keep going faster and faster towards the top. It felt as though I was skiing outside myself as I increased the gap from my pursuers. At the summit I was alone and I realized I had pulled away! I plummeted down the other side of the mountain never again to see or hear the other women in my race.

I reached Flow because I had a goal, my skills and the challenge were matched and I had immediate feedback about my performance. Use this same Flow criteria to create more moments of joy in your life!

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About the Author


Jessica uses an integrative approach to help you overcome chronic pain. She believes in treating the whole person utilizing the biopsychosocial approach to healing. Her offerings include posture therapy, online exercise classes, pain science education, and individual or group wellness coaching. She is certified by the Postural Restoration Institute® (PRI), Egoscue University®, National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), American Council on Exercise (ACE) and Wellcoaches.