What happens in the body and minds of those in their fields when performing at their best? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi once said, “Flow is completely being 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”. Ask yourself this question: What do I feel when I’m performing at my best in an important area of my life? The ultimate goal of optimal performance is to exercise control over the contents of our consciousness rather than let external factors dictate our actions. The modern-day language describes these experiences as being in a flow state, in the zone, in rhythm, in the groove etc. When this occurs, our senses are heightened, and time feels like it has slowed down. We connect with the task tightly, where action and awareness expose us to effortless momentum. This state of performance is accessible to anyone who voluntary pursues it.
When we direct our attention to an activity we’re passionate about and immersed in, we increase our ability to improve significantly. The more consistent we are in dedicating ourselves, the feelings that would otherwise consume us (fatigue, doubt, inhibition) begins to reduce. When we’re challenging ourselves with an activity or task, our mind reaches peak capacity. And if this materialises in something we enjoy, we achieve a mental flow state, leaving us motivated and fulfilled to continue. Different elements contribute to achieving a state of flow and happiness.
Being In a Relaxed State
In any field, there is a consistent theme of relaxation to reach optimal performance. A violinist would posture up correctly and breathe to reduce the tension through playing. A boxer would learn to stay calm in the ring to avoid expending unnecessary energy. A mother would understand when they need to submerge themselves from high energy demands to refocus and re-energise. Performance anxiety is prone to inhibiting peak performance. Before engaging in an area of focus, we should practice being in a tranquil state. We can achieve this in different ways: exercise, meditation, performing at our optimal time of the day, etc. The difference in applying optimal behaviours from a tranquil state means we are able to remove ourselves from an overcrowded mental space, honing in on what’s required. Our improvement multiplies because our focus does not provide room for external factors.
Setting The Right Goals
Without direction in our actions, it becomes hard to perform at our peak continually. We set ourselves up for deliberate practice when we set goals, which encourages us to project our efforts into challenges. Knowing where we’re at and the steps to take is essential. In return, we can measure our improvement effectively, helping realise what’s required of us when showing up to perform. In a flow state, we know what needs to be done. For example, a writer knows what topic to write on at any given time. A musician knows what notes to play. A doctor understands when to refer a patient and to whom. We all set goals, but learning to understand our relationship with them is equally important.
Connecting Action and Awareness
Distractions in our daily lives are imminent. The friend attempts to have a conversation with someone but can’t help notice what’s occurring over their shoulder. The employee sits at their desk to work but moves around the office on other matters. We all have, and will, continue to experience little moments like these. In a flow state, our concentration is focused on one act. Typical elements are that we are only aware of what is relevant to us in the moment. If the friend focuses on what’s occurring elsewhere when having a conversation, they may miss a critical piece of information. If the employee continues to move around the office unnecessarily, they risk ‘busyness’ instead of being more productive.
Optimal Performance and Flow
Peak performance is an exceptional act in focus on what’s in front of us and where we should direct our attention to. To tip the scale in favour of the act, we should practice living in presence. We should set an intention before each activity and improve to identify the moments of focus throughout our day. The benefits incur a significant increase of mental discipline to focus on our performance, relieving us of usual fears that cause anxiety and internal fears of executing at our best.
The essence of optimal performance and flow is not characterised by subjective feelings, but by withdrawing interference of our thinking mind. When a tennis player is dominating on the court, hitting winners from any area of the court, they are not consciously thinking, “how can I get this ball past my opponent”. They are letting effortless momentum guide them. Being fully immersed in a task worthwhile indicates an absence of self. American psychologist Martin Seligman said, “You go into flow when your highest strengths are deployed to meet the highest challenges that come your way”. This is applicable in the work we do, the sport we participate in, the relationships we have and the life we live.