Optimal Performance – Enhancing the Odds

The concept of “Flow” was introduced by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. It presents a fascinating view of how an individual can enhance the odds of functioning “in the zone” (as it’s often known in the sports world) in any aspect of our professional or personal lives. Here’s a summary diagram:



In a nutshell, the diagram shows that when your challenge exceeds your skills, the result is anxiety. We freeze up – or give up – when the challenge outweighs the skills we have available to address that challenge. On the other end of the spectrum, when our skills exceed the challenge before us, we become bored. Our focus is no longer needed, as “going through the motions” provides more than enough to complete the task, so that becomes our approach. When challenge and skill match up perfectly, that’s when the “flow experience” takes place.

You (or your client) may look at this diagram and think “Hmmm – the concept makes good sense, but I seem to be missing out on that slice of flow in the middle,” you’re not alone. While the diagram makes it appear that “flow” makes up a reasonable percentage of the day, the reality is that it’s rarely experienced across the population as a whole. Many writers utilize this fact to point out employers or managers as the guilty party in this equation. If “they” would do a better job of creating engaging work settings, this issue would be reduced significantly. However, while it’s certainly wise for managers to look for ways to enhance the work setting, there’s a better solution. More importantly, YOU hold the key to this solution, so you’re not dependent upon someone else to improve your flow opportunity.

The width of the “flow channel” is dependent upon 3 components under your direct control: Sleep, Fuel and Motion. Each of these will expand or shrink the likelihood of an individual experiencing the flow described by Csikszentmihalyi. Let’s briefly address each of these and their impact on flow…

Sleep: There is no such thing as a magic solution. However, sleep might very well represent the closest thing we have to being just that. Outside of the rare individual who sleeps soundly through the night and awakens rested without an alarm, sleep improves every aspect of life. From relationships to financial decisions, weight management to career pursuits and everything in between, there is a direct correlation between sleep and performance. In terms of the above flow diagram, sleep expands your skills while reducing the magnitude of your challenges.

Fuel: Picture yourself driving a car through a fast-paced and challenging race course. In order to maximize your opportunity in the race, you would insist on the highest grade fuel available, as that’s at the very core of the car’s performance. The same is (hopefully obviously) true when it comes to our bodies. High grade fuel allows you to optimize the skills you have available within the flow diagram. It essentially allows you to experience “flow” up to the very edge of your skill capacity. Shorting yourself in terms of fuel reduces your capacity potential and kicks you into the anxiety or boredom mode much more quickly.

Motion: The research on the value of motion or movement in our daily lives continues to mount. Newton’s 1st Law of Motion tells us that a body at rest remains at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.  The problem is that remaining at rest gradually causes the body (and in many cases, the mind) to deteriorate. In our flow diagram, this essentially reduces the skill side of our personal equation, further shrinking the flow channel.

So, if you’re finding yourself missing out on the opportunity to experience flow, stop looking to others to enhance your situation or circumstances. Start by addressing the Sleep/Fuel/Motion equation and you’ll find yourself with a broader flow channel going into the future!

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