By mile 10 of my first half-marathon, the persistent, frigid drizzle had forced my fingers into a clenched C shape. The thrill of running alongside thousands of people after weeks of solo training had mellowed into a quiet, somewhat dull drive toward the finish line. Then, without warning or conscious effort, my body started moving faster. The hard pavement felt like a supportive mattress. A sense of elegance freed me from my clumsy body. I was — there is no other way to put it — at one with the cityscape around me. I was in the zone.
In the 1960s, psychologist Abraham Maslow became the first academic to write about what he called “peak experiences,” moments of elation that come from pushing ourselves in challenging tasks. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called it “flow,” and his extensive studies, beginning in the late 1960s, eventually drew interest from researchers around the world. Psychologists have since amassed a wealth of data and insights on flow, also known as “being in the zone”: what it is, how it works and why it matters. The research has created a road map for all the runners — and artists, chess players, rock climbers, etc. — who seek the exhilaration you feel when completely absorbed in the pursuit of something difficult. And that road map points to one direction: The best way to reach flow is to forget you’re trying to get there.
In the 1960s, Csikszentmihalyi noticed many artists kept working despite hunger or fatigue when the painting was going well. The promise of fame or fortune wasn’t the motivation; it was the work itself — it felt good. Dancers, composers and others practicing a singular skill followed the same pattern.
The descriptions people gave about the state of flow were so strikingly similar that Csikszentmihalyi could identify eight essential ingredients. Some are prescriptive: A person must be challenging themselves, he wrote in 1990. They must have clear goals. They must be totally absorbed in what they’re doing. Their thoughts and actions must be in sync. Other points are more descriptive: Distractions disappear as their attention remains solely with the task at hand, though effortlessly so. They feel totally in control of themselves, without self-consciousness or worries. Time may seem to move faster or slower. And there is a sense of reward — what Csikszentmihalyi calls an “autotelic experience,” sometimes arriving after they’ve left the zone. (Being in the zone or in a state of flow can be akin to the “runner’s high” some people experience during or after a run.)
More recently, psychologists focused on performance have developed different theories about how people can get into the zone. Gabriele Wulf, who studies motor learning at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, suggests that performing optimally — the kind of effort that leads to flow — depends on three key factors. First, Wulf says, a person needs to focus externally on the task — what note comes next in the composition or what slim ledge to grip on the rock face — and not fret about what other people are thinking or whether their body is moving perfectly. “Anything that reflects people’s worries or concerns about their performance,” Wulf says, will detract from flow.
Second, confidence is essential — or as Wulf puts it, “expecting good things to happen.” Often, confidence requires believing that a talent is learnable rather than innate. Several years ago, Wulf and a colleague conducted a study in which they asked three groups to perform a task involving balancing. The researchers told one group that the ability was inherent and another that it could be learned (the third received no such information). The group told they could learn to balance did better than the other two groups and adjusted their bodies more than the other participants. “Learning was enhanced by instructions portraying the task as a learnable skill,” the researchers wrote in their paper, published in the Journal of Motor Behavior in 2009. Coaches might want to take heed of this insight. “Positive feedback is absolutely critical,” says Wulf, who focuses on sports performance. “Negative motivation does not work.” That also goes for the messages we send to ourselves.
Finally, excelling is a matter of autonomy, Wulf says. Choosing when we want feedback or instruction, such as one more demonstration of a dance move, helps us perform better. It’s the simple act of choosing that’s empowering. In one study, Wulf asked two groups to try a certain task. In a seemingly unrelated matter, she asked one group to choose between two prints to hang on an office wall. That group performed better on the task. Autonomy, says Wulf, “conveys a sense of self-respect” and makes us less self-conscious. These strategies change us; imaging studies of optimal performers reveal distinct regions of the brain becoming linked, a phenomenon known as functional connectivity.
Arne Dietrich, a neuroscientist at the American University of Beirut, believes all these behaviors lead to flow by reducing brain activity. The way Dietrich sees it, flow is really a matter of quieting our minds. This means the explicit learning system — responsible for conscious, sophisticated thinking and verbalizing — must take a back seat. In flow, “you do not analyze what you’re doing,” Dietrich says. “The very essence is that you’re not thinking.” The only way to achieve this balance is to let the implicit learning system — responsible for quick, efficient and automatic responses — drive the car.
Getting lost like that isn’t necessarily easy. Another way to get to achieve flow is through preparation. In a 2016 study published in Consciousness Cognition, psychologist Genevieve Cseh and her team at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland found that for visual artists, sketching out a drawing out before beginning to formally compose it increased the likelihood of reaching a creative high. “Flow requires a very clear sense of how we’re doing at all times,” Cseh wrote in an email. Sketching may help prevent uncertainty that can interfere with that. And having less to think about may also contribute, she notes.
Mindfulness techniques could also work. A group of Taiwanese researchers found that a four-week mindfulness workshop helped a team of amateur baseball players there get into the zone. But, above all, getting into the zone follows the same route as getting to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. Csikszentmihalyi speaks about the need to transcend both boredom and anxiety; the former by finding new challenges in our chosen pursuit, and the latter by improving our skills. “More expertise makes it easier to obtain flow,” says Örjan de Manzano, a postdoctoral researcher at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute.
And the pathway to the zone can be forged early. Children who are exposed to many activities may stay motivated to pursue something they enjoy more than those who are forced to specialize too early. At the same time, children should understand that not everything worth doing is always fun. The sense of reward that comes from learning something, de Manzano says, “inspires further learning.” Flow begets flow. Csikszentmihalyi believes the flow state is even more elemental: “When you are in flow, you are really living.” Everything else we do, he says, is just preparation for the next episode of flow.
To Wulf, the reason for chasing the zone is simple: “More than anything,” she says, “it’s enjoyable.” But science has shown that being in the zone has unexpected benefits. Last year, a group of researchers from the Karolinska Institute reported results from a study of 10,000 Swedish twins showing that people with a predilection for getting into the zone were less likely to feel depressed or burned out from work. Genetics accounted for some cases of depression, but not all. “Flow experience,” lead author Miriam Mosing wrote in an email, “may indeed be somewhat protective from mental health problems.” Because the good feeling of reward washes in on a wave powered by our own efforts, flow helps us excel. That may even be its purpose. “Flow,” de Manzano suggests, “evolved as a reward signal to promote long-term skill acquisition.”
Whether you get there by focusing confidently, quieting your brain or practicing your skills, Csikszentmihalyi offers some cautions. After decades of studying people in the zone, he says, he has seen dedicated athletes and artists chasing the rush of achievement at the expense of all else, only to feel lost when their careers end. “Suddenly, they don’t know what to do with their life anymore.”
Csikszentmihalyi, 84, sees wisdom in the story of his older brother, who spent seven years in a Siberian prison after World War II. He came home “a destroyed human being,” Csikszentmihalyi says, but also happy. He paid attention to small things. “He could spend 10, 15 minutes looking at a fleck of sunlight on the wall,” the psychologist recalls. Doing so put him in the flow state. Lost in the moment, the zone found him.
Jessica Wapner is a science writer based in New York. You can find her @jessicawapner.