January 11, 2023
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by Andrea Dias

Flow states, also known as “being in the zone,” refer to a feeling of engagement and enjoyment stemming from a high state of concentration. Flow is an incredibly desirable state for many people, as it can lead to improved efficiency and heightened creativity. Because of its relationship to high performance, everybody wants to sell the formula to achieve Flow states, but I must tell you that Flow, Peak Performances, and Peak Experiences are different; they can occur together or NOT.

For example,

You are experiencing Flow, showed excellent performance, won the competition, and now, during the interview, you say that you are stoked!

Good, but three different states occurred!

Flow is not the same as peak performance. Flow can be defined as a psychological experience when the individual is engaged in a challenging activity. Flow can happen in almost any activity that has a balance between challenge and skill level, involves total concentration, and requires participation to achieve a goal. You cannot experience Flow watching TV, but you can experience Flow writing a book chapter. Flow can also happen at work or in leisure activities such as gardening, cooking, or driving.

Peak Performance is a superior functioning to achieve an outcome such as a victory, your best, or breaking a world record. Peak performances can happen when the athlete is experiencing Flow, but it does not need the Flow states to occur. Other not-so-positive emotions, such as anger and fear, and in the right amount for the individual, can improve performance and lead to physically extreme accomplishments. Of course, performing at your optimal level will bring a positive experience; but it is not the same as Flow.

A peak experience is a positive and intense moment of highest happiness, a fulfilling and meaningful moment. It is an emotional and personal experience that can be related to an excellent performance or not. So, a peak experience can happen when your child is born, you get married, or you win a championship.

Here comes the catch;

Sometimes the individual can experience Flow and not show superior performance. Or the individual can show peak performance and NOT experience the optimal feelings of Flow. And sometimes, all three can occur; Flow can precede peak performance which can precede peak experience. So now, when you hear someone saying, “I am stocked”, it is a peak experience, and maybe it occurred after a Flow state and a peak performance. Or, it is just a peak experience after a highly stressful competition where high anxiety levels kicked in (no Flow states at all).

While Flow is often sought in sports, academics, and business, there are potential negative consequences to relying solely on extrinsic motivators to elicit Flow. According to the psychologist who described it, external rewards can ultimately disrupt reaching a state of Flow and should be avoided.

“As soon as the emphasis shifts from the experience per se to what you can accomplish with it, we are back in the realm of everyday life ruled by extrinsic considerations (Csikszentmihalyi)”.

But if you aspire to achieve an optimal state of creativity and productive performance called “Flow,” here are key steps that can increase your chance of experiencing it.

Firstly, Flow states require challenge; without potential obstacles or challenging goals to tackle, Flow will be impossible. Secondly, the challenge must be in balance with skill level. Anything interpreted as above the resources you have will trigger the stress response. Also, anything too easy will trigger boredom, not Flow. Thirdly, in the case of sports, your motor abilities must be so well trained that they become automatic; thinking too much about the execution of a skill disrupts Flow. Finally, you will also need intrinsic motivation, something that you want to achieve because it is personally rewarding.

To summarize, Flow is a state of high concentration when someone is immersed in the activity; it can lead to peak performances or NOT. Peak Performance occurs when some perform at high levels physically or mentally, or both. A peak experience is a sense of ecstasy over an experience. One state can lead to the other, but they do not necessarily need to occur together. Flow became so popular that even people who do not truly understand its relationship to performance try to sell it. However, it is important to remember that you can still achieve peak performances without experiencing Flow, and trying to achieve Flow focused on the outcome it can bring (high performance) will blow it.

And, if you need help to achieve peak performances or experience Flow more often, schedule your free consultation.

Andrea C. Dias, MA, ABSP

References:

Jackson, S. A. (2011). Flow. In Morris, T. & Terry, P. (Eds). New sport and exercise psychology companion (pp. 327-357). Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Tech.

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