How to Get into Your Zone

by James Allworth

The “zone.” Flow. Whatever you want to call it, at one stage or another, every one of us aspires to get there. It’s when we do our best work, achieve our peak performance. Last weekend, I competed in the New England Masters Swim Championships, and for the past eighteen months I’ve been co-authoring a book. Both of these are endeavors that rely extensively on an ability to get in the zone; they can truly make the difference between a good day and a great one.

But getting there is hard. How can you do it reliably? I’ve had that thought rolling around in my mind for the past couple of weeks since seeing Dharmesh Shah of HubSpot on Twitter wondering aloud about exactly this. Now, you will often hear people talk about the zone in the context of intellectual or athletic pursuits, but rarely both. I’ve been able to apply tactics from each sphere — in sports and in business — to improve my performance in the other, and I wanted to capture some of what I have learned. My experience is that are three broad rules that you have to understand in order to get in the zone:

There’s no zone for new activities: The first time you sit down to do something, you’re not going to find flow; nor the second, or the tenth, and probably not even the hundredth. Why? Getting in the zone requires activating the subconscious part of the brain. The very nature of it requires you not to be trying, not consciously thinking about what it is you’re doing — instead, you’re just doing it. Obviously, it is infinitely more difficult to achieve this if the activity is one at which you’re unpracticed: I am almost certain that nobody dives into the pool for the first time in their life, having never swum before, and manages to achieve flow. There’s simply too much of their conscious brain at work; their brain is working overtime, thinking about everything required to keep them afloat. It works the same way with intellectual pursuits; if you’re an unpracticed writer, or coder, it’s not going to happen the first time you sit down to do it. You’ve got to be at the point where you’ve put in the ten thousand hours of practice or have formed the necessary myelin pathways to have a shot of getting there.

The Zone requires your subconscious: Flow only works when the subconscious takes over from the conscious mind. Being practiced at what you do is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. This is where other techniques start to kick in: meditation is a well-known way of doing exactly this;for his finishes (from Gone In 60 Seconds). I thought it pretty funny when I first heard that, but I certainly don’t relish racing against him.

This mechanism doesn’t just work in athletic pursuits, either. There’s the famous example of Steve Jobs, disappointed with the boot time of the Macintosh. He walked into the cubicle of Larry Kenyon. Kenyon was trying to explain why it took as long as it did — but Jobs cut him off. “If it could save a person’s life, would you find a way to shave ten seconds off the boot time?” Kenyon ended up finding the time; and not just 10 seconds, but 28. I can’t help but wonder whether he actually imagined saving someone’s life as he wrote the code.

The Zone is emotional. Some emotions will help you find flow; others will scare it off. One field in which finding flow can be absolutely essential to success is presenting — and good presenters who love their job will talk about their ability to drop in on the zone as one of the best parts about their jobs. Being passionate about the topic, and a deep, almost-religious conviction in what they are talking about seem to be the common ingredients of those who find flow while presenting. What’s interesting is that in talented amateur presenters, you can often see the progression into the zone — at first, they’re worried about what people are thinking, and this feeling of self-consciousness just stops them from finding flow… until, they relax, they realize they’re doing OK. They find their feet and slip into the zone.

Once you understand these principles, there are a range of tactics that I have found can help to tip me in:

  1. Find the right environment. Figure out which types of environments are most conducive to finding your flow, and work them in whenever possible. I know, for example, that a coffee shop will help me start writing much more easily than sitting in an office. A good friend absolutely swears by airplanes. The notion of the environment being important applies equally in athletic endeavours: the home field advantage is well-known, but I’ve spoken to athletes who find that playing in away settings delivers them a huge mental advantage — they lose themselves in a feeling of “them against the entire stadium.” Different people need different things. Learn what they are for you.
  2. Music seems to help immensely, particularly in the context of activating those emotions. It is not at all uncommon to see athletes listening to music during training or right before a big event. Winter Olympians have iPods built into their ski jackets. That’s no accident — the impact of music on athletic performance has been well researched. I’ve found the same effect while work — I spend a lot of time writing with headphones in, and getting the music right always seems to be a pretty important step to getting the words right. An added advantage: it blocks out distractions. Know what you need to feel to find flow, and then get your music to help.
  3. Caffeine. It won’t guarantee a state of flow — particularly if you’re using it as a crutch — but at least in my experience at work, it sure increases the odds.
  4. Exercising both your body and your mind. If you want to find flow in athletic endeavours, then don’t fail to exercise your mind; similarly, if you want to drop into the zone at work, then exercise your body. I had to stop exercising after a minor surgery — and my ability to get in the zone at work dropped substantially. I just couldn’t do it. The nature of the zone is that it is neither purely physical, nor purely mental. Having both parts of your body functioning well helps you get there.
  5. Find your best time of day. Understanding your circadian rhythms are critical. By going back and checking the timestamps on my best work, 3pm and 10pm seem to be peak periods for me. Similarly, I just know by experience that anything before 10am in the morning is simply a lost cause; yes, I can be productive, but there’s no way I’m getting in the zone.

And, then of course, there are the days where you’re not getting into the zone no matter what time it is, how many coffees you drink or what music you’re listening to. And that’s OK. If you’re just not feeling it, cut yourself some slack. I have found that it’s better to listen to your body on days like these — particularly if your work is quality-of-output driven. Instead of working on the critical stuff, take care of the distractions — the emails, the phone calls, and empty your mind of the niggling to-dos. Then get an early night.

These are all hypotheses based on personal experience, and those of some friends and colleagues who I have spoken to on the subject. I know that everyone is going to have different experiences within the categories (e.g. different music!) — and even different categories altogether. I’d love to hear what you have found to work — and what you think I’m totally wrong on. What puts you in the zone?


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