That was Kentucky coach John Calipari’s advice to one of his star players, Julius Randle, during half-time of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship game this past Monday night. Coming into the game, Randle had been averaging over 15 points and 10 rebounds, yet entering half-time he had scored just 6 points, grabbed 2 rebounds, and was clearly fazed by the pressure-packed environment of the championship contest. Calipari knew his player was out of rhythm, trying too hard to contribute and forcing the action, rather than relaxing and letting the game come to him. Calipari wanted Randle to get lost in the game, to be in the flow.
The flow is the metal state you’re in when you’re fully immersed in an activity that consumes your entire focus, energizes your attention, and produces a deep level of satisfaction and joy through the process. In the groove…in the zone…wired…in the moment…on fire…and my personal favorite, beast mode, are all ways of expressing this condition. It’s when we do our best work and experience the most fulfillment in our activities. It’s also a rare and fleeting circumstance to be in the flow.
How can we be in the flow more often? How can we get “lost in the game?” First, we have to understand the conditions that lead to flow experiences. Second, we have to take steps to create the environment for us to get in the flow.
Conditions for Flow Experiences
There are three basic conditions you need for flow experiences:
- A clear goal – This is why you often hear athletes talk about being in the zone or having tunnel focus when it comes to their activities. Whether it’s trying to hit a pitched ball, complete a pass, score a goal, make a last second shot, or cross the finish line ahead of others, there is a clear goal that lends purpose, structure, and process to the task at hand. A lack of clear goals is why we often don’t experience the flow at work. Unclear goals make it difficult to narrow our focus and attention and leaves us feeling stuck or overwhelmed with the work in front of us.
- A balance between your skills and the challenge of the task – If you perceive you have the skills to meet the difficulty of the challenge ahead of you, it’s easier to get in the flow. If you believe you’re ill-equipped or don’t have the talent to accomplish the goal, anxiety and stress will prevent you from achieving a flow-state. Conversely, if you believe the goal is not challenging enough given your experience and skills, you’ll encounter boredom or apathy. You need the goal to be challenging enough to capture your attention, while simultaneously having enough skill to give you the confidence that you can tackle the situation.
- Real time feedback on your performance – You can feel when you’re in the flow. It’s those occasions where you lose track of time because you’re completely immersed in an activity and things just, well…flow. And when you’re not, you feel like you’re trudging up a muddy hill, taking one step up and sliding back two. Flow is sustained by receiving feedback on your performance. When you see you’re performing well, it increases your confidence and desire to stay in the flow. When you see you’re off course, you can make adjustments to get back on track and in the flow.
How to Increase Flow Experiences
We can take concrete steps to help increase flow experiences at work that will allow us to perform our best. Here are six suggestions:
- Connect your work to the bigger picture – Too many of us view our work with a microscope rather than a telescope. A microscope allows you to zoom in on the details of a particular object, ignoring the surrounding area. A telescope, on the other hand, allows you to see long distances away—the big picture. Rather than being uninspired by the small tasks you have to do, connect them to the importance of the big picture. Figure out how your work contributes to the betterment of the world. How does your work help improve the lives of people by meeting their needs or desires? All work has redeeming value and it’s up to us to discover it. Tapping into the bigger picture will add motivation and commitment to your work and help you achieve flow in your activities.
- Clarify and prioritize goals – If your goals aren’t clear, work on gaining clarity. Figure out specifically what you’re trying to accomplish, what the standards are, the deadlines to meet, or the deliverables being produced. If you’re challenged with too many goals, work on prioritization. If you have conflicting priorities from multiple stakeholders, you may have to involve your supervisor to help you. Get clear on what you need to accomplish and then apply laser-like focus to your activities.
- View work as a game – Games in general, and video games in particular, lend themselves to flow experiences because they are immersive in nature. We get wrapped up in figuring how to reach the new level, unlock the next treasure, or beat the “boss.” You can apply the same principles to your work. Engage your mind in thinking about how can you accomplish things faster, better, or easier. Are there other ways you can approach tasks or activities that may bring more fulfillment? Look at work as a game you’re trying to master and let your creativity run wild.
- Seek out bigger challenges and/or improve your skills – Complacency, boredom, and apathy are flow killers. If you find your work lacking in challenge, seek out new ones. Work with your supervisor to see if there are increased responsibilities you can take on, project teams you can join, or other ways to add more challenge in your work. On the flip side, worry, stress, and anxiety are also flow killers. If you find your work is too challenging, explore skill development opportunities. Go back to school, read books, get a mentor, or seek out additional training to boost your confidence and capability to meet the challenges you face.
- Find your sweet spot – Your sweet spot is where your skills are matched appropriately to the challenge, and when you find that place, you have the greatest chance of achieving states of flow. Finding your sweet spot might mean following point #4 above, or it might mean transforming how you do your work by changing/improving processes, delegating it to someone, or collaborating with others.
- Choose your motivation – Your supervisor is not responsible for motivating you. You, and only you, control your level of motivation. You can choose to be disinterested in your work or feel like others are imposing work on you, or you can choose to shift your motivational outlook by focusing on areas of your work where you can exhibit autonomy in your activities, mastery over how well you do your job, and satisfaction in the relationships you build with others.
Kentucky ended up losing the championship to UConn and Julius Randle never really got into the flow of the game, finishing with just 10 points and 6 rebounds. However, it doesn’t negate the wisdom of Coach Calipari’s advice. We do our best work when we get lost in the game.