Is there a secret to staying in the zone?
In interviews, famous people often say that the key to becoming both happy and successful is to “do what you love.” But mastering a skill, even one that you deeply love, requires a huge amount of drudgery. Any challenging activity—from computer programming to playing a musical instrument to athletics—requires focused and concentrated practice. A perfect golf swing or flawless butterfly stroke takes untold hours of practice (actually around 10,000 hours, according to Malcolm Gladwell) and countless repetitions to perfect.
Anyone who wants to master a skill must run through the cycle of practice, critical feedback, modification, and incremental improvement again, again, and again. Some people seem able to concentrate on practicing an activity like this for years and take pleasure in their gradual improvement. Yet others find this kind of focused, time-intensive work to be frustrating or boring. Why?
The difference may turn on the ability to enter into a state of “flow,” the feeling of being completely involved in what you are doing. Whether you call it being “in the zone,” “in a groove,” or something else, a flow state is a special experience. Since Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi developed the concept of flow in the 1970s, it has been a mainstay of positive-psychology research. Flow states can happen in the course of any activity, and they are most common when a task has well-defined goals and is at an appropriate skill level, and where the individual is able to adjust their performance to clear and immediate feedback.
Flow states turn the drudgery of practice into an autotelic activity—that is, one that can be enjoyed for its own sake, rather than as a means to an end or for attaining some external reward. That raises the question of how we can turn this to our advantage: How can we get into a flow state for an activity that we want to master, so that we enjoy both the process of improving skills and the rewards that come with being a master?