How to Get into Your Zone

James Allworth

Here is an excerpt from an article written by James Allworth for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.

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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; visualization is, too. But they’re far from the only ones. I’ve heard of a number of unconventional ways of using imagination to great effect. A friend of mine who is a very good swimmer — and also who loves driving cars — doesn’t swim his races by thinking about swimming, as such. Instead, he imagines himself “driving” his body through the race in what he describes as an almost out-of-body experience. He even imagines a “Go Baby Go” button 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.

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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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Allworth then offers and discovers five specific tactics that have been very successful for him and other results-driven people. To read the complete article, please click hereJames Allworth is the co-author of the forthcoming book How Will You Measure Your Life? co-authored with Clayton Christensen and Karen Dillon (May 15, 2012). He has worked as a Fellow at the Forum for Growth and Innovation at Harvard Business School. Connect with him on Twitter at @jamesallworth. To check out more blog posts by James Allworth, please click here.


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