Flow: How to Get in the Zone and Stay There

Flow chart

Ever sit down with your guitar and realize… wow, I’m playing much better than normal today. You’re making very few mistakes, you’re playing faster and more efficiently. Why can’t we play like that all the time?

The ability to get into this state has always been in high demand, and many great performers and athletes have been distinguished among their peers for being able to get “in the zone”. Luckily, you can learn how to as well.

For years, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has been the pre-eminent researcher on “being in the zone”, or as he calls it, “flow”. His research has shown that we can achieve “flow” doing just about anything, from playing an instrument or a game of basketball to washing the dishes, driving, or having a conversation.

What exactly is “flow”?

Flow is a state that combines relaxation with extreme focus. When someone experiences flow they may lose track of time and forget about things beyond the task they are doing. While in flow, people report not feeling particularly bad or good, but a feeling of enduring satisfaction is reported in the hours afterwards. In flow, people seem to get out of their own way, and focus completely on a task, often achieving greater results in the process. What’s more, research has shown that being in “flow” offers many of the same relaxation, focus, and other benefits associated with spending time in a meditative state.

How do you access flow?

All you need is to be challenged at a level that just meets the upper limits of your current skill level. If the challenge is too hard, you’ll get frustrated and anxious. If the challenge is too easy, you may get bored. The chart above shows the relationship between the difficulty of a task and your skill level. The chart above shows how the balance between difficulty of a task and skill level at that task affects your emotional state.

How do I use this with my guitar playing?

For starters, you can use the chart above to see how when you’re frustrated, your challenge is too great for your skill level, and not making progress is giving you that bad emotion. Try easing up, slowing down, simplifying, switching to something else or just taking a break. If you’re feeling bored, you’re not challenging yourself enough. Try learning a new song, new technique, or even a new instrument. It’s often easier to find a challenge than to discard one.

How long will it take to get in the zone?

It varies from person to person, and I’ve found that the worst thing you can do is expect that it will happen. (It’s a lot like people describe getting into other states involving relaxation and focus—meditation.) In my experience the best thing you can do is just pick up the guitar, try to let go of whatever else is on your mind, and enjoy playing. Sometimes I’ll start playing and be on right away. Sometimes, I’ll start playing and feel really off, but if I keep going for a while (sometimes up to an hour or so), I’ll get into that zone.

So in short…

You’ll play better. You’ll feel better. You’ll be healthier. Win, win, win.