You *Are* in a Zone…Man!

About mid-way though Ron Shelton’s brilliant White Men Can’t Jump, the trash talking reaches a fever pitch. Wesley Snipes (“Sidney Deane”) and Woody Harrelson (“Billy Hoyle”) chide the 2 reigning champs from the sidelines with mom jokes, peeling their self-confidence apart. Sidney is neither amused nor immune from Billy’s attacks and at one point drags him aside to shut him up. Billy resists the criticism and screams out ”What are you worried about, I’m in a zone man!”

To Billy’s his credit, he is in fact in a zone, both with the mom jokes as well as the basketball. He is comfortable and confident, makes assists, hits 3’s, and effortlessly disassembles the competition, running his mouth the whole time. And the pair go on to unseat the champs and to win the tournament.

Throughout the movie, he loses much of his winnings, even loses his girl, and confirms that white guys like him do struggle to dunk. But when he gets in his zone, he is unstoppable.

That Zone Though…

I’m a white guy as well. And as it turns out, I’m a decent basketball player. And although I could never dunk a basketball (for the record: I have dunked many tennis balls, a girl’s soccer ball, and even a volleyball at one point) I’ve been in many zones. You just feel “on it” and you can’t seem to miss. The feeling is so pronounced and memorable, especially against the backdrop of all the other times when you’re NOT in a zone.

So, what is this experience of “The Zone”, how is it that people just slip in and out of it, and how do we harness the state to make our lives more productive & more fulfilling?


Mihály Csíkszentmihályi is a Positive Psychologist who’s spent his life studying this exact phenomenon and he’s thoroughly documented it in his amazing book Flow. He was fascinated with why the entire field of psychology was focusing on the study of human pathology and dysfunction, as opposed to the positive states where human beings are at their best, their most satisfied, and their happiest.

The book cover. Now go read it.

Surprisingly, he found that this state of heightened consciousness and productivity was experienced by almost everyone. So not just professional athletes, but also poets, music composers, chess masters, blind nuns (his example, not mine), Navajo shepherds, Himalayan climbers, and just regular old folks like you and I. And whats more, they all seemed to describe this experience the exact same way: as moving along a current, effortlessly accomplishing, in an almost ecstatic un-self-conscious state.

So he coined this state “Flow”.

He identified 6 common components of the state, and here I’ll just simply plagiarize from Wikiepedia:

1. intense and focused concentration on the present moment
2. merging of action and awareness
3. a loss of reflective self-consciousness
4. a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
5. a distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
6. experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience

Staying in a Zone

But the state is problematic: It is ephemeral.

So it begs the question, if we want to maintain this state of heightened satisfaction & productivity as much as possible, how do we do it? It’s so frustrating to at one moment to be “in it”, and then a moment later to start throwing up bricks. And everyone around you has to gather the bricks up, and build a homeless shelter, so that your Mom has a place to live. (See what I did there?)

And the answer is: its not easy.

The first step is to recognize that the state exists, identify when you tend to feel it, and to understand its dynamics. If you’re into Quadrants, you’re in luck, Csíkszentmihályi has one that helps us understand the phenomenon well:

Quadrant fans, rejoice!

The idea is that your mental states are just a battle between your Skills and the Challenge posed by the task at hand.

Big challenge, but no skills? You feel anxiety.
Tons of skills, but no challenges afoot? You feel bored.

But if you encounter that magical mix of a task that’s challenging enough, and for which you’ve truly honed your craft…boom, Flow state!

And Csíkszentmihályi’s advice is since this state is so rewarding, you should retrofit your life to remain in Flow as much as possible.

So Now What?

There’s been a couple snowboarding experiences in the last 20 years that I can point to as great examples. Trails that are steep, deep, packed with trees, and I’m with a crew just slightly above my ability level. You hit a couple “oh shit” moments where you lose a sense for the incline, powder is splashing up in the air, but you just crush it.

There’s nothing like it.

And I’ve been fortunate enough to have oriented my career and my relationships to where the same experiences occur in them as well.

Since Csíkszentmihályi is no Steven Covey (ex. don’t expect a “Seven Habits of The Highly Flowed” from him anytime soon) its worth Googling around and looking at sites like this:

These will hopefully help you find ways to integrate Flow into your life and find a system that works for you.