When I started studying gifted professionals, one of the issues that I ran across was that of people getting “in the zone”. Elite athletes, artists and musicians talk about it. How do they access their gifts and talents in such a way that it “flows” out of them, resulting in outstanding performance?
I was recently asked to record an instructional video for a video services company. On the day I was due to record, I was tired from a great lack of sleep, in a new environment and running between appointments. Needless to say, I was not “in the zone”. In fact, I don’t think I was even on the same playing field. After three complete attempts and a review of the results, I told the company I was not happy and would re-record it for them on another day when I had had more sleep. It won’t cost them anything – just push the record button and go, but it means that I will be able to provide them a much better product.
Sometimes we get so hectic that we can’t get into that high performance zone that élite athletes talk about. Even with all their coaches, practices, trials and more, those élite athletes also perform at less than their best when the moment comes.
There are many secrets to performing in a zone - they involve focused attention, cognitive load, automaticity of functioning, appropriate environment, suitability, talent and skill development, etc. etc. etc. But what do you do when you can’t get into the zone?
Here just two keys:
1. RESHAPE YOUR ENVIRONMENT WHERE POSSIBLE
Make things work for you, not the other way around.
I was discussing this with the director of a tech company who also does a lot of computer programming. He said that when he programs, it takes him a full day just to “get in the mode.” There is a way of thinking required, variables to hold in memory, contexts and global conditions for him to consider in order for him to write great code. He said others could supposedly work on it, but it’s one of the things he’s really good at, so he does it and it’s why they have the products they have. A close colleague and friend of his was in on the conversation and said, “Yes, sometimes the other directors don’t understand that if he’s in there programming, he can’t come out and answer a question about something else. It’s like him going down a mineshaft and then you calling him up to ask him what the time is!”
But because he gets “in the zone” and is quite a gifted and highly skilled mathematician, programmer and engineer he creates software solutions that other companies with scores of programmers and many millions upon millions of dollars of investment have not been able to develop. That’s the advantage of “the zone”.
This director has learned to shape his environment so that he can devote himself to something that he does exceptionally well, without distraction.
2. DON’T FRET IF YOU DON’T GET THERE
Sports psychologists spend a great deal of time trying to help athletes pull out of a bad run. They take a dip and it keeps going down – “I’ll never get back in that zone.” This is one of the reasons megastars make those crazy demands for a certain type of bottled water, gilded baths and weird foods on demand: they’re trying to consistently recreate conditions under which they were “in the zone” and are afraid that if the conditions change too much they won’t get there again. And they get more depressed and more demanding as their personal expectations don’t match up to their performance. Anxiety overloads their ability to perform.
Although you should work with your environment, don’t go overboard. Getting in the zone is about performing something in a seemingly effortless way. And that is as much a state of mind as anything else. Learn from your mistakes, don’t stress and try again.
In your personal work and in your people’s work, consider how you are either creating barriers or distractions, or how you are creating conditions that help people to achieve at their best. (I’d love to hear how you achieve peak performance – leave a comment!)
I’ll go back to that company and record that video again – I won’t fret about last time, I’ll set things up best for me to perform well and I’ll get “in the zone.”