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Go with the flow

“It is a cardinal rule – you must take advantage of every second that you are in the zone.”

John A. Passaro

In April, Northeastern University psychologist David Melnikoff, published a theory that he thinks may help people improve their performance in a number of areas.

His work is related to an experience known as the “flow.” This occurs when you are totally engaged in some activity and your performance is optimal. There are many names for this experience. In sports it’s called being “in the zone.” In the software business it’s referred to as “wired in”, in the investment game it’s “in the pipe”, and poker players call it “playing the A-game.”

My wife Diane and I have called it “being on the jazz.” The name “flow” came about because many people said the experience felt like you were “ being carried by a current.”

As a child, one of my classmates virtually lived on the school basketball courts near my house. Rain or shine, summer or winter, he was always there, usually playing against much older kids. In high school, to no one’s surprise, he was selected as an all-state player and received a basketball scholarship to the University of Iowa. I can remember some games when he displayed what was called the “hot hand.” At those times he was in the zone and literally was incapable of missing a shot. Although such experiences are infrequent and thus statistically difficult to prove, most fans and players know it when they see it .

This notion of “flow” was featured in the 2020 Oscar-winning animated movie Soul. This Disney-Pixar film tells the story of struggling jazz musician Joe Gardner. Joe tragically falls down a manhole and dies just at the point of getting his big break in the jazz world. The film depicts how Joe negotiates the afterlife and gets back on track. One of Joe’s discoveries, however, is that there is a region in “The Great Before” where the souls of living people may temporarily enter, but only when they are completely immersed in some activity, such as playing an instrument.

Indonesian writer Larissa Serafina says that she was particularly struck by this portrayal of people who “are so deeply focused, to the point their souls literally enter the spiritual realm.” Music is emphasized, but sports, acting, playing chess, painting, writing, or any other activity that a person can become totally immersed in, is a possible vehicle for “flow.”

I have never experience flow in any sport and certainly not when playing my cornet. Perhaps the closest I get is once in a great while, when some writing project seems to almost write itself or perhaps that one time, I gave a trade association speech in Florida and everything just seemed to click. They were rolling in the aisles. Diane says that occasionally this happens when a counseling session goes just right.

Hungarian-American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who was a leader in the positive psychology movement, coined the term “flow” in 1975, although examples of it have been described throughout history. Being in a flow state is characterized by being fully immersed and totally absorbed in the activity, feeling full of energy, being focused, and taking pleasure in the process. Many individuals describe time as slowing down when they are in the zone.

Sports writer Nick Siegal describes how, after an exceptional performance, basketball star Lebron James is able to recall each play in detail and without hesitation. Just having a good deal of experience contributes to this time-slowing phenomena. Veterans generally are not as overwhelmed as rookies and thus see and remember more of what happens.

Stanford University neuroscientist David Eagleman, says that “…a richer encoding of memory may cause a salient event to appear, retrospectively, as though it lasted longer.” Paradoxically, like in a dream, a flow experience can subjectively seem timeless — lasting forever, but over in an instant.

One potential danger from “flow” is that it can be too attractive. Some individuals may become so immersed in an activity that they no longer bother to relate to other people or to the real world. In Soul, a character called Moonwind says, “The zone is enjoyable, but when that joy becomes an obsession, one becomes disconnected from life.” Csikszentmihalyi said that for such people “existence is temporarily suspended.”

Melnikoff’s new perspective on “flow” stresses gathering and processing information about the relationship between your goals and the means to achieve them. There is also an emphasis on overlearning skills to encourage intuitive and automatic performance.

Melnikoff warns that you should never frame challenges as win-loss propositions. This only generates performance anxiety. People perform much better when they think in terms of long term performance and accumulating streaks, rather than making that one big game-winning play. If a batter, for instance, only thinks about the number of hits she can make in a row, she can mentally bypass those solitary pressure points, that are likely to halt “flow.”

Increasing the number of possible results or outcomes you can achieve also stimulates “flow.” This is similar to “the law of requisite variety”, in cybernetics, which suggests that the individual who has the most choices, options, or flexibility will inevitably control things. When options become limited, self-defeating behavior is usually the result. Suicide is perhaps the prime example of what can happen when a person becomes so limited that there is only one possible choice.

The human mind can only attend to about 110 bits of information per second. In a state of flow nearly all of that brain processing capacity becomes devoted to the task at hand. According to Richard Huskey from the University of California, flow states are associated with a dramatic reduction in activity in the brain network that usually process information regarding yourself. This shift away from egocentric preoccupation may free up some of our limited cognitive capacity, allowing the individual to attain the focus required for optimal performance.

Nearly everyone has experience “flow” at some point in life and it can be a heady experience. In order for flow to occur (1) the activity must have clear goals, (2) there must be immediate feedback, and (3) the individual must believe they have the ability to produce the intended result. Melnikoff might add that thinking in terms of streaks of performance and overlearning basic skills can also greatly improve your chances — just watch out for the manholes in your path.

Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D. teaches psychology at Ivy Tech Community College in Sellersburg and lives in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at


Terry Stawar

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