We can bring mindfulness to our most challenging mental, emotional, and physical efforts for peak performance and fulfillment. I show you how to use the 4 steps that enable you to access that mindful state of “flow” for peak performance, used by world-class athletes, artists and executives alike.
- My friend Jim lives in Colorado Springs Colorado where Pikes Peak, a majestic 14,000 foot mountain towers over the city. Jim and his wife have six children and he has a neat ritual when each child turns 10 years old. They hike Pikes Peak together. It's the same every time. Most recently, with his daughter Amy. They get to the trailhead about 6 AM, it's still dark, and she's excited. The first phase is a set of switchbacks, a substantial incline. Like her siblings before her, as she and Jim reach the top of the switchbacks an hour later, she's already intimidated.
They have a long way to go. The whole hike takes them about six hours, includes over 13 miles, 21 kilometers, of hiking, and a vertical rise of 8,000 feet, over 2400 meters. Before they're halfway up, Amy's convinced she can't make it. She's struggling, she's scared. But Jim is there to encourage her. To help her appreciate the beauty of nature around her. To say how proud he is and how proud she'll be of herself if she makes it just a little bit farther.
It's a peak performance day for young Amy and it is for Jim as a parent too. For us, it shows how we can bring mindfulness even to our most challenging mental, emotional, and physical efforts, and make them better, make them phenomenal. The defining research in this area comes from University of Chicago's Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi In the 1970's, he studied peak performance with people from all walks of life, all over the world. Researchers have continued to reinforce the findings ever since.
Csikszentmihalyi put a label on this peak performance state. He called it flow. Being in a state where optimal performance just seems to flow like a river. Fundamentally, it's a mindful state. Athletes call it being in the zone. It's also common to musicians, artists, dancers, writers, computer programmers, when they're at the top of their game. It's also accessible to anyone in the workplace, at home, or on a hike with your child. Here are four conditions that help us access that mindful state of flow for peak performance.
One, deep focus on a single task. Highly focused attention. Single tasking, not multitasking. Carve out time and minimize distractions to be fully present with whatever your performance challenge is. Two, high challenge, high skill. If the task is too easy, you get bored. If the task is impossible, you get demotivated. You want to stay in what's called the flow channel, where challenge level and skill level are both high. Three, clear definition of success.
Know with crystal clarity what you're striving to achieve. If your goal is unclear, the mind strays and dilutes your focus. So, define success to achieve success. Four, real-time feedback on progress. If you know at any moment whether you're moving toward or away from your success goal, you can stay in the moment, and either keep doing what's working or make immediate course corrections. You can see that Jim arranged for all four conditions with Amy. One, setting aside a special day for their hike.
Two, a challenge that invited high levels of persistence. Three, a goal as clear as a mountaintop. Four, constant feedback on progress. There are trail markers every mile and Jim knows the route like the back of his hand. He'll say, Amy, if we just make it around this bend, there's a beautiful view of the city; you'll love it. We can all follow the trail Jim took with Amy. Look for ways you can create those four flow conditions for your performance. It's worth it. A McKinsey study on business executives found on average, they were five times more productive when in a flow state.
Five times. In flow, your performance improves, but that's not all. Think again of Jim and Amy. You can measure the distance and altitude of the hike, but you can't measure its value. For Amy, the lifelong lesson that she can go farther endure more, and achieve things she didn't think she could. For Jim, the joy of deep, loving connection with his child, and helping her gain more confidence to carry forward forever. That's the power of flow. As Csikszentmihalyi said, these moments of immersion, of engagement, of clear focus, are some of the best times of our lives.
Hiking Pikes Peak can be miserable or life-enhancing, depending on whether you structure it for flow. We all face our own everyday Pikes Peak hikes in work and life. Don't just endure them or wish they'd go well. Structure your challenges for peak performance. Use the four steps. Just like Jim does for his kids and himself, don't just hope for peak performance, create it by creating the conditions for flow.
UCLA professor and executive coach John Ullmen, PhD, explains the fundamentals of mindfulness and provides step-by-step methods that anyone can use. Every technique is confirmed by research and validated in practice to give you results for dealing with stress, anxiety, fear, worry, and self-doubt, and for increasing confidence, peak performance, and connection with others.
- The fundamentals of mindfulness and practicing mindful meditation
- Dealing with unwelcome experiences, such as stress, fear, and self-doubt
- Strengthening your connection with others
- Mindfulness for peak performance
- Practicing mindful leadership