Zone Science explained
Since 2004 Zone Culture has been helping organisations increase their productivity by training their employees how to be in the Zone. The benefits are that their employees:
- Become more creative and innovative
- Enjoy their work
- Collaborate better
- Feel happier and more peaceful
When these organisations have gone through a period of high stress, they are pleasantly surprised to find out how resilient their employees were. They stayed calm and got on with what needed to be done. This is particularly important in the current climate of unprecedented uncertainty and rapid change where adaptability and agility is critical to success.
Where ‘the Zone’ is mentioned on this page it refers to Level 3 Zone, and has been used interchangeably with the term ‘Flow’. Here is the science behind being in the Zone, or a state of flow.
How Flow was discovered
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Hungarian-American psychologist is known for his development of the idea of ‘flow’ in the 1990s.
“In his seminal work, ‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’ Csíkszentmihályi outlines his theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow – a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation.
“The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what they are doing.”
How extreme athletes succeed in ‘Flow’
Since Csíkszentmihályi’s discovery there has been a lot of scientific research done that has focused on extreme adventure sports people who have been able to break world records very quickly. These extreme sports people attribute their achievements to being in the Zone, or in flow as some refer to.
What these extreme sports people have been saying about their experience when in this state of flow, has been corroborated observations in scientific research.
An example of this is when Dean Potter climbed Mount Fitz Roy, the tallest mountain in Patagonia, in early 2002. It’s one of the world’s most dangerous climbs. On this particular occasion, Potter found himself in a situation where he was free-soloing (ie. alone, no ropes, no protection) and saw an opportunity to climb a section that had seen too many unsuccessful attempts. With over 500 metres to climb, Potter would have had to make 670 correct decisions, with no information on the correct route to take.
“ ‘It was huge’ recounts Potter, ‘and I had no idea which was the right way to go. But I started following the footholds, listening to the Voice and not questioning… I went to Patagonia to cultivate my intuition — to listen to the Voice. When I’m really in tune with it, really deep in the zone, I get to a place where I disappear completely, where I merge with the rock, when time slows down, my senses are unbelievably heightened, and I feel that oneness, that full-body psychic connection to the universe.’ “
To help explain what is happening when Potter and other extreme sports athletes record such amazing achievements, neurobiologists have discovered that the area of the brain responsible for self-awareness (superior frontal gyrus) is switched off when a person is totally absorbed in a highly demanding task.
“In 2006, Ilan Goldberg and his Israeli colleagues at the Weizman Institute of Science found that the superior frontal gyrus was highly engaged during periods of introspective self-reflection when the subjects reported much higher sense of self-awareness. In contrast, when the subjects were highly absorbed in a more demanding perceptual task, the superior frontal gyrus was largely shut down.”
AFL embrace the Zone
On a less extreme scale than Dean Potter but still at the elite level of sport, Zone Culture has coached AFL football players. An example of being in the Zone was one footballer recalling how, following a ball-up after both teams were scrambling for a loose ball, he found himself running in a particular direction and the ball seeming to just follow him. He just happened to be in the right position at the right time to gain possession of the ball. He was in the Zone.
When people are in the Zone or flow state the say that they feel fabulous. The science tells us that in this state the brain releases a cocktail of chemicals to achieve this state of flow.
“Motivationally, these five chemicals [noradrenaline, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin] are the biggest rewards the brain can produce, and flow is one of the only times the brain produces all five simultaneously. This makes the state one of the most pleasurable, meaningful and – literally – addictive experiences available.”
Individually each of these chemicals affect performance in some way, such as:
- Tightening focus
- Blocking pain
- Prompting lateral thinking
- Making you feel good
- Increasing emotional control
- Inhibiting fear, etc.
Together they pack a powerful punch.
Optimise productivity at work
The flow state has implications for productivity at work.
“In a 10-year study conducted by McKinsey, top executives reported being five times more productive in flow, … according to these same McKinsey researchers, if we could increase the time we spend in flow by 15-20%, overall workplace productivity would almost double.”
It is vital that employers actively encourage, through training and culture, the acquiring of personal and organisational skills to support being in the flow, and have a culture that encourages being in the flow state. “Flow at Work: Evidence for an Upward Spiral of Personal and Organizational Resources” by Marisa Salanova, Arnold B. Bakker & Susan Llorens report that there is a reciprocal nature between flow and resources, suggesting that flow can lead to optimisation and competency, and vice versa.
In an interview with Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, he was asked “Is there a way of transferring this to the area of work?” His reply was:
“This is the point of the whole thing! – that this experience is available to us at work, and during family time too. This is why we began to analyse various workplaces too. We even looked for this kind of experience by production lines.
We spoke to many different kinds of labourers, and also observed them at work. And we found that people who enjoyed their work regarded their tasks as sportspeople do theirs. And this is where creativity comes in.”
More than just Productivity
An article on The Pursuit of Happiness training website, “Bringing the Science of Happiness to Life” they report that employees’ experience of flow on the job has often been described as spontaneous and difficult to predict. However, Ceja & Navarro discovered that a balance of enjoyment, interest, and absorption can increase flow, and subsequently employee flourishing at work. This work has been influential for companies and organisations who wish to increase employee productivity, creativity, and well-being.
Elizabeth Wellington reports in her blog post “The Art and Science of Getting into the Flow” that research suggests that if you can cultivate the flow in your daily life, the benefits don’t just stop at job performance — the flow state of mind also contributes to health and well-being. Quite simply, flow psychology offers an alternative to the daily grind: a way of working that is easier, more effective, and more enjoyable.
The results of a study reported in the ‘Journal of Happiness Studies’ supports the causal relationship between flow experience and increased positive affect. (Positive affect is one’s propensity to experience positive emotions and interact with others and with life’s challenges in a positive way, from “How the Positive Affect Combats Stress”)
“Results provide further support of the theory that flow leads to PA [positive affect] while also demonstrating that flow decreases NA [negative affect]. Findings also strengthen Csíkszentmihályi’s theory of nine characteristics of flow, since all but one characteristic were related to positive emotions.”
Staying Calm in a Storm
In the last 15 years Zone Culture has found that by providing employees with the skills and tools need to get in to the Zone, they are able to overcome the ‘fight, flight or paralysis’ reaction when faced with a stressful situation. Instead they remain calm, get into the Zone and hence remain productive, creative, innovative and extraordinarily successful.
Corporations Getting on Board
Large corporations are seeing the evidence, recognising the benefits and starting to incorporate the flow state into to their business…
Flow science is already being applied in business. Some companies (Facebook, Google) are focused on individual triggers, while others (Toyota, Patagonia) have already made flow a fundamental part of their core philosophy.
… and reaping the benefits of improving the morale of their employees leading to increased productivity.
Organizations with happy people are demonstrably more productive and have higher morale and lower turnover; therefore leaders need to know how to develop the conditions that produce happier employees.
Is it time for your organisation to reap the benefits of being in the Zone?
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