Here is an excerpt from an article written by James Allworth for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.
* * *
The “zone.” Flow. Whatever you want to call it, at one stage or another, every one of us aspires to get there. It’s when we do our best work, achieve our peak performance. Last weekend, I competed in the New England Masters Swim Championships, and for the past eighteen months I’ve been co-authoring a book. Both of these are endeavors that rely extensively on an ability to get in the zone; they can truly make the difference between a good day and a great one.
But getting there is hard. How can you do it reliably? I’ve had that thought rolling around in my mind for the past couple of weeks since seeing Dharmesh Shah of HubSpot on Twitter wondering aloud about exactly this. Now, you will often hear people talk about the zone in the context of intellectual or athletic pursuits, but rarely both. I’ve been able to apply tactics from each sphere — in sports and in business — to improve my performance in the other, and I wanted to capture some of what I have learned. My experience is that are three broad rules that you have to understand in order to get in the zone:
There’s no zone for new activities: The first time you sit down to do something, you’re not going to find flow; nor the second, or the tenth, and probably not even the hundredth. Why? Getting in the zone requires activating the subconscious part of the brain. The very nature of it requires you not to be trying, not consciously thinking about what it is you’re doing — instead, you’re just doing it. Obviously, it is infinitely more difficult to achieve this if the activity is one at which you’re unpracticed: I am almost certain that nobody dives into the pool for the first time in their life, having never swum before, and manages to achieve flow. There’s simply too much of their conscious brain at work; their brain is working overtime, thinking about everything required to keep them afloat. It works the same way with intellectual pursuits; if you’re an unpracticed writer, or coder, it’s not going to happen the first time you sit down to do it. You’ve got to be at the point where you’ve put in the ten thousand hours of practice or have formed the necessary myelin pathways to have a shot of getting there.
The Zone requires your subconscious: Flow only works when the subconscious takes over from the conscious mind. Being practiced at what you do is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. This is where other techniques start to kick in: meditation is a well-known way of doing exactly this; visualization is, too. But they’re far from the only ones. I’ve heard of a number of unconventional ways of using imagination to great effect. A friend of mine who is a very good swimmer — and also who loves driving cars — doesn’t swim his races by thinking about swimming, as such. Instead, he imagines himself “driving” his body through the race in what he describes as an almost out-of-body experience. He even imagines a “Go Baby Go” button for his finishes (from Gone In 60 Seconds). I thought it pretty funny when I first heard that, but I certainly don’t relish racing against him.
This mechanism doesn’t just work in athletic pursuits, either. There’s the famous example of Steve Jobs, disappointed with the boot time of the Macintosh. He walked into the cubicle of Larry Kenyon. Kenyon was trying to explain why it took as long as it did — but Jobs cut him off. “If it could save a person’s life, would you find a way to shave ten seconds off the boot time?” Kenyon ended up finding the time; and not just 10 seconds, but 28. I can’t help but wonder whether he actually imagined saving someone’s life as he wrote the code.
The Zone is emotional. Some emotions will help you find flow; others will scare it off. One field in which finding flow can be absolutely essential to success is presenting — and good presenters who love their job will talk about their ability to drop in on the zone as one of the best parts about their jobs. Being passionate about the topic, and a deep, almost-religious conviction in what they are talking about seem to be the common ingredients of those who find flow while presenting. What’s interesting is that in talented amateur presenters, you can often see the progression into the zone — at first, they’re worried about what people are thinking, and this feeling of self-consciousness just stops them from finding flow… until, they relax, they realize they’re doing OK. They find their feet and slip into the zone.
* * *
These are all hypotheses based on personal experience, and those of some friends and colleagues who I have spoken to on the subject. I know that everyone is going to have different experiences within the categories (e.g. different music!) — and even different categories altogether. I’d love to hear what you have found to work — and what you think I’m totally wrong on. What puts you in the zone?
* * *
Allworth then offers and discovers five specific tactics that have been very successful for him and other results-driven people. To read the complete article, please click here. He is the co-author of the forthcoming book How Will You Measure Your Life? with Clayton Christensen and Karen Dillon (May 15, 2012). He has worked as a Fellow at the Forum for Growth and Innovation at Harvard Business School. Connect with him on Twitter at @jamesallworth. To check out more blog posts by James Allworth, please click here.
Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Charlotte Beers, former chairwoman and C.E.O. of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, now runs seminars called “The X Factor” for female leaders. She says it’s vital to make self-assessments, and to include “the good, the bad and the ugly.”
To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
* * *
The Best Scorecard Is the One You Keep for Yourself
Bryant: Tell me about your early management roles.
Beers: I was in my early 30s, and I was the first management supervisor at J. Walter Thompson who was female. I had been an account supervisor, but management supervisor was more people, more levels. I thought I was really doing well, and I certainly was comfortable with the business. But then a friend of mine told me that one of our colleagues described my management style as menacing. I thought of myself as a friendly, gentle Southern belle. But I began to watch myself — something I think we all have to do — and I realized that I did end meetings on a threatening note. I created urgency when there was none. I was taking on the persona of “I really mean business” that I had learned from an earlier boss.
So I learned to watch myself more. I had to self-correct about talking too much and interrupting other people. Now that trait can be very helpful when you have to make a decision, but I also interrupted the process and discussion in meetings.
Bryant: Was this something that you became aware of yourself, or was it explicit feedback?
Beers: That comment from one of my peers about me coming off as menacing was devastating. It was exactly the opposite of the way I pictured myself. Nothing’s more helpful than finding out how others see you. If you can conduct that exercise in an impersonal way, you have information you can’t get any other way. It’s like doing consumer research. I did mine inadvertently, but I’ll never forget how helpful it was.
Bryant: In your experience, do managers do that, or do they avoid it?
Beers: When you do have some power, you can lose the sense of how you’re behaving and who you are, and you don’t want to do that. It’s dangerous. It’s very addictive to be given some power. One of the things I watch in other people is how they use the power they are given. It’s very important to me when I’m assessing someone.
Bryant: Tell me more about that.
Beers: I’m trying to understand how they used the power to hire and fire and promote and make those kinds of invisible choices that really affect other people’s lives. If they don’t have some generosity of spirit and some quality of teaching, I worry that they’re not going to bring along a strong culture.
Bryant: And how do you tell whether somebody has those qualities?
Beers: I would probably ask them, “What do you think is the most important thing in deciding to fire someone?” They might go through some business-school buzzwords, and then I say, “Well, then, how do you actually do it?” If they send a note, or they delegate it or they arrange three people in the room with them, I know that they’re not prepared to take full, personal responsibility. When I had to fire someone, I did it one-on-one.
Bryant: So what is an answer you like to hear in that context?
Beers: What I’m looking for is whether they are able to assess the whole person, not just some failing of theirs at work, because sometimes a person can be in the wrong slot. We are all inferior people to work with in some way, including ourselves. The trick is to match your failings with somebody’s strengths. That’s the game. These are very important moments of leadership.
Bryant: You mentioned earlier the importance of doing a self-assessment. Can you elaborate on that?
Beers: I have made that a big part of my teaching for women in the executive world. Don’t let someone tell you who you are. Keep your own scorecard, and it has to include the good, the bad and the ugly.
Bryant: What other lessons do you pass along?
Beers: For most of us, it’s a mistake to just let the quality of our work speak for itself, because sooner or later the quality of your relationships will prevail over the work. That was a watershed insight for me.
You have to recognize there will be a moment in time when you will not be able to be represented by the quality of your work but rather by the relationships you have. If you’re in a crisis, what matters is what you’re made of and what you believe and how well you can express that. What I say to people is to get ready for those moments by practicing every chance you get to take the lead, to step out in front of the work. Don’t hide behind it.
When those moments come along and you need to draw on resources that are internal and your personal belief system, if you don’t know what they are, others will tell you what they are. People can then come to you and say, “Well, you just don’t know how to lead from the front,” a critique I’ve never understood.
Self-knowledge is so obvious-sounding that I hate to use it like that, but in fact you can be masterful at doing the work and you can be good in team relationships, but one day you will be called on to have difficult, complex relationships and a different part of you has to be used for that.
Bryant: How did you get that self-knowledge?
Beers: In my case, I was forced into it because I hit a wall, so sometimes the most useful way is just to get blown apart and have to step back and say, “What can I learn?” A lot of times it’s something you can learn, and I think that mistakes are great teachers. Sometimes a company’s culture is a big influencer in how you see yourself, and you have to sift through that and see if it’s a fit. Part of it is knowing yourself so well that you know where you fit, and knowing yourself so well that you know why you work.
Bryant: What about lessons from your childhood and teenage years?
Beers: I don’t recommend it, but I think adversity in childhood is pretty useful. I had two brothers who were a bit older than me, and my sister’s 10 years younger. The three of us grew up feeling like our back was always against the wall. We grew up too young. My father was an alcoholic, and he was volatile. You learn coping mechanisms. You keep your expectations real, and you learn what you’re made of.
My mother was not a cuddly woman. They never knew what my grades were. They assumed I did fine, so we had a kind of a take-care-of-yourself game. It wasn’t so bad, but at one key time, my mother said: “Anyone can get married. What are you going to do?” And I remember thinking, “You mean I can do almost anything?” I was influenced by the fact that it looked like we would have to do a lot on our own. It all helped me develop emotional self-sufficiency.
* * *
Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times’ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. In his new book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.