In the Zone

As I have shared many times before, I do creative work for a couple hours each morning. This is my time to learn about the world and inspire people to be their best, so that we may all live a life that matters. For me, I know I have done something right whenever a couple hours of this work feels like only a few minutes.

That is what I call being in the zone.

It’s when you don’t have to think. It’s when the world ceases to exist. You are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. Things simply happen on their own, whether you’re writing, playing the piano, or anything else. This is what it means to truly use your strengths.

Furthermore, you’re doing something that requires you to stretch beyond your comfort zone, but not so difficult that it’s impossible for you. It’s important to find the right balance between effort and relaxation. Getting in the zone isn’t about trying hard, and you can’t force yourself to get there.

Here’s what author and performance expert Garret Kramer says:

The zone is not about trying hard. You can’t force it. The zone feels effortless because you’re operating at a higher state of consciousness. Although athletes in the zone are incredibly locked in, their focus is never forced.

When you’re in this state, you forget about the results/outcomes. You stop worrying about the future or the failings of the past. Time seems to fly by. You’re fully present and engaged in whatever it is you’re doing. When you’re in this state, you feel limitless and optimistic about the future, as if nothing is impossible.

It’s as if you’re doing things in slow motion. It is a state of relaxed concentration that enables you to be at your best. In many ways, it’s about being in the moment, because that is all we ever have.

I’m sure if you’re like me, you’ve likely experienced this high after a good workout, when you feel inspired enough to change the world. Nothing seems out of reach. You’re ready to not only face, but embrace your challenges.

Imagine what it’d be like to live most of your life in the zone!

It’s possible to be in the zone not just in our work, but in the rest of our everyday lives too. It could be while we’re doing exercise, reading a book, playing a sport, listening to music, playing a video game, or even having a great conversation.

In his book, sports consultant W. Thomas Gallwey writes:

When a tennis player is “in the zone”, he is not thinking about how, when or even where to hit the ball. He’s not trying to hit the ball, and after the shot he doesn’t think about how badly or how well he made contact. The ball seems to get hit through a process which doesn’t require thought. There may be an awareness of the sight, sound and feel of the ball, and even of the tactical situation, but the player just seems to know without thinking what to do.

This experience of being in the zone can be a critical part of our overall well-being. It can be incredibly rewarding and mentally gratifying. The more we are able to do it, the more we want to practice it, and the richer our quality of life becomes. For instance, I attribute my consistent writing practice to this, because there is no other incentive for me to show up and write every day (except to live my WHY).

You have to be incredibly self-motivated to do this. Case in point: I put out drafts every week with no direct incentive, but with high cost. There is no external goal tied to this, such as wanting more weblog traffic or to make myself famous. The reason I show up every day is to inspire people to be their best selves, so we may all live a life that truly matters.

When we show up every day and do the work sincerely, we will enjoy it so much that we’d be willing to do so just for the sake of doing it, even at a great cost. We need to focus on the process, not the outcome.

Being in the zone requires deliberate practice and rest. We need to work for a few hours with high focus and intensity rather than working long hours and spreading our efforts thin.

It requires us to question everything we are doing. Are we doing things by intention? Are we spending time with the “right people”? If not, it’s quite easy to point it out in our lives. It requires doing a few things better in a given day and week. That is how we can give all of our attention to what we are doing.

Getting in the zone doesn’t require you to have a caffeine binge, but it does require you to show up and do one thing at a time with no distractions. When you show up and do things with intention, being in the zone feels like a different level altogether.

I wrote earlier:

Work for me is serious play. It’s like when an hour seems like a minute, and before you know it, it’s time to have lunch. This experience is in such stark contrast to how most knowledge workers are used to working amidst countless distractions and/or interruptions from others. The thing is, anything you create of value requires uninterrupted focus for large chunks of time. Without that, real value creation is not possible. As Picasso has aptly said, without solitude, no serious work is possible.

And here’s what I wrote in a previous draft:

Slow the heck down. Focus on doing one thing at a time and doing it well. The thing is, when you are focused on your work—devoid of any distractions or interruptions—the quality of that work improves drastically, unsurprisingly.

There really isn’t any magic to being in the zone. You figure out the one thing you want to work on, and then work on it without being distracted/interrupted by anything else. I know how ridiculously easy and commonsensical it sounds, but this is quite uncommon—as most of the seemingly “simple” advice out there is.

One of the things I do that helps me be in the zone is to do a creative warmup, so to speak. I do that by writing morning pages for 30 minutes about things that have my attention. It’s only when you write it down that you can let go of it, capture things that are potentially meaningful, and stop thinking about them. It helps me transition into my work much better because I’m no longer thinking about those things—I’ve parked them elsewhere for the time being. When I sit down to do creative work, chances are high I’ll be in the zone.

If you want to be in the zone, you can’t be reacting to things. For instance, while I may check my phone 3–4 times a day, I will only make and/or return calls towards the end of my workday. This way, I can let the calls and messages accumulate and deal with them once a day, rather than constantly checking the phone throughout the day. We can all learn to master our tools rather than be enslaved by them.

Unlike others, I do this a bit differently. For years, I have been working in 30-minute intervals, where I work for 25 minutes and take a 5-minute restorative break away from screen. I do this for 3–4 times in a two-hour window.

I do this not only when working, but also when reading a book, when I’ll get up once every 30 minutes (I don’t read more than an hour a day). Other times, I might find myself sitting too much, in which case I’ll get up for a few minutes before I sit again. Nowadays, while we have our tech devices reminding us every hour to stand for a few minutes, for me, it’s become second nature to know when I’ve sat for too long and it’s time to stand up, because my body tells me.

Again, you can’t force yourself into this experience. You have to ease yourself into it. You have to create a space that allows for creativity. The only resistance we face is from the external world, and only if we let it happen.

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