Getting Into “The Zone” Isn’t About Perfection, It’s About Uncertainty
New research uncovers the “magic combination” of factors that make it easier to achieve a flow state.
Flow is less about perfection than maximum focus and concentration. | iStock/dickcraft
Most of us have experienced it — whether working on something creative like a music composition, perfecting a medium-range golf putt, or striving for the next level on a video game.
It’s the state of “flow,” or the “feeling of being completely immersed and engaged in what you’re doing, getting lost in the process,” as described by David Melnikoff. In other words, flow is being in “the zone,” when distractions fade and productivity spikes.
While getting into the zone may evoke images of someone executing something flawlessly — like basketball star Steph Curry hitting repeated three-pointers — it’s less about perfection than getting into a state of maximum focus and concentration, where even highly challenging work seems to unfold largely on its own.
In his research, Melnikoff, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, seeks to understand how we can get into flow more easily while pursuing everyday or aspirational goals. “Goal-pursuit doesn’t always need to be a grind,” he says. “It can happen effortlessly or even automatically. That’s an underappreciated side of human motivation.”
Indeed, “when you’re in flow,” Melnikoff explains, “goal-pursuit reverses. Normally, if you pursue something like healthier eating, it requires a lot of self-control not to stop. In flow, stopping is the hard part due to the natural momentum you build.”
That flip is exactly why people are eager to enter a state of flow; it helps them achieve a meaningful goal with less effort and greater engagement. There’s even evidence flow improves our overall sense of well-being. Yet so far, the factors that make it easier to get into flow have remained elusive.
“The thinking has been that flow emerges when there’s compatibility between the difficulty of a task and your skill level,” Melnikoff says. “But that still leaves a lot of questions unanswered.”
Based on the results of his recent research, he continues, “The magic combination to flow is starting out highly uncertain, then reducing that uncertainty predictably through your actions so that you’re constantly satisfying your curiosity about what the future holds.”
Eliminating Possible Futures
In a new study written with Ryan Carlson at Chicago Booth and Paul Stillman at San Diego State University, Melnikoff aims to move our understanding of flow from the abstract to a computational theory that identifies the components necessary to generate flow. The team created a mathematical model for the process of reducing uncertainty about an outcome and hypothesized about the relationship between uncertainty, action, and flow.
At the core of the researchers’ take on flow is the idea of reducing uncertainty, or “eliminating possible futures,” as Melnikoff puts it. Consider what it’s like to play an instrument like the piano. If your goal is to play a piece without any errors, then each time you play the right note, it becomes clearer that you may reach your objective. “Every time you press the next key, you eliminate uncertainty about that specific outcome,” Melnikoff says.
However, the uncertainty varies dramatically depending on your skill level. A virtuoso playing a familiar piece will have zero uncertainty about doing it well, while a novice might feel daunted about playing anything so complex. The lack of uncertainty in both scenarios means a lack of flow. “In either case, the outcome is a foregone conclusion,” Melnikoff says. “For flow, we believe someone should feel like, ‘I might nail this, or I might flounder. Let’s find out.’”
In short, the researchers propose that the likelihood of entering flow is highest when a given task of interest falls between routine and unreachable. “It needs to be something that’s going to spark your curiosity about what the outcome is going to be,” Melnikoff says.
Flipping for Flow
To test their hypotheses, Melnikoff and colleagues developed a series of experiments where participants completed tasks with varying levels of uncertainty. They found that the combination of high initial uncertainty with reliable ways of reducing it was most likely to induce flow.
One experiment involved a version of a computerized coin flip. In one condition, participants were told there was an equal possibility of the coin landing on heads or tails and they’d earn a reward each time it landed on heads. In this scenario, it was easy to compute how much uncertainty surrounded the outcome of each flip. “That’s the optimal setup for flow, according to our model,” Melnikoff says.
The researchers found that flow was less likely when uncertainty was reduced upfront — such as a coin that would come up heads 90% of the time. Making the relationship between performance and outcome less clear (“If the coin comes up heads you get a reward 60% of the time”) also impeded flow.
Across multiple experiments including games like this slingshot game, the team consistently found that entering a flow state depends on two factors: starting with an optimal level of uncertainty (meaning no foregone conclusions) and the ability to reduce that uncertainty predictably based on one’s performance. So it’s about perceiving that something is challenging but not impossible, and becomes more attainable as you engage in repeated, increasingly successful efforts.
“The task has to start as an open question that your actions answer,” Melnikoff says. Moreover, after exposure to multiple types of games, participants were more likely to pick ones with features that made flow more likely, suggesting a connection between flow and enjoyment.
Balancing Uncertainty and Control
These findings could help improve real-world processes and increase engagement in workplaces and schools. In educational settings, for example, teachers, administrators, and parents must think about how best to get students into flow, Melnikoff says. “If a student thinks a low or high grade is a foregone conclusion, that’s going to sabotage flow.” Same for a student who feels hopeless about passing a test.
He suggests devising processes that “inject uncertainty” into the future, to make students more curious about the outcome: “A struggling student may be asked to think about the fewest number of assignments they’d need to turn in before acing the work. Or you could ask a top student to see how many assignments they can ace in a row.” Introducing speed into the process can also stimulate flow, such as timing how quickly students can finish exams while still supplying correct answers.
Melnikoff also offers an example from healthcare: “There’s a lot of burnout for hospital nurses, and it’s likely that uncertainty about patients’ future plays a role. Nurses care for their patients as best they can, but then the patient goes away and the nurses don’t know what happens. The uncertainty never goes away.”
Nurses’ inability to reduce uncertainty through action may make it harder for them to experience flow. To improve morale, hospitals might provide nurses with updates on patients’ outcomes after they’ve left the facility. “The nurses would have to know how their actions might be tied to those outcomes,” Melnikoff says. “There has to be a sense of control.”
Of course, there are business-related applications as well. “Don’t just frame a sales competition as ‘winner-take-all,’” Melnikoff says. “Most people will assume they won’t win. But if there are lots of prizes and the size of the prize depends on where you rank, now there’s a lot of uncertainty.”
Ultimately, flow comes down to facing a situation with reducible uncertainty. The circumstance may already feature that, or we can hack it into the system ourselves. “Injecting uncertainty is a way to improve engagement and productivity by getting into flow,” Melnikoff says.
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