If you’ve ever been in the zone, you know that it can be addictive. The rush of absolute focus can make you feel as light as a feather, zooming through every obstacle or problem that presents itself. Time no longer exists and your instincts guide you to your end goal, gobbling work along the way as if you can’t satisfy your hunger. It’s called being in a flow state, and we’ve all been there before.
But how do we find flow? How do we pull the trigger so that we can enter the zone on demand, whenever we need to perform at our peak abilities? Often times, it seems as if flow runs away from us right when we need it. Big game coming up? You practice and practice, and then the day of the game you feel uninspired. Board meeting that you need to nail? You get everything ready, working overtime, until the day comes and you’re stuttering over your words. It doesn’t matter what field you are in, peak performance is something everyone wishes they could have at the snap of their fingers.
Is it possible to train our minds and bodies to enter this state of optimal performance?
It is. And luckily, we can study those that have already laid the blueprint for the rest of us.
The Quest of a Master
In his book The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin describes his experiences before and after becoming an International Chess Master at age 16. As a child, Waitzkin shifted between chess matches of intense concentration in which it seemed he couldn’t make a wrong move, and matches where his mind seemed focus on everything but chess. His frustrations continued as he grew older, trying to will his mind into playing at the top of its game.
As a teenager, the book and subsequent film, Searching for Bobby Fisher, was released, documenting his experiences as a child prodigy. He became an overnight rock star in the world of chess.
His quest for flow-like focus was no longer a competition with his mind, but also with adoring fans, angry chess purists, and vicious rivals that wanted a share of the spotlight. In many ways, the added stress and distractions of fame ended his blissful relationship to the game. Where flow had once been something he could count on at least half of the time, now it was nowhere to be found.
Waitzkin knew he needed a change. He needed to make optimal performance automatic, something he could tap into whenever he wanted to achieve the greatest results possible.
Eventually, he got what he wanted: the ability to enter a flow state on demand. But to do so, he had to take a long hard look at his journey so far.
A Master Relaxer
Looking back on this early phase of his life, Waitzkin was looking for patterns that had enabled him to achieve championship level performance. What had separated him from his peers and made him the best?
After spilling his guts to a sports psychologist that he met at the Human Performance Institute, Waitzkin was asked one question that revolutionized the way he thought about life, performance, and learning in general:
“Do you believe that the quality of your performance is higher if it is preceded by a period of relaxation?”
Waitzkin began to analyze his life through the lens of this one question. He devoured notes that he had taken in the middle of combat with chess masters. He thought long and hard about his rituals between matches and what he did during a match when he needed a break. What had set him apart from other chess players. What was difference between his “good” days and the “bad” ones? Eventually, the answers began to reveal themselves.
Waitzkin remembered that during tournaments, other young competitors would finish a match and then immediately began preparing for the next. A teacher or coach would try to squeeze out any lesson that could be learned from what had just happened. Parents would tell their children to “concentrate” and focus on the upcoming match. Daydreaming, playing, or resting was shunned. Children were learning to be in a constant state of utter focus. While his competitors were being conditioned to never take a break, Waitzkin would be out having a catch with his dad or taking a nap.
He looked at his performance while in the middle of matches. Lucky for him, while taking notes during these competitions, he would notate how much time he spent thinking about a specific move. Running through the numbers, he discovered that when he was on his game, his thinking sessions would take between two and ten minutes. When he was off his game, he tended to calculate for more than twenty minutes before making a move. The more of these “long thinks” he had, the more his game suffered.
In addition, sometimes in the middle of a game, he would push himself away from the board and go outside to sprint and wash his face. Returning to the board, he felt rejuvenated. The analysis of his quest so far pointed to one simple truth:
In order to play better, he needed to rest better.
The Equation for Peak Performance
Training at the Human Performance Institute, Waitzkin began to learn about other elite performers in a plethora of seemingly unconnected fields, that had achieved the top of their game because they had mastered the ability to relax and rest. Michael Jordan, Pete Sampras, Tiger Woods; all had learned to juggle periods of intense stress with periods of letting everything go. An equation soon emerged:
Periods of High Stress + Followed by Periods of Relaxation = Peak Performance
Waitzkin began applying this equation to his own life. He no longer tried to concentrate as hard as he absolutely could. In fact, he found that trying to do so actually made his concentration worse. When his opponent took his turn, he would think about something else or even walk away from the board. Returning, he found that his energy and insight was renewed and his level of play improved.
His endurance improved as well. Where in the past, holding his concentration for long periods of time would yield incredible results but would burn him out with nothing left to finish the tournament, now he could focus for 30-40 minute sessions with no adverse side effects. Each break added gas to the tank, powering his ability to perform at his highest level.
How to Apply This Equation To Your Life
“Regardless of the discipline, the better we at recovering, the greater potential we have to endure and perform under stress.” – Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning
Everybody knows that great things cannot be achieved unless a person is willing to work hard. No pain, no gain, right? But equally important and often overlooked, is the importance of recovery. I propose a new slogan for achieving amazing things: No Rest, No Best.
So how do we learn to recover better?
Interestingly enough, the key to strengthening your body’s ability to relax, is to first put it under intense pressure. Athletes have long known that interval training is one of the most effective, if not the most effective exercise for getting into peak shape. Periods of intense exertion (sprinting) are followed by periods of milder exercise (light jogging). As the athletes body begins to adapt, the periods of rest are shortened and the periods of intensity are able to be longer. Over time, the body learns to recover at a seemingly impossible rate.
What Waitzkin and scientists are continuing to discover, is that the recovery of the body is not the only thing to be enhanced, the mind also recovers quicker as well. After a few weeks of regular HIIT (high-intensity interval training), Waitzkin found that his ability to release tension and recover from mental exhaustion had also skyrocketed. He began to exercise his mind through meditation and Tai Chi (a martial art of which he later became world champion) to further enhance his mind’s ability to let go and recover.
Putting It All Together
There is a physiological link between the body and the mind that can be nurtured by implementing periods of high stress followed by periods of utter relaxation. Strengthen the body, improve the mind. Strengthen the mind, improve the body.
If you wish to improve your game, sit down and devise a game plan. Let’s say you want to improve your overall endurance when it comes to running. Instead of your typical routine of running until your exhausted, push the speed at which you run up to the point where you reach exhaustion within a few minutes (or even a few seconds, you overachiever you!) Record the time it took you to reach your limit.
Next, follow that period of intensity with a period of much lighter jogging, but limit your jogging to about a minute. If you need more time, go for it. The goal is to not hurt yourself, and you cannot expect results on your first attempt. Give your body time to adjust. After your minute of light jogging, push yourself for the same amount of time and intensity that you had at the beginning.
Continue this cycle of high intensity and light recovery until you are happy with your results. This will look different for everyone. Tomorrow, add an extra cycle or shorten your recovery period by 5 seconds. You are your greatest critic and your greatest coach, trust what you know to be true.
This form of exercise can be translated to any physical discipline. For example, I recently began learning Kung Fu. At the beginning, I literally passed out during my first lesson. Even though I have been running my whole life, my body was not equipped for this new form of exertion. Now I will practice intense physical warm-ups, forms, and sparring followed by periods of relaxing stretching and slow movements of the same fighting forms. Cycling between these periods, I give myself a workout while also allowing my physiology time to catch up by improving my flexibility and deeper knowledge of the movements I am expected to execute in the blink of an eye.
Apply this principle to non-physical pursuits as well. If you are working on a difficult project and notice that your focus begins to wane, put the project away. Do something completely different. Your mind is telling you that it needs something different. Let go for a few minutes. When you return, you will find that your attention and insight into the project will be much enhanced. This principle already exists within our world wherever you look. Why do you think we have a weekend? Why do muscles and bones strengthen after they have undergone stress? Don’t fight what works. If you can tell you need a break, take one.
Eventually, after regular practice, you will notice that your ability to recover from physical and mental exhaustion will strengthen. If you used to find yourself spent after a day on the job, able only to sink into the black hole of your couch and stuffing your face with Doritos, now you may find that you have ample energy to tackle that new hobby you’ve always wanted to try. Arguing with difficult people used to zap you? You might find new avenues for working with them that are more effective and less taxing. Practitioners of mindfulness meditation find that their ability to focus on the present moment increases as they practice periods of physical stress and recovery. And athletes that begin practicing mindfulness, start to find that they are better able to find themselves in a flow state, going further in their physical pursuits than ever before.
Josh Waitzkin eventually used this insight as the foundation for his ability to learn and perform. He left the chess world behind and, using the stress and rest cycle for peak performance, became World Champion in Ti Chi Chuan just five years later.
No matter what field you are in, you can benefit from applying this equation to your life. Alternate between periods of intensity and recovery and you just might find yourself in flow more often. Leave a comment below and let me know what you strategies have worked for you. Also check out Josh Waitzkin’s book The Art of Learning for more amazing insights. And remember: No Pain, No Gain. But No Rest, No Best.