You know it when you feel it—even if you only feel it fleetingly: that calm fulfilling sensation you have at work or play when you seem to be running on all cylinders, doing your best, and doing it effortlessly.
Robert Kriegel calls it simply “being in the zone,” and defines it as “a breakthrough performance that feels easy and fun—when you’re unaware of the outside world.”
Kriegel knows about breakthrough performances. Author of several business books with intriguing titles including If It Ain’t Broke, Break It! and Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers, he also served as the mind coach for eight Olympic teams. While performing that feat, he says he began to search for what it is that separated the athletes who made it to the winners’ podium from the other equally good athletes who didn’t. The simple answer, he says, is the ability to focus and concentrate, to get in the zone.
By way of illustration, he sheepishly recalls an incident from his own time as an Olympic hopeful, swimming the butterfly, his best stroke. He was in the zone, feeling great and cutting through the water effortlessly during time trials. When he finished the third turn, though, he looked up for a split second. “I was ahead of everyone else, and I thought: ‘Oh my god, I’m going to the Olympics!’ ” Just at that moment of broken concentration, several swimmers sprinted ahead of him; he missed qualifying.
In the Zone, In the 8th Decade
“Younger people have an intensity about them—a career or a fitness goal. But now that I’m entering my eighth decade, I began to wonder what being in the zone was like for older people,” said Kriegel recently while speaking to a capacity crowd in a presentation called Live Fully Until You Die: Aging in the Zone. His conclusion: “It’s not so different for older people, but we tend to describe it differently—as losing track of time, feeling calm and relaxed but exhilarated at the same time.” The differing descriptions often have ageist roots. Kriegel mentions that an older person who forgets the name of a movie often leaps to the same conclusion: fretting about having “a senior moment,” or showing the signs of dementia. “When your grandson forgets the name of a movie, do you say: ‘Oh, he’s having a ‘junior moment?’” he asks.
For people of all ages, the zone mantra is the same, Kriegel says: “The quality of your attention will determine the quality of your experience.” That’s a mindful, which his wife helpfully shortened to “Pay attention to your attention.”
The Science of the Zone
Those tempted to dismiss the zone talk as too airy-fairy may find faith in learning the phenomenon is backed by science. It, too, originated in the sports world of brawn and bravado, where the power of the brain is often overlooked or undersold.
Roland Carlstedt, a sports psychologist, was credited with uncovering the surprising finding that a tennis prodigy he had monitored played his top game when his heart was beating slowest, worst when his heart rate was high. His early research on the psychology of sports performance in the late 90s netted the young researcher much praise and an award for “Best Dissertation in Behavioral Neuroscience.” While the nuances in brain science he describes there are easily understood only by other neuroscientists, the gist is that everyone has the capacity to get into a hypnotic zone—and also to stop thoughts from cluttering up the brain’s frontal lobe, which is responsible for motor skills and body movements. Simply put, anyone can get in the zone, and with some practice, stay there. Even more simply put: we can all learn to focus.
Serious sports psychologist types can learn more in Carlstedt’s book, Evidence-Based Applied Sport Psychology: A Practitioner’s Manual.
What Gets in the Way
While touting the nirvana of being in the zone, Kriegel also acknowledges the many challenges of getting there.
One problem is that there are other zones, where most of us live most of the time. One he calls the “panic zone”—experienced when you try to do too much, or when the difficulty of what you are trying to do exceeds your ability or energy level. The other is the “drone zone”—which sets in when you give up and do the same things the same way, or simply do what you do well over and over again.
He says the key to getting and staying in the healthy zone, particularly for seniors who wish to hone their zoning skills, is to search out something new that has personal meaning and purpose. “It’s not so much the activity,” he says. “It’s the level of focus and involvement you bring to it.”
Another impediment to living in the zone is “sabotage thinking” that creates stress, anxiety, and depression—all of which get in the way of the focus required for the zone.
And for seniors taking on something new, Kriegel says, the most common form of sabotage is fear, accompanied by its natural partner, worry. “Fear distorts your perception of reality so that everything looks harder, and decreases your ability to do it,” he says. “When you’re afraid, you focus on what scares you. Fear also forces your mind immediately to the worst case scenario.”
His recommend course for dispelling fear is to stop, take a deep breath, and do a reality check. Often, the thing you fear most doesn’t mesh with reality, or involves something out of your own control. Then shift your mindset from what you can’t do to what you can do.
“Try to do a little less than you think you can do: a passionate 90%. Try easier instead of trying harder. Confidence builds motivation. And positive action dispels fear,” says Kriegel, sounding much like the Olympic coach he used to be. “When we’re in the zone, we can do more than we think—and we end up being more than we thought we were.”