Being 'in the Zone'
When being interviewed after top performances many sports people talk about having been “in the zone”. What does this mean? Is it relevant at all to people working in organisations?
Let's look first at what this means.
From time to time when we are doing what we really enjoy, we may be aware that time has passed and we have not even noticed. Somehow we have been so focused on what we are doing that it is as if we have not been aware of anything else. Our whole being has been given to the activity. Our mind, body and emotions have been jointly and simultaneously engaged. We often report having felt at one with the activity, somehow deeply and fully connected.
Most interestingly, in common with our sporting colleagues, we also experience optimal levels of performance but without any sense of trying or making something happen. It is as if whatever we are doing comes naturally and effortlessly. It is that state that Steve Bull describes in “The Game Plan”, his excellent book on mental toughness, as “totally comfortable with who you are and what you are really good at.”
Now we know that top sports people spend hours preparing and receiving help with techniques like visualising and focusing. They also practise a lot, as well as take down time to switch off and allow the batteries to re-charge.
In organisations, though, many of us are asked to do a variety of things. Our time is so much in demand that visualising and focusing sound like luxuries reserved for the occasional off-site! It still amazes me how often people move from one meeting to another for the entire day. There is, if we are lucky, a brief moment to prepare and hardly any time after to take stock. Schedules become so full. Telephone calls are booked in the few windows available between meetings. We are so scheduled that it is not unusual for people to simply miss appointments and then realise sometime afterwards.
This organisational whirlpool that can suck us all in to hyper-activity does prompt some important questions.
- How prepared are we?
- How focused are we?
- How well are we performing?
Marcus Buckingham in his book “First Break All the Rules – What Great Managers Do Differently”, talks about the importance of playing to one’s strengths, “making sure we do a little of what we love doing every day.” I would like to suggest that before many of us can do this we need to get back to understanding what it is we really love doing in the first place. This means that we might have to ask ourselves and others some serious questions about whether the way in which we find ourselves spending our time and using our energy is really helping us “get in the zone”?
In our work with leaders, whether on development programmes or in individual coaching, we always encourage individuals to reflect on how much of their job is spent “in the zone”. Or, what is a more helpful question, how much of the time they spend working is actually spent “in the zone”. This question often gets to the root of the challenge for many people. Hopefully, they will be in a job that has the potential to get them “in the zone” but the way they end up doing it reduces the likelihood of that ever happening. The symptoms are easy to spot. Their impact on the organisation diminishes, their edge is lost, performance drops and results begin to suffer. Helping them take stock and reflect on what they love doing and why they were drawn to the role in the first place is a great way to stimulate change and re-energise tired leaders.
The solutions often lie in some small but important adjustments like working at the right level, focussing on priorities, empowering team members and taking time to think and plan.
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