Two weeks into the new year, over 30 percent of those with resolutions have fallen off the bandwagon. By six months, it’s projected to be over 55 percent. A 2013 study by the University of Scranton found only about 8% of respondents kept their resolution over the long haul.
Maybe the New Year’s resolution equation is wrong. What if this year, instead of making quantitative goals to lose weight and run more, you made a qualitative goal to enjoy each run more? I don’t mean in some Pollyanna-ish way where you convince yourself each step is wonderful. I’m talking about a highly studied phenomenon that involves goal setting, challenges, skills, and focus. I’m talking about actively seeking those moments where everything comes together in perfect harmony, where the mind stays engaged on the task at hand and finds it highly enjoyable. I’m talking about doing something for the inherent joy it brings.
I’m talking about flow.
In the 1960s, a young Ph.D. named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi questioned why children played. Traditional psychology held it was a way to develop skills necessary in adulthood. Csikszentmihalyi wasn’t convinced. He saw kids playing tag, bouncing balls, and talking to imaginary friends not because it helped them drive a car or get a job, but because it was inherently fun. He noticed the same traits in adult rock climbers, gardeners, and chess players. They weren’t making a million dollars or getting on the Ed Sullivan show because they summited an obscure 14,000-foot peak in the Rockies. They were doing it because they loved it.
Csikszentmihalyi noticed something else. Passionate people who honed their crafts often lost all track of time. They reported a sense of ease when doing difficult tasks; in fact, the more the task challenged their skills, the more engaged they became. Afterward, these people would recall the activities fondly, even if they didn’t consider them pleasant at the time.
Fifty years later, Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow is universally recognized. Professional athletes spend millions each year on sports psychologists who can help them get “in the zone.” But you don’t need to be Tom Brady or Stephen Curry (or have their paycheck) to experience flow regularly.
Getting into a flow state takes more than just desire. After working with over 40,000 individuals, Csikszentmihalyi and his Ph.D. students at Claremont Graduate University in California identified three critical components: clear goals; a proper balance between perceived skills and the challenge at hand; and unambiguous feedback.
The first component rings true with any runner. Whether it’s finishing a 5K or breaking 4 minutes in the mile, runners get the best results when they have measurable goals. Measurable is key because much of the motivation a goal provides comes from seeing incremental progress. If I set a goal of running 17:00 in the 5K by the end of the year, I have a goal and an end date. Running 17:40 in January, 17:30 in June, and 17:15 in September tells me I’m on the right path. Compare that to a goal like “get in better shape.” With no timeframe and no specific means to denote improvement, I’m going to have a hard time staying motivated.
Even with the clearest goals, you still need to put yourself in a position to succeed. This occurs most frequently when your skill level matches the challenge you’re facing. If my goal is to break 17:00 and I find myself in the Olympic Games surrounded by athletes trying to break 13:00, I’m going to be too anxious to perform well. If I attempt to reach my goal in a race with poor competition, I’m likely to get bored. But if I line up in great shape with competitors who have similar abilities to me, I stand a good chance to full engage the race and experience flow.
In a flow state, all of your internal and external senses are pushing you in the same direction. This usually means you feel light, springy, and effortless. Your splits are what you hoped they would be. The cheering of the spectators, your breathing pattern, and your perceived exertion all usher you in the same direction. If negative or contradictory feedback creeps in (imagine a coach or spectator yelling, “You’re running too fast!”), you need to be able to quickly assess the feedback and see if it fits or not. If it doesn’t, discard it immediately. Some of the best flow days result in people running faster than they ever have before. It’s your job to trust your instincts in those situations.
So just how can you tell you’re in a flow state? According to Csikszentmihalyi, there are six outcome variables that point toward it:
• Focused attention: You could just as easily call it effortless attention. Unlike most of our highly distracted moments in life, when you’re in flow you’re immersed in the activity. That means no fretting about what’s for dinner or if your Instagram post was liked 20 times.
• Merging of action and awareness: Flow leads to automatic and effortless action. Even if you’re indecisive by nature, in flow, you’ll act confidently and spontaneously.
• Sense of control: Empowered. Confident. Cool and collected. However you think of it, when you’re in flow, you feel like you control your destiny.
• Loss of self-consciousness: Despite all that empowerment, you’re not cocky. That’s because flow is so immersive you don’t have the brain capacity to think about how others view you.
• Distortion of time: Time flies when you’re having fun. That old adage applies here, too. In the same way that you can’t process opinions, you also don’t think about time. That causes it to slip by in the pleasurable sensation of running.
• Intrinsic motivation: Dubbed autotelic (Greek for “self-rewarding”) by Csikszentmihalyi, flow experiences are done for their inherent value, not for any fame or notoriety that may accompany them.
Spoiler alert: there is no guaranteed way to experience flow. Understanding the necessary variables and what it entails helps, but it doesn’t ensure a flow experience the next time you lace up your shoes. Despite that caveat, here are several tips that can help you get into flow more frequently:
• Practice mindfulness: Even if you don’t buy a book by John Kabat Zinn, the founder of the mindfulness moment, practice keeping your consciousness in the present moment.
• Establish multiple goals: Long-term goals are the driving force, but having short-term and intermediate goals along the way give you more chances for positive feedback.
• Find challenges that excite you: Don’t put down a goal for the sake of having a goal. Find things that motivate and excite you, develop the skills necessary to conquer them, and then take a chance at doing so.
• Run with friends or in beautiful places: Good conversation can lead to flow. So can running in beautiful places. Combine them, and you have a recipe for success.
By Philip Latter. Latter is a former senior writer at Running Times and co-author of Running Flow and Faster Road Racing. His work has also appeared in Runner's World, runnersworld.com, and ESPN.com. He currently coaches athletes at The Running Syndicate, in addition to his day job coaching high school runners at Brevard High School (NC).