3 Secrets to Getting in “The Zone”: Flow States in Practice

Let’s face it:  some days you just have it, and other days you don’t.  Some days everything clicks, and other days, nothing seems to “flow” like it should.

One of the contributors to this is your state.  If you’re distracted, overly caffeinated (my personal nemesis!), or unfocused, it’s likely you will not be at your best.

However, sometimes, we are at our absolute best.  In these cases, we are likely in a state of “flow”.  Some also call it being “In The Zone”.

This is the best place to be, and the more you can be there in your practice, the more you’ll enjoy it, the faster you’ll progress, and more enticed you’ll be to do it again tomorrow.

What is a “Flow State”?

The state of being in “flow” is a completely natural occurrence. It happens every day.

If you’ve ever been completely engrossed in a conversation or task, where time disappears, the world and all its dramas disappears, and even your sense of self disappears, you’ve been in flow.

It’s a state of optimum performance. In flow, we are at our absolute best.

The brain releases all sorts of “feel good” chemicals. Our senses are heightened. Focus is effortless.

In short, it is one of the most enjoyable, most healthy, most natural, and most addictive states we can create. Flow simply makes life better.

Why Strive For Flow in Guitar Practice?

Being in flow, also known as being “in the zone”, allows us to learn more quickly and more easily.

Not just mental memorization and learning, but also muscle memory, understanding, and comprehension are improved.

Perhaps most importantly though, flow feels good!

It’s a gift to be able to sit down to practice, and create from scratch:

  • Engaging work
  • Feelings of accomplishment
  • Meditative levels of focus
  • Rewarding comprehension
  • Wonder and fascination
  • A healthier body
  • A clearer mind

How to Create Flow and Get in “The Zone”

The first thing to know is: you can’t force flow in guitar practice.

You can, however, force flow by risking your life (extreme sports, for example, are all about creating flow states via high risk). Risk of bodily harm increases our attention. And flow follows focus, which follows attention.

(Steven Kotler wrote a very fun book about flow states, looking at extreme sports.)

But in guitar practice, we don’t have much to lose. So we have to get at flow in a different way.

Flow follows focus. Focus follows attention.

So our goal in practice is simply this: encourage attention.

3 Main Ingredients of Flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced something like “chick sent me high”) wrote a seminal bestseller called “Flow” and proposed these as his top 3 ingredients.  There are others, but these will get you started.

By focusing on the following three ingredients of flow, you can increase your chances of entering flow. No guarantees, but even if you don’t hit the “flowy feelings”, these three also just make for a highly effective practice.

1. Clear Goals

We hear about goals all the time. And when we hear “clear goals”, our tendency is to skip over the “clear” and go straight to the “goals” (thanks to Peter for this point).

However, the important part is “clear”.

We want to define the task at hand so clearly that there is zero confusion or room for question.

Get precise in what you wish to focus on for each repetition.

In guitar practice, this could be something like:
Unclear goal=  “Play this section”

Clear Goal=
“I will play these two bars, with I and M alternation, with perfect left hand finger placement behind the frets, with no squeaks, with seamless connection of notes, with rock-steady tempo, with consistent tone quality, with the dynamics doing exactly this:_______.”

In this second example, there is no question of what to do. There are very specific instructions for each note and each hand.

Of course, if you’re just starting out, this may be too much to pay attention to at one time, but we’ll get to that in just a minute.

The point is: be absolutely clear in your current goal. The goal can change frequently to keep things interesting, but each repetition should ideally have a clear goal attached to it.

2. Immediate Feedback

The next ingredient is immediate feedback. This is the ability to know immediately if what you are doing is succeeding or not, according to your clear goals.

It seems like immediate feedback would be a given on the guitar.

You play, you hear it. Simple, right?

Not so.

Many players don’t actually hear the sounds they are creating in the moment, for a couple of reasons.

First, and perhaps most importantly, many players practice too fast.

Speed creates the illusion of perfection.

If you are going to track all those things we listed above (legato, tone, squeaks, fingerings, etc.), you have to go slow enough to actually register it.

Slow down and listen like crazy.

You have to be able to hear each individual note and the way it connects to the next. You have to be able to keep your attention on the act of creating a specific action, and giving the space to actually hear and feel the results.

Another reason many players don’t hear what they’re playing is that we have a mental representation of what we want it to sound like. If we are not careful, our focus on what we want to hear actually deafens us to what we are, in the moment, hearing.

A third reason for not actually hearing is “the rookie effect”. This is simpy not knowing what to listen for and to. The cure for this is clearer goals. The more we specify what to focus on, the more aware we become of the possibilities. (Of course getting new ideas from teachers and websites like this one helps as well.)

The solution in most cases is to slow down. Slow down and listen like crazy.

3. The Right Skills/Challenge Ratio

The third ingredient is getting the ratio of current skills to the current challenge correct.

Skills are our abilities at the current moment.

The challenge is what we defined in our clear goals.

We have to find “the sweet spot” between these two to encourage a flow state.

If the challenge is too difficult for us, we may create anxiety or fear, discouraging thoughts or confusion. Or focus moves from the task at hand to our feelings and negative experience.

If the challenge is too easy, our mind wanders and we lose attention.

Remember: Flow follows focus. Focus follows attention.

The Sweet Spot is that point where our clear goals are just a little beyond our current abilities.

We have to give our complete attention and focus to make it happen.

This is a dance. A daily negotiation and experiment. Sometimes we hit the bullseye. Sometimes not.

It’s easy to be tempted to delegate this one by giving responsibility to a teacher. A teacher can guide, and choose repertoire, make suggestions, etc. But on a daily basis, practicing is a personal endeavor. It’s up to us alone to show up, create clear goals for the moment, and evaluate the feedback.

Room For Error

The beauty of practicing with these 3 ingredients in mind is that there is no downside.

You may not feel flowy every day. But if we continue to put the events in place to encourage flow, we will experience it a whole lot more.

It’s important to remember why we play classical guitar to begin with: the money. Just kidding!

We play guitar for fun. We do it for the challenge and the daily experience and progressive endeavor.

Constantly striving to get better at these three ingredients will contribute to better practice, quicker progress, and more daily reward.

Have fun!

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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