Know how to Get in the Zone: Skill, Challenge and Motivation


Flow, or “in the zone”, is a psychological experience that can be an asset to our growth. Many would think that being “in the zone” applies to only sports, but it happens to us more often than we realise, whether we notice it or not. Classically, a tennis game involving two equally skilled players would involve flow, whereby each pit individual skills against the challenges posed by the other, each holds clear goals to win the match, and each enjoys the game. Putting this experience in your context, in the past week, have you done an activity with a feeling of energised focus, full involvement and enjoyment? If you have, then you have contacted flow. This post will discuss flow as an asset to growth and how you can access flow states with precision.

Key Notes:

  1. The Benefits of Flow
  2. The Flow Experience – Skills, Challenge, Motivation & Attention
  3. The 7 Flow Conditions

The Benefits of Flow

I choose to talk about flow because it has strong relevance with my work. At some part of the coaching process, I will certainly work with my client to create more flow experiences, which is integral to the change process. Flow immediately immerses my clients in valued-driven activities that they can easily commit to. Flow activities present challenges to the clients in a way that matches their abilities and interests. Hence, when clients detect dysfunctional thoughts and feelings that can debilitating to them (e.g., this is completely hopeless [depressive], there is just too much going on for me to even think [anxious]), entering flow is a diversion strategy at its finest. Entering flow is a whole-sensory behaviour that leaves little “bandwidth” for the client to entertain thoughts and feelings that have negative value to them, breaking that psychological reflex to spiral downwards.

Other than using this flow experience to enter optimal functioning states, research has shown that contacting flow on a frequent basis has been associated with increases in:

  • General life satisfaction and positive feelings
  • Self-efficacy and confidence
  • Creativity, performance and accomplishments
  • Resilience and coping
  • Motivation
  • Personal growth and flourishing

Knowing that flow is an enhancer to our living experience, let us understand the conditions to better access this state and reap its benefits.

The Flow Experience


The flow model primarily consists of the balance between perceived personal skill and perceived challenge, with an undercurrent of attention and motivation.

Perceived skills relates to the ability, self mastery and confidence to complete the tasks. Perceived challenges relate to the demand of the goals set ahead. When we have high skills, aiming for goals set at a high margin, when accompanied with absolute focus and motivation, this optimal experience will generate a process of growth, regardless of the outcome. The importance of the flow experience is that once we enter this optimal experience, the process itself is already the reward, as we exercise our self-mastery to attempt a worthy challenge. If we succeed against the challenge, it is furthermore an icing on the cake.

When skills mismatch challenge, there will be  other possible experiences that are less optimal. Generally, when challenge exceeds skills, the feeling of less than adequate usually arises; when skills exceed challenge, we slowly disengage from the experience.

The 7 Flow Conditions

The optimal flow condition is likely to be achieved when the following conditions are met (Schaffer, 2013):

  1. Knowing what to do
  2. Knowing how to do it
  3. Knowing how well you are doing
  4. Knowing where to go (if navigation is involved)
  5. High perceived challenges
  6. High perceived skills
  7. Freedom from distractions

Flow is an experience that revolves around how our self-mastery interacts with the demands placed on us, and how we cognitively engage with this challenge. When the conditions are all met, and when flow is frequently contacted, our lives will naturally be filled with meaning and opportunities for growth. As a personal experiment, try to test this out in your own life.

Schaffer, Owen (2013), Crafting Fun User Experiences: A Method to Facilitate Flow

Original writings by The Realist, inspired by encounters in professional work in life coaching, physical therapy and PhD research.

Tips to change our work to our calling

dave_isay_calling_ted“Finding your calling — it’s not passive,” he says. “When people have found their calling, they’ve made tough decisions and sacrifices in order to do the work they were meant to do.”

~ Dave Isay, StoryCorps Founder

An interesting read to understand how to earn a value-driven living, that is enriching and meaningful to us.

7 lessons about finding the work you were meant to do,  by


The Surefire Way to Get Motivated for your Goals


Motivation for change is always a central theme in my work on a daily basis. We might wonder how on somedays motivation comes to us easy, while on other days, we just can’t get that energy to get things moving. On a more serious note, why do people continue to act dysfunctionally (e.g., alcoholism, abusive relationship) and refusing to change knowing full well that they are hurting themselves and even others?


  • To be motivated, the target has to be important, we need to be confident and willing.
  • Importance – how well your goal sits with your value system and priorities?
  • Confidence – how well you perceive your self-efficacy?
  • Willingness – the emotions, stories and beliefs you have around this goal?
  • Assess all these factors and rate them. They need to hit the benchmark of 7.

Like many psychological experiences, motivation is elusive, and that is why many people seek coaching to get to the bottom of their story. This is my professional advice.

Pertaining to shifting motivation, I practice a few forms of coaching/therapy models: Solution-Focus and Motivational Interviewing. To fully explain these models will be a drag; hence, I will summarise the keys techniques into three main factors.

If you can honestly assess these factors for yourself, you can almost fully understand your motivation structure, and know how to tweak this structure to work for you.

1. Importance (Priority factor)



Importance is always a discussion of your values and priorities. Sustaining an act is not about time management, but priority and focus management. Your goal need to have importance for you when you place it on your value system, and against other priorities.

For instance, having the goal of being more patient when communicating is of value to your relationship quality. And it stands strong against other priorities, such as work, exercise and leisure. As the goal gains importance in this manner, it begins to take our attention and we begin to act.

Questions for yourself. “How does this goal aligns with who I am now and who I want to be in the future?”, “What does this goal means for me?”, “Where does my character stands in this goal?”

What if without? If your goal is low in importance but it is something you know is good for you, sit down and think about whether the value and function of that goal big enough for you. From my experience, probably that goal is not important for you, but important for others, or prescribed by others. Again sit down, and think of something that is internally valuable and important for you.

2. Confidence (Self-efficacy factor)


Confidence is about knowing whether you can do it. It can be important for you, but if you lack the skills, knowledge and experience, it is difficult to even start. That can be a downer right from the start of your change process.

Another dimension of this factor is that it is the way that you perceive your self-efficacy that matters, not your actual self-efficacy.

You can well have the actual self-efficacy but choose not to use them due to a poor self-perception, that is still a lack of confidence. While others who does not have the actual self-efficacy may choose the grandiose self-perception approach, and can at least get some parts the goal attempted, which may not be of quality but still, kudos for being confident.

Questions for yourself: “Do I have the minimal skills, knowledge and experience to start on this project?”, “How do I perceive my actual skillset?”, “How is my confidence affect my emotions now?”

What if without? If you are faring low in confidence, there are concrete ways you can take to raise that score. Approach your confidence systematically to build it up. Confidence relates to certainty, once you gather sufficient (not full) certainty about yourself that you CAN do it, the ball starts rolling very quickly. Talk to people, upskill yourself, learn more knowledge in this area, and ensure your emotions are aligned with your confidence levels.

3. Willingness (Contextual factor)


Willingness is the hardest question to answer. It is a contextual element that comprises of important and confidence, and even more; which means once your importance and willingness are raised, your willingness will go up. However, that may not be enough.

Willingness is anything a person experience in the environment. It can be internal, such as feeling (“my gut feeling says no”), beliefs and assumptions (” I know they will judge me”), and external, such as limits and boundaries (“my kids need me”), timing (“the time is just not right”).

I spend the most time of my work here with my clients. And this is also where the gold of motivational coaching lies. Many of these contextual elements can be challenged and adjusted, but require skillful probing in a way to change the client’s schema. This is also where huge revelations begin to show up, and emotional epiphany arises, beyond which the ball will be bouldering down the hill of change.

I will briefly talk about assessing and improving willingness, but I will also dedicate a separate post to talk about this topic. Ask yourself these questions honestly. When people start lying to themselves, or not knowing that they are lying to themselves due to chronic avoidance, deep stagnation begins to form.

[Once written, the link will be attached here]

Questions for yourself: “What are my deepest fears around this goal?”, “What is the worst that can happen?”, “When my gut says no, what does my heart and head says?”, “If these feelings have a voice, what are they saying to me?”

What if without? If you are faring low in willingness, the only way is to be honest with yourself, because a conscious or subconscious part of you is blocking you. Find that unwilling part you, and have an honest conversation with yourself, or someone you can trust, or a professional who can draw that message out with you.

4. Last Step

I would like you to rate each of these factors on a scale from 0 (extremely low) to 10 (extremely high). For instance, “how willing am I to start acting on this goal in the near future?”, “how important is this goal for me?” “how confident am I to start working on this goal?”.

If you score at least 7 for each of these scales pertaining to your goal, it is highly likely you will not only act towards your goal, but also see through it. It may not guaranteed success, but at least you have taken the effort to try. If you score below 7 for any of these factors, use the tips to try to raise the scores if possible, if not, you might have to adjust your goals.

Original writings by The Realist, inspired by encounters in professional work in life coaching, physical therapy and PhD research.