This is an excerpt from my upcoming book ‘The Rhythm Of Practice’, a guide on how to get to the most our of your daily practice, with tools and tactics to create your best self and live your vision.
The delicate balance of putting yourself in challenging situations by following the path of most resistance is tricky. We are building our skills every day, but to get to what seems impossible today, we are going forward a little at a time, in harmony with the skills we have right now. The goldilocks zone is presenting yourself with just enough challenge to demand all your focus by pushing you into flow state by stepping up and rising to the challenge. To much challenge to too little skill and you are overwhelmed, creating anxiety. Too little challenge to too much skill is too easy, creating boredom. Pushing yourself just 4% above your current skill has been found to be the magic number. It seems small, but small improvements over time will compound over days, month, and years to take you to what seems impossible today.
Become an engineer of designing uncomfortable situations for yourself to be in, but not so much that you’re completely flooded. 4% is not that much! Struggle is a crucial element of flow, but seeking out just the right amount and when, is an art. Awareness is the key to finding the razor’s edge fine line of balance, that will always be changing in the different seasons of your practice as you progress. Not enough challenge makes you bored, and too much challenge gives you anxiety, and flow exists right in the sweet spot between the two. Playing exactly what you already know presents 0% challenge, so when we say ‘the 4% rule’, we are trying to add just enough disquiet and unease to rise to the challenge and kickstart the flow process. Make it your mission to explore this sweet spot between comfortable security and restless uncertainty.
This means inviting frequent and regular frustration and failure. Just enough of a fear of failure, but not too much or too little. The sweetspot in between is just enough discomfort to get into flow. You are pushed just enough out of your comfort zone. There is a matching of challenge and skill. I love drumming, but if you asked me to play the latest Cirque Du Soleil show the challenge would far surpass my current skill, and there would be no flow in it at all for me. But the players in the show, having learned the show 4% at a time building one challenge after another and playing it hundreds of times, drop into flow regularly when performing. They couldn’t perform at that high a level WITHOUT dropping into flow states, and that would go for not only their musicians, but all the performers in this world class show.
Try this experiment. Take a piece of paper, crumple it up in a ball, and throw it as hard as you possible can. It won’t go very far no matter how much force you apply, because if it’s lightness. Now take a bowling ball and also throw it as hard as you can, and it also won’t go very far because of it’s heaviness. Now take a baseball and throw it. The baseballs mass is in the ‘goldilocks zone’ sweet spot of being not too heavy but not too light, and so the amount of force you apply will have a lot more impact on the final result. PRACTICE SHOULD BE ADDICTIVE. Don’t make practice an affliction, make it an addiction. When we practice, we’re regularly facing things we DON’T KNOW, and having big goals brings too much on the anxiety scale, which makes practicing a painful chore and cause us to quit. Part of finding the right zone in the right amount of challenge that works for you, is that it will feel GOOD. When you feel you’re going too far into the anxiety zone, cut your practice short and walk away. This is hard on our egos because it feels like the thing you are practicing has beaten you. It may feel counter productive to walk away from your practice, but in the long run you are getting far more out of your practice. Consistency leads to mastery, and you’ll want to do it every day if you can keep it fun! Let’s live CONSISTENCY over INTENSITY. I don’t know about you, but I want to be still practicing when I’m 110 years young! There is a cost to going to your redline max too often. Going to your maximum intensity means you will have to take a break by definition. If you didn’t go full intensity to your max, then you won’t need to take a break in the first place. If you don’t need to take a break, you didn’t really go to your maximum intensity. Too much chaos, novelty, and unpredictability can put the brain into a mode where it is detecting possible threats, and can keep you from dropping into flow. This is too much challenge and the brain needs to stay heightened to protect itself. The prefrontal cortex is staying too active, and too much thinking is a flow blocker. Continue to build awareness in your practice with measurement and reflection, because your goldilocks sweetspot of how much challenge and intensity to add to your practice, will always be changing, even daily!