Achieving optimal performance remains a focus of business, leaders, and coaches.

Discussions about performance often devolve into productivity. To develop a healthy balance, increasing performance requires creating conditions for performance to include motivation, rituals, and recognizing different capabilities.

This blog introduces practice, performance, and flow as distinct capacities that support human learning.

Clarifying each ability and recognizing how each capacity contributes to skill acquisition, demonstrating proficiency, and expressing creativity enhances learning and fulfillment.

1- Practice.

Definition: Practice refers to the deliberate and systematic repetition of skills, behaviors, or tasks with the goal of improvement over time.

  • Practice involves focused effort, concentration, and intentionality.

So then, as the joke goes, a pedestrian on 57th Street in New York sees a musician getting out of a cab and asks, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Without pause, the artist wearily replies, “Practice.”

As a verb, practicing involves skill acquisition, mastery, and refinement. It creates a regular discipline that develops proficiency in various domains, from musical and athletic abilities to academic subjects. Practice also supports how we internalize knowledge and develop habitual patterns, which frees up our cognitive resources for more complex tasks and creative endeavors.

Relating to a learning context, rather than the cliché—“practice makes perfect”—practice fosters incremental progress leading to sustained growth and development. With practice, people develop structured frameworks that foster discipline, resilience, and perseverance.

A Practice Mindset

In addition to practicing, many cultures, especially in Eastern traditions, relate to practice as a noun instead of a verb. In this context, Practice is a state of mind used to develop and habituate a specific way of being or a set of conditions.

For instance, one may have a meditation practice, listening practice, grounding practice, or study/contemplation practice to support specific human qualities.

As a verb or noun, practice can become habitual, monotonous, or tedious if not approached with intentionality or motivation. If we fail to challenge ourselves, seek feedback, or revisit our reasons for practice, we can undermine our growth.

Practices can involve routines and rituals.

  • Routines are more habitual, including repetitive actions or tasks.
  • Rituals add meaning and significance with a deeper sense of purpose.

Whether routines or rituals, practice is not performance, however. Performance serves another function altogether.

With our time compression, many people show up to perform without sufficient—or any—practice. This “winging it” or “faking it” approach diminishes our confidence and shortcuts an important learning process. When honored, learning derived from practice yields dividends.

Practice is our space to train our mind, develop our body, and experiment with habituating skills. Indeed, in most contexts, the practice-to-performance ratio can range from 5:1 to 60:1 to achieve a stable foundation or optimum peak.

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2- Performance

Definition: Performance refers to executing or demonstrating skills, behaviors, or tasks in a specific context or setting.

  • Performance involves applying learned knowledge and abilities to achieve desired outcomes or goals.

The context for performance can venture beyond the performative to mastery of craft. Throwing pottery, artistic, sports, or musical endeavors, writing, cooking, and even delivering a coaching session are all demonstrations of skill and mastery.

In general, performance measures proficiency and competency in a given domain. It provides opportunities for individuals to apply their learning in real-world situations, receive feedback, and assess their progress.

A Performance Mindset

Taking on performance in a learning context rather than for perfection encourages a mindset for risk-taking, experimentation, and adaptation.

External factors, such as pressure, stress, or evaluation, can influence our performance, which may impact our ability to demonstrate our full potential. To avoid undermining our performance, it is wise to cultivate a healthy relationship between performance and practice.

Continuous improvement—known as Kaizen in Japanese—means “change for the better.” Adopting Kaizen as a core principle opens the space for creativity and improvisation in response to changing circumstances.

When performance focuses on perfection rather than learning, it can lead to performance anxiety or fear of failure, inhibiting creativity and exploration. An overemphasis on performance without balance can also add needless pressure and burnout.

Remember, performance is an important feedback loop: It clarifies both where we excel and new gaps for improvement.

Paradoxically, any performance gap might be a byproduct of increased confidence that encourages risk-taking to increase functioning. Even a failed attempt reveals new growth areas outside our comfort zone.

These performance risks, coupled with practice, can achieve a new level of functioning.

3- Flow

Although related to—even resulting from—practice and performance, “flow” opens a deeper territory of human functioning.

Definition: Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as a state of optimal experience characterized by deep concentration, intense focus, and a sense of effortless engagement, leading to heightened creativity, problem-solving, and innovation.

  • Flow occurs when individuals are fully immersed in an activity, where time seems to stand still and self-consciousness diminishes.

Flow enhances learning and creativity by promoting intrinsic motivation and deep engagement.

The experience of a flow state includes a collection of psychological phenomena: (a) a feeling of control over the activity; (b) an experience of time distortion when a person loses awareness of the passing time; (c) the removal of self-consciousness—one’s ego identification—where a person loses awareness of themselves and everyday problems; (d) a feeling of transcendence, where the person feels a sense of unity with the activity.

Flow may be elusive or difficult to achieve consistently, depending on task complexity, skill level, and environmental conditions. Indeed, the flow state achieves an absorption state, causing a loss of “self” where individuals become so absorbed in the experience that they neglect other activities.

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Flow and Deep Work

Over the past decade, the innovation of “deep work” has been conflated with flow.

Coined by Cal Newport in his book of the same name, “Deep Work refers to doing focused, uninterrupted, and cognitively demanding work. Concentrating on a single, meaningful task, often for an extended period, produces specific, high-quality results.

Newport argues that by engaging deeply with challenging tasks, individuals can achieve higher levels of productivity and creativity. Deep work offers structures and practices to curate a structured framework, transcending “shallow work” (see grid above) to optimize cognition.

Deep work results in overcoming our aversion to boredom to sustain productivity. Indeed, after listening to hours of podcasts with Newport, a common refrain of his emphasizes optimizing cognition for productivity.

Alternately, “Flow” is an altered state of consciousness. Achieving this mental state involves peak performance and heightened intensity and ease, fully immersing your body and mind in the activity and reaching a feeling where time distorts. Terms like “in the zone” or Maslow’s “peak experience” are often related to the flow state.

However, without a grounded intention, we can become attached to the “blissful” experiences that result from flow, undermining our overall productivity. Flow isn’t available for every task, whereas deep work can improve most tasks.

Different and Complementary

Deep Work develops the ability to focus on a task optimally, enhancing one’s cognitive ability—optimizing doing.”

Flow is a state of consciousness that accesses concentration to achieve absorption and experience ease—expanding being.”

The results from each may appear similar, but one’s intention, motivation, and experience differ.

  • Deep work can support a writer in eliminating distraction, cultivating a conducive environment, and developing the discipline for writing and producing written material.
  • Flow finds the writer merged with their material such that hours whizz by as words flow through them—much like surfing a wave.

In this example, deep work and flow can work in tandem: one as a structured process to cultivate concentration and the other to access a state of consciousness, that is, becoming absorbed.

In my experience, when I engage in deep work, I engage the “executive center” of my brain. My flow state, however, releases this part of my brain. I feel more relaxed—more attuned to my “default mode network.”

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Flow and The Ego

According to Csikszentmihalyi (1990), a researcher in positive psychology, the experience of flow is characterized by nine dimensions: a challenge-skill balance, merging of action and awareness, clear goals, unambiguous feedback, total concentration, sense of control, loss of self-consciousness, transformation of time, and autotelic experience.

Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “autotelic” to describe someone with intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation. An autotelic experience is a meaningful activity done for its own sake. Autotelic people are driven by curiosity or purpose.

People in a state of flow mention that they become so absorbed in the activity that they have no attention to spare for distractions. They need not structure such a curated environment to focus because the “normal distractions” do not register in their consciousness.

This lack of “self-consciousness” finds the ego falling away, transcendent, and losing a sense of time. This supports a generative quality because every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.

Everyone experiences this at times, characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill—during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored.

Finally

Practice, performance, and flow represent distinct territories of human learning and development. Each contributes to the acquisition of skills, the demonstration of proficiency, and the expression of creativity in different ways.

Although practice fosters skill acquisition and mastery and performance validates learning and achievement, flow enhances intrinsic motivation and creativity. By understanding the qualities of each territory, we can effectively leverage them to support their learning and creative endeavors.

Reading Time: 6.5 min. Digest Time: 9 min.


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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.