Peak Performance

Peak performance—also frequently referred to as “flow”—is a state of optimal physical or mental performance, or sometimes both. In this state, we feel fully engaged in the task at hand, completely present and confident in our ability to accomplish it. This state has been studied by experts in several different disciplines from the perspective of sports, art, business, and everyday life. Achieving periods of peak performance is closely related to both physical and mental health, our environment, and our ability to let go of outside distractions. While flow is a transient phase that comes and goes, every one of us can encourage its more frequent appearance in our own lives.

View Our Introductory Article


An Introduction to Peak Performance

Some people just seem to excel when the situation calls for it. Certain athletes have an uncanny ability to go into “the zone” and get the job done in the clutch; well-prepared students with good study habits tend to do well on tests; and many of us have experienced days when everything unfolds perfectly at work, regardless of our chosen profession or career field.

The one thing these examples have in common is that, to at least some degree, peak performance plays a key role.

In the case of high-performing athletes, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the late twentieth century, or someone today like ballet dancer Misty Copeland, whose art is expressed through the medium of graceful physical motion, relentless dedication to practice and preparation helps propel them to that place of optimal flow, focus, and achievement.

Good students form habits early on in their academic careers that enable them to excel when test time and other critical moments in their educational journeys arrive. 

And whether we are waiting tables, selling insurance, or arguing a case before a jury, we tend to recognize periods of workplace-specific peak performance in our own lives—even if millions of people don’t see us make the game-winning basket or perform a flawless dance routine that leaves them in appreciative awe. 

What is peak performance?

Simply put, peak performance is about reaching a state where doing one’s best flows as naturally as you intend it to, regardless of the task at hand. This applies to athletics, education, business, or just about any other area where personal effort contributes to achievable excellence.

Peak performance is rarely a fluke; those who attain it may spend weeks, months, or even years bringing themselves into alignment with their own best visions of themselves and their abilities. By doing so, they can draw on their training, experience, and preparation to seize the opportunity when it presents itself. Peak performance—or at least the capacity for attaining it on a consistent basis—is the natural result of a commitment to one’s individual goals, values, and unique path for self-development

While peak performance can be a kind of linchpin in an overall approach to daily living, it can be situational, as well: Waiters who are consistently fast and accurate and make good use of communication skills may often find themselves in a state of flow specific to peak performance as it relates to providing great service at a restaurant.

Is “flow” the same as “peak performance”?

“Being in a flow state” and “peak performance” can and often do mean the same thing. In his 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, the Hungarian American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi wrote about the concept of “flow,” or optimal experience:

We have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like. 

Whether one calls that sense of exhilaration and enjoyment “flow” or “peak performance,” it’s something that we tend to want more of—in a healthy way—once we’ve experienced it.

How can I reach, or improve on, peak performance?

In order to put yourself on the path to peak performance or improve on your ability to enter the flow state, it helps to have a healthy interest in self-discovery and a good idea of the accomplishment or goal you want to attain. As Csíkszentmihályi wrote in 1997, “Flow tends to occur when a person faces a clear set of goals that require appropriate responses.”

Csíkszentmihályi went on to write that flow, or peak performance, also occurs “when a person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable, so it acts as a magnet for learning new skills and increasing challenges.” 

Watching someone function at such a high capacity, be it in competitive athletics or everyday life, can give rise to the illusion that peak performance can be called forth at will. While that may be true for some people at least some of the time, it’s usually only true in any meaningful sense for people who have made a conscious effort to develop abilities and mindsets that encourage and support peak performance and flow states.

Without having prepared oneself, actually entering a state of flow can be elusive and, once there, difficult to sustain. To improve your chances of spending more time in a flow state of peak performance, maintain an orientation toward that goal in your day-to-day life.

Letting go of self-limiting beliefs, cultivating a sense of presence and mindfulness on a path toward self-actualization can help anyone who wants to manifest more peak-performance or flow experiences.

In addition to books by Csíkszentmihályi, other helpful titles related to peak performance and flow include The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer by Steven Kotler; Courage to Soar: A Body in Motion, a Life in Balance by Simone Biles; The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron; and many, many more.

You Might Also Like Our Content on These Topics: Productivity, Empowerment, Leadership, Plateauing

Close Introductory Article
FindCenter Video Image

What Are Peak and Flow States? | Jamie Wheal On London Real

Jamie Wheal is the Executive Director of the Flow Genome Project and expert in the neuro-physiology of human performance. For over a decade he has advised Fortune 500 companies like Google, Nike, and Red Bull, as well as the U.S. Naval War College, on strategy, execution, and leadership.

FindCenter AddIcon
FindCenter Video Image

Beneath the Surface: My Story

In this candid memoir, Phelps talks openly about his battle with attention deficit disorder, the trauma of his parents’ divorce, and the challenges that come with being thrust into the limelight.

FindCenter AddIcon
FindCenter Video Image

Finding Flow

Here, the man who literally wrote the book on flow presents his most lucid account yet of how to experience this blissful state.

FindCenter AddIcon
FindCenter Video Image

FindCenterBe not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.

FindCenter AddIcon
FindCenter Video Image

How to Open Up the Next Level of Human Performance | Steven Kotler | TEDxABQ

What does it take to be your best when it matters most? Author of 7 bestselling books, Pulitzer Prize nominee, and Director of Research at the Flow Genome Project, Steven Kotler studies ultimate human performance, what is actually possible for our species, and where–if anywhere–our limits lie.

FindCenter AddIcon
FindCenter Video Image

No Limits: The Will to Succeed

For years the world has followed Michael Phelps’s progress from teen sensation in Sydney to bona fide phenom in Athens. Now he’s a living Olympic legend in Beijing with a peerless record of gold medals.

FindCenter AddIcon
FindCenter Video Image

Hacking the Genome of Flow: Jamie Wheal at TEDxVeniceBeach

The peak performance state known as Flow, of being "in the zone," where time slows down, everything becomes effortless, and we feel and perform at our best, is one of the world's best-kept secrets to happiness.

FindCenter AddIcon
FindCenter Video Image

FindCenterReal generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present.

FindCenter AddIcon
FindCenter Video Image

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s famous investigations of optimal experience have revealed that what makes an experience genuinely satisfying is a state of consciousness called flow. During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life.

FindCenter AddIcon
FindCenter Video Image

How to Enter the Flow State

Brett Weingeier: The definitive guide to getting in the zone, for athletes and non-athletes

FindCenter AddIcon


Athlete Well-Being