Friday, 19 July 2013 12:55

Finding Your Flow at Work

Have you ever experienced “flow”?

Have you ever experienced one of those exceptional states of blissful, yet effortless focus and concentration called “flow”?

Perhaps, like me, you have been inspired by an idea which compels you to write. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a crowded café or in a quiet room; everything disappears from your consciousness, except for the idea and its expression. Once the “flow” takes hold, your full attention is on the transition of the idea from your mind to the page.  Hours can pass where you are in a state of bliss, unaware of the passage of time, of any physical sensations or egocentric distractions, until the experience is concluded and you are jolted back into reality. I often delight in reflecting on the work I produce when I’m “in the zone”. The quality is exceptional, the ideas new and fresh, the quantity of pages phenomenal, and the structure near word-perfect.

Around one in five people claim to experience “flow” several times a day, while 15% report that they have never had the experience (1997, Psychology Today). Writing may not do it for you, but there are many other pursuits in which you may experience your “authentic” self, such as a sport you love, a religious experience, creating art, producing music, or solving mathematical problems.

Flow is not happiness. We can experience happiness basking in the warmth of the sun or a comfortable relationship. This kind of happiness is dependent on favourable external factors. Flow is of our own making, occurring when we apply our talent and skills 100% to an activity which we find inherently engaging, and with enough complexity to keep it interesting.

Flow at work

People at all levels report a need for challenges that create flow at work, according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1997). Mihaly’s research has found that for flow to occur, challenges must stretch our capacity, without being overwhelming.

If we have optimal work experiences, we’re more motivated to do good work, which also benefits the organisation and our coworkers. Our satisfaction is energising and self-perpetuating, and it carries over into our home life because we’re in a positive frame of mind.

To improve the quality of life through work, two complementary strategies are necessary:

  1.     Jobs should be redesigned so skills levels and challenges are high. This contributes to a more cheerful and active workforce, improved concentration, and greater creativity and satisfaction.
  2.     Workers must define and develop self-directing, intrinsic goals. When we learn to recognize opportunities for action, hone our skills, set reachable goals, and immerse our concentration and focus in the present, we become more engaged at work and experience a state of “flow.”

Without these strategies, it’s easy to multitask on autopilot and miss opportunities to excel.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified nine main elements that define the experience of flow at work:

  1.     Clear goals every step of the way
  2.     Immediate feedback on one’s actions
  3.     Balance between challenges and skills
  4.     A merging of action and awareness, with concentration focused on what we’re doing
  5.     Exclusion of other dimensions from consciousness to eliminate distraction
  6.     No fear of failure, as we’re focused on what has to be done
  7.     No self-consciousness or over-concern with ego
  8.     A distorted sense of time
  9.     Activity that becomes inherently enjoyable

How to Create Flow Experiences

All jobs have routine components that can become boring and unexciting. The key is to remain alert for opportunities to make them interesting.

To develop flow experiences at work, be mindful of these four elements:

1.       Set clear goals: Self-directing people choose goals and directions that fit their purpose.

Although some work goals are allocated to us, we can always choose to adopt them personally. This feeling of ownership means you’re more strongly dedicated to your goals.  

2.       Become immersed in your activities: Once our goals are clearly defined and we’ve decided on a plan of action, the door is then open to become deeply focused on whatever we have chosen to do. Improve your capacity to maintain focus by avoiding goals which are unrealistic or unattainable, nor should they be trivial and without complexity.

Consider developing your ability to concentrate and focus by limiting possible distractions. Avoid the temptation of multitasking, which has proved to be fallible and unreliable. Only by taking the necessary time to focus on one thing at a time, with deliberation, can we achieve the flow experience.
3.       Concentrate on what’s happening: Periods of focused concentration set the stage for productive work activities. Athletes know all too well that a momentary lapse of attention can spell complete defeat. A surgeon whose mind wanders can lose a patient.
 A word of caution to employers who advocate open plan offices. Busy work environments and large rooms with incomplete cubicle dividers create negative conditions for many people. To make matters worse, we are continually interrupted — if we allow it — by email, phones, the Internet and other technologies.

Most of us will not face an athletic field or operating room at work, but we do have spreadsheets, computer screens, flow charts and other data on which to focus. Our own minds may be the greatest source of distraction, with self-consciousness looming as a perpetual trap.

The moment we shift our attention from the task at hand and allow our minds to wander to our egos — how we’re doing, how we’re perceived by others — we lose focus and cease to enjoy natural flow. Work becomes harder and less spontaneous.

4.       Learn to enjoy immediate experiences: Focus on the present, and be “in the moment.” Avoid worrying about others’ reactions or future outcomes. Only then can you do your best work.

Taking Control of Flow at Work

Being in control of your thoughts, powers of concentration and goals means anything that happens can become a source of joy and flow at work.

Achieving control, however, requires determination and discipline.  To be able to transform random events into flow experiences, we must accept challenges; stretch to develop skill sets and try to experience our authentic self.

D. Worrall (2010)


TED Video of M. Csikszentmihalyi on Flow (19 mins):


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1997)

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (Jul 1, 1997) Finding Flow.


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