How to Get In the Flow and Succeed At Work


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get in the flowIf you’ve loved playing video games you would recall times when you played a game for hours on end and didn’t feel any hunger or sleep. You would find it to be such an immersive experience that it appeared you transcended time!

You were in a state of Flow.

If you have seen a child intently playing with a piece of thread, and haven’t got an answer to you calling her repeatedly, you would do well not to disturb her. Because she is in a state of Flow.

Most of us have experienced this state one time or another in our lives.

Many sports-persons, musicians, performance artists, researchers, and professionals experience this state routinely.

This state is also known as ‘Csikszentmihalyi flow’ after Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “chick-SENT-me-high”), best known as the architect of the notion of Flow.

A renown figure-skater explains her experience of being Flow as below.

“It was just one of those programs that clicked. I mean, everything went right, everything felt good… It’s just such a rush, like you feel it could go on and on and on, like you don’t want it to stop because it’s going so well. It’s almost as though you don’t have to think, it’s like everything goes automatically without thinking… it’s like you’re on automatic pilot, so you don’t have any thoughts. You hear the music but you’re not aware that you’re hearing it, because it’s a part of it all.”

What is a state of Flow?

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains this state of Flow rather beautifully in his popular TED talk.

First thing to note is that Flow happens when the task involved is challenging and you are decently skilled at it.

Study this image carefully.

get in the flowThis flow model devised by Csikszentmihalyi explains 8 mental states we can be in, including Flow, based on the level of challenge involved with the task and the level of skill we possess to solving it.

  1. Apathy (Low challenges, Low skills)
  2. Worry (Moderate challenges, Low skills)
  3. Boredom (Low challenges, Moderate skills)
  4. Anxiety (High challenges, Low skills)
  5. Relaxation (Low challenges, High skills)
  6. Arousal (High challenges, Moderate skills)
  7. Control (Moderate challenges, High skills)
  8. Flow (High challenges, High skills)

Chances are, one or more of these states are associated with your current work situation, and few with a hobby or some activity that you enjoy.

Identifying where we are majority of the time during working hours can act as a compass showing us in which direction we are headed.

The point right at the center is an interesting place. It is where the at task involves moderate amount of skill and moderate amount of challenge, and from this point one can slip into ANY of the 8 states of mind!

What happens in the state of Flow?

Owen Schaffer proposes 7 flow conditions –

In Flow you would,

  • Know what to do
  • Know how to do it
  • Know how well you are doing
  • Know where to go (if navigation is involved)
  • Tackle High perceived challenges with ease
  • Exhibit High perceived skills
  • Experience freedom from distractions

So, needless to say, you will have Absolutely Fantastic Productivity!

The question is then, how to get into a state of Flow on any activity whenever you need to?

In order to achieve flow, Csikszentmihalyi lays out the following three conditions –

  • Goals should be clear
  • Feedback must be immediate
  • Task must provide a balance between opportunity and capacity

“Flow is the mental state where a person is fully immersed in an activity, performing at his or her best, and feeling energized throughout the process.”

Flow as applicable at work

Flow is defined as a state in which challenges and skills are equally matched. More often one can be in a state of flow at work, more will be the productivity and quality of work output and better will be work satisfaction.

So, the prerequisite, to some extent, to being in Flow could be getting ourselves into the state of Control or Arousal!

In her article in Positive Psychology News Daily, Kathryn Britton writes, “Flow isn’t just valuable to individuals; it also contributes to organizational goals. For example, frequent experiences of flow at work lead to higher productivity, innovation, and employee development (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991, 2004). So finding ways to increase the frequency of flow experiences can be one way for people to work together to increase the effectiveness of their workplaces.”

At work, getting into flow can be increasingly difficult or increasingly easier – depending on the workplace culture and freedom given to its employees.

Work place design

Does your work place have open or closed structure. There is no right or wrong workplace design. Nature of work and amount of interaction and collaboration required amongst team members dictate appropriate work place design.

Steve Jobs used to even design work place and office buildings in order to promote open work spaces that he believed increased creativity and innovation.

Work place policies and freedom

Some companies give absolute work-time flexibility and freedom and only care for results. Once responsibilities are assigned there is hardly any micro-management from the managers. Moreover, there is thought and focus into matching work and skills of employees, thereby giving them best chances of producing amazing results. Such environments are conducive to employees get into state of Flow. Even on a daily basis.

If you want to create a work environment conducive to state of Flow for your people, this is what you must ensure, according to Csikszentmihalyi –

  • Employees have their goals defined clearly
  • Employees get immediate and unambiguous feedback about their work
  • Work challenges match the employee’s skills
  • Employees feel a sense of control
  • Most of the distractions are eliminated
  • Work content provides for intrinsic motivation
  • Employees feel a part of something larger than the self

Some of these can be achieved by finding the right mentors. Mentors can reduce the time taken to acquire some of the skills people need.

How to get in the Flow

We have seen the prerequisites of getting into state of Flow, as well as 8 mental states that we can be in.

The idea is to get into a state of Arousal or Control. By increasing the skill level and work challenges appropriately it is possible to get into the state of Flow. More often than not we find ourselves in the state of Control or Arousal.

Refer to the chart above.

If we increase our skills it is easier to get into state of Flow from Arousal. That means we increase our efforts on learning the skill.

Similarly, if we have already mastered a skill and feel in the state of Control, adding some challenge to the work will help us get into Flow.

“When a person’s entire being is stretched in the full functioning of body and mind,” says Csikszentmihalyi, “whatever one does becomes worth doing for its own sake; living becomes its own justification. In the harmonious focusing of physical and psychic energy, life finally comes into its own.”

Now that you understand the benefits of being in Flow, and the mechanics of the state of Flow, you can get into one whenever you wish. Sure, it takes some practice, but the benefits are worth the effort!

The 2004 TED Talk by Dr. Csikszentmihalyi on the state of Flow –

Image courtesy:
Cover image: lastgunslinger
Csikszentmihalyi ‘Flow’ chart: xabi del rey

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