Encourage a flow state and you and your colleagues will perform better at work. You will also be happier and healthier as a result.
Read on to discover what makes for a state of flow and how you can foster a flow state in yourself and others.
What is flow?
Flow is a mental state in which you are completely focussed and involved in an activity. Immersed in what you are doing, you lose all track of time. External distractions disappear and your performance is consistently high. If you want to get all Zen about it: you and the activity become one.
A sports person might describe the flow state as being:
“In the zone”
That’s when an athlete is performing at his or her best, but seemingly with no effort. Almost as if they weren’t trying at all. Overthinking and trying too hard is the enemy of flow. We will explore barriers and opportunities for flow later.
Flow does require effort and practice, however. It is a consequence of active participation. So don’t confuse flow with the trance-like state you might slip into whilst watching television, driving a car, or relaxing in the bath. That’s zoning out. Not being in the zone.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and the origins of flow
The state of flow is associated with one name more than any other. And that name is very hard to pronounce.
It’s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced ‘Me-high Chik-sent-me-high’).
Csikszentmihalyi is a pioneer of the positive psychology movement. That’s the branch of psychology concerned with positive emotional states such as happiness, fulfilment and wellbeing as opposed to trauma, illness and deviance.
It 1975, Csikszentmihalyi was studying happiness and he found that people are often happiest when fully engaged in fulfilling tasks. In this state we enter what he called ‘flow’.
Csikszentmihalyi described this flow state as being:
“…completely involved in an activity for its own sake… Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one… Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
He’s written a ton of books on the subject. Check out any of the following publications for more of Csikszentmihalyi’s thoughts on flow:
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. and Csikszentmihalyi, I. S., eds. (1988). Optimal Experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life. Basic Books. [Book review from Psychology Today]
- Gardner, H., Csikszentmihalyi, M., and Damon, W. (2002). Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning. Basic Books.
The detail and academic underpinning is all there if we want it, but let’s cut to the chase. What you really need to understand is:
- Flow’s positive relationship with performance and health
- What we can do to encourage a flow state at work
Read on for enlightenment.
Flow for improved performance and health
In a flow state, our brain changes. The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for problem solving and self-criticism, switches off. Performance-enhancing hormones and neurotransmitters like endorphins, dopamine, noradrenaline, serotonin and anandamide are released.
On an individual level these hormones and neurotransmitters improve mood, increase focus, speed up information processing and enhance creativity. At a group level they increase emotional connection, cooperation and communication. Productivity and performance skyrocket.
Consider the continuum of mental health below. Flow is one sign you are operating in the ‘excelling’ zone. Associated feelings include cheerfulness, joy, energy and fully realising your potential. It doesn’t get much better than that for your mental wellbeing.
Fostering a flow state at work
Motivating and engaging employees is not a simple matter of carrot and stick. More money or praise on one hand; sanctions, a missed promotion, or even dismissal, on the other. Motivation is more complex than that.
Research has shown that workers are much more motivated by internal factors as opposed to the extrinsic reward and punishment of carrot and stick. What is especially important is how they feel intrinsically about themselves in relation to their job.
A 2004 study of 42 manufacturing companies by Malcolm Patterson and colleagues showed the strongest predictor of employee engagement productivity was ‘a concern for their welfare’. Wright and Cropanzano (2000) found that employees with higher mental wellbeing perform better at work.
One of the most important experiences that promote psychological wellbeing and engagement is ‘flow’.
Work is an area of life where people often have opportunities for flow. Given that regular experience of flow makes us happier, work can be fantastic for our mental wellbeing. Motivating workers by looking for opportunities to foster flow means higher productivity, fewer absences, and improved employee retention.
So how do we move beyond carrot and stick to encourage a state of flow?
Strike the right balance between challenge and ability
Reaching a flow state is about getting the balance right between an individual’s ability and their perception of challenge. Make things too easy and they will soon become bored. Too difficult, and fear of failure will lead to worry and anxiety. Both extremes lead to poor performance and a negative experience.
The graph below illustrates how different ability levels and challenge levels lead to different emotional outcomes.
The ideal balance to promote flow is a high ability level matched by a high challenge level. You are making the most of your abilities to rise to a challenge. This leads to ultimate performance and maximum personal fulfilment.
Abilities and perceptions of challenge change over time, so it’s important that challenge levels are increased to prevent someone from becoming stale. An individual with a growth mindset will seek fresh challenges and will expand their abilities to meet these challenges.
Someone who is feeling overly challenged will need support. This might take the form of training, guidance, resources, or tools and techniques. If you are a manager, it’s important to recognise the signs of someone under too much pressure and to coach them accordingly.
Pressure and performance
The pressure performance curve below is a useful reminder of how perceptions of pressure can affect performance negatively and positively. Think of the top of the bell curve below as the point of maximal flow.
Encourage yourself and others to stay in flow at the top of the curve by thinking of pressure as an energising force. We need the pressure of deadlines and others requiring outputs from us to get stuff done. As Kelly McGonigal points out in her TED talk, which is one of the most popular TED talks of all time, you need to “make stress your friend.”
Remember I said earlier that trying too hard was the enemy of flow? If you are straining rather than stretching, then you are trying too hard. Your performance and your wellbeing will suffer from straining.
In his classic book The Inner Game of Tennis: The Ultimate Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance, author, Timothy Gallwey offer this advice for tennis players prone to sabotaging their game with self-doubt and trying too hard:
“Focus your mind on the seams of the ball. Don’t think about making contact. In fact, don’t try to hit the ball at all. Just let your racket contact the ball where it wants to, and we’ll see what happens.”
Gallwey’s advice to focus on the seams of the ball encourages a flow state where your brain’s prefrontal cortex switches off, and self-criticism and overthinking disappear.
The Inner Game of Tennis is a book as much about life as it is about tennis. If you are straining or overcome by self doubt, concentrate your attention on observing one seemingly insignificant detail of the task in hand. Observe the detail and take pleasure in process. Smile and enjoy. You will control the pressure and your performance will increase.
Perceptions are powerful
Remember, cumulative stress and pressure can magnify perceptions of challenge. This pressure can build up at home and at work.
So it is not just a matter of matching actual abilities to challenge. It is a case of matching perception of ability to perceptions of challenge. Confidence, self-esteem and fear of failure all influence perceptions of ability and challenge. It’s about your personality traits and the way you view the world and yourself, more than it is about the task and your ability themselves.
Do you feel your skills are up to the task? To enter flow, you must have confidence in your ability to complete the task. The main way we can achieve this confidence is through developing our skills and then proving them in action. We need to recognise our own successes – give ourselves a pat on the back when we complete a task successfully. Or as a manager you can give that same reinforcement to your team. That way they will gain confidence and in future be able to enter flow more easily.
Feedback and clear goals are important for flow. To feel your skills are up to the challenge, you need to know what the goals of the task are, and receive prompt feedback as to whether things are going well.
Seven steps to get you started with flow
Let’s recap what we have covered so far. To achieve flow, a task should meet the following conditions:
- It requires your focused attention
- Challenge levels are matched by your skills
- Goals are clear and identifiable
- Feedback is immediate and ongoing
Encouraging a flow state should be the goal for you as an individual. It should also be the goal of any progressive manager to encourage flow in their team. But how do you go about it?
Here are seven steps to get you started:
- Encourage everyone to find enjoyment in their work. Looking forward to a job means it’s much easier to lose yourself in it.
- Observe peak flow times. One person might be a night owl, while another likes to be up with the larks. Capitalise on when energy states are at their highest.
- Minimise distractions. Multitasking makes you stupid so make sure working conditions encourage focus. Remember that some people are better suited to working on their own, while others work better in groups. Introverts find noise, and people, distracting. Extroverts can find the same things stimulating. Regardless of personality type, anyone can be distracted by phone notifications, computer alerts or social interruptions.
- Make sure job challenges match talents and skills. Don’t make things too difficult or too easy. Get the balance right and keep adjusting the challenge level as they grow.
- Make sure tasks are clear and identifiable. Agree goals and performance objectives. Clarity of goals adds direction and structure that will allow someone to chart progress.
- Give frequent feedback or ensure they can get feedback. Make this constructive, consistent and non-judgemental.
- Provide training and skill development so they can grow their abilities and rise to greater challenges.
Flow is a mental state of focus and immersion in a task which leads to peak performance and improved mental wellbeing and job satisfaction. A flow state requires several conditions to be met, including high ability matched to a high challenge.
Flow is a powerful tool for promoting both enjoyment of work and job achievement. Managers can use the concept of flow, along with an analysis of individual abilities and strengths, to maximise performance and wellbeing.
Remember, you can foster flow in teams as well as individuals. A team in full flow is a powerful thing. In this state, the whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts.
For more ideas on moulding job duties to get the most out of your team, see our article on job crafting.