Achieving Flow in Work

Over the last few months, the concept of flow has been a recurring theme in my coaching and own professional development.

I have been reflecting on those moments in my professional, personal and sporting lives where things seemed almost effortless. During those magic moments, I could see what was coming, time seemed abundant and everything appeared to be moving in slow motion.

The concept of flow was originally developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1960s and derived from his study of artists who became so totally immersed in their work that they did not want for food, water or sleep for long periods of time. In time, this research was extended to the business world.

At its simplest level, flow is a mental state during an activity in which a person is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.

This can be achieved in many domains during sport, learning, creating artworks and making music, even surfing the web. In the workplace, flow can also be experienced where there is a balance between the challenge of the task and ones capability to complete the task. If the challenge is too great, we may feel worry and anxiety (a state I have commonly found myself in during stretch assignments). If it is not great enough, we can feel bored and disengaged (something I have experienced too when I have been in a job too long).

So how do we find this illusive state in our professional and personal lives for some portion of the time (at least)? Csikszentmihalyi proposes eight conditions to achieve flow at work:

  • Set clear goals to visualise what success will look and feel like
  • Engage in activities where feedback is immediate (or ask for it if not naturally given)
  • Seek activity where there is a balance between opportunity and capacity
  • Train your mind to concentrate and focus on the activity at hand and minimise distractions where possible (turn off your mobile and shut down your email, etc) 
  • When working, bring yourself back to the present moment rather than re-living the past or daydreaming about the future
  • Identify areas where you have control
  • Dont worry about the clock but completely immerse yourself in the activity with no thought for time
  • Focus on the work itself not all the trappings (status, pride, outcomes and what they might lead to)

In my own experience, my ego has been my greatest stumbling block. My ambition and competitiveness have led me to situations where the challenges far exceeded my skill levels. And, rather than acknowledge this and cut myself some slack, I ploughed on with an I can already do this mindset rather than a learning one (which would have probably facilitated a greater sense of flow during these difficult periods).

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