What exactly is “flow” and how does it impact your life at work and beyond? How and why does flow create a meaningful existence for both you and your team?  How do you harness the creativity and innovation that comes from weaving flow into your daily existence?

The other day, my 11 year old daughter asked me over breakfast about the meaning of life. She noted, quite logically I might add, that it seemed that life was a progression of milestones. She explained that she would finish primary school, then high school, then university and then find a job. This was followed by getting married and maybe having kids. And she finished off with a simple “Is that it?”

I remember having similar thoughts at her age, and wondering what it was all about, and if life was simply a series of events and milestones. I know this seems like an existential conversation over tea and toast at 7 am, but it led to a meaningful discussion about life and the concept of flow. In my humble view, the two are inextricably intertwined.

The way I explained it to my daughter, there were a number of magical experiences that she would experience along the way that she would not be able to anticipate or plan for in a neat timeline. In my view these magical experiences are what life is all about. Some are huge moments, and others are tiny expressions of joy, fulfillment and learning.

By the time we had finished our breakfast, we had discussed the concept of “flow” and how this was critical to creating a meaningful existence. In basic terms, I explained to my daughter that “flow” is when you are so completely immersed in something that you feel incredible energy, enjoyment and fulfillment.

I was first introduced to the concept of flow many years ago by a very good friend, who sent me the book, “Flow, the Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi[1].  Flow describes the experience of being so completely immersed in something that you lose track of time and everything else fades in your brain. You are focused, you are mindful and you become consumed by the piece of work at hand. It is a wonderful experience and even the most mundane tasks can become rewarding.

Most of us will have experienced flow at different points in our lives. The enjoyment from the process of the activity that we are focused on, overrides everything else. The magic of experiencing flow can significantly impact productivity and creativity.

So, how do you achieve flow?

There has been much written about flow since Csikszentmihalyi’s book, with many other researchers studying the concept of optimal experience and in particular how it relates to education and the business world. However, flow is not a new concept with similar concepts also found in several ancient religions such Buddhism and Taoism.

From reading Csikszentmihalyi’s book, I learnt that some of the key aspects of achieving flow in any activity are as follows:

  • Having a complete focus and concentration on the present moment. No distractions!
  • Merging together both your actions and your awareness of what you are doing. In other words, concentrating on what you are doing and how your actions relate to that.
  • Not thinking about yourself
  • Feeling that you have control over the activity that you are performing
  • The activity needs to be intrinsically rewarding

In a world where there are so many distractions and so many demands on our time, being completely focused on one task takes a lot of discipline and concentration. Turning off emails, turning off your phone and removing distractions is a good start.  But even then, it takes discipline to keep your mind from wandering.

I have personally found that once you make a conscious decision to focus on one task and remove distractions, the flow often follows. For me, this often means removing my phone and putting it out of sight. However, once flow kicks in you become so engrossed in that task that you begin to lose awareness of everything else around you. This could include time, people and even the most basic bodily functions such as eating, sleeping and going to the bathroom!

Once you experience that incredible sense of immersion, and you see how productive and creative you can be, it is only natural to want to experience it more often.

The importance of the right skills, the right level of challenge and the right goals

Csikszentmihályi also writes of the importance of the individual’s capacity and their desire to overcome challenges in order to achieve their ultimate goals. He believes that this not only leads to the optimal experience of flow, but also to a sense of life satisfaction overall. In other words, the individual needs to have the right skills, mixed with the right level of challenge in the task that they are focused on.

Not surprisingly, flow does not follow passive activities. For example, watching television is unlikely to create flow.  Interestingly enough, gaming will indeed create flow. The difference is the level of activity and the requirement of skills, challenge and a goal.

To achieve your own flow, you need to ensure that the following three conditions are met:

  1. You need to have an activity to focus on with clear goals and ways of tracking your progress. This will provide you with direction and structure.
  2. You need to have a feedback mechanism in place, to help you adjust your performance as required to maintain that feeling of flow
  3. There needs to be a balance between the perceived challenge of the activity and your own perceived skills. In other words, you need to have confidence that you have the ability to complete the challenge.

Once you are aware of these conditions, it is not too difficult to build them into managing your own workload, and tasks that are presented to you both inside and outside of the workplace.  Then you start to have a bit more fun with some of those more mundane tasks!

Creating flow for your team

It doesn’t take a lot of stretch to see how these principles apply to creating flow for your own team. If your management style is not allowing your team members the opportunity to focus and feel in control of their activity, then flow is unlikely to follow.

Psychology expert, Kendra Cherry[2], has mentioned three other components that contribute to the flow experience:

1.    Immediate feedback

2.    Feeling that you have the potential to succeed

3.    Feeling so engrossed in the experience, that other needs become negligible

From personal experience, these components are vital to experiencing flow. If you are managing others, providing immediate feedback and providing the environment for success is critical.

It is important to understand the role of learning and development in creating flow – alongside sound goal setting and feedback loops. The equilibrium between the right level of challenge and the right level of skill are critical. To experience flow, the skills of the individual need to be in sync with the challenge. Therefore, if you increase the degree of difficulty of the challenge, you may need to also look at ways to increase the skill set. This could be formal training, on the job training or working with a coach.

You need to constantly adjust the level of challenge and the skills that your team have, to ensure that they have every chance to experience flow. If the challenge is too easy, or the skills are lacking, your team will find it very difficult to get there.

Flow is generally associated with achievement, so ensuring that your team are stretched, but well prepared to meet the challenge in front of them is key.  Providing a stretch goal is not enough – you need to also make sure that they have the right skills to achieve that goal.

The most rewarding experiences of flow for me in the workplace have been when I have worked for a manager who stretched me by setting difficult goals, but also ensured that I was provided with the right coaching and training.

One CEO, in particular, was incredibly supportive in terms of my learning and development in both a formal sense, as well as on the job learning. Under his guidance, I attended several excellent external training programs and I had the benefit of an executive coach. He would then provide me with stretch goals that were, frankly, a bit intimidating at first. However, the challenge coupled with his support and regular feedback were a powerful combination. I can honestly say that I loved that job and it was an incredibly rewarding period of my career.

I have now learnt how to create my own conditions for flow at work, so that regardless of the quality of my manager, I have plenty of ways to “get in the zone”. However, it is never as satisfying as when you are working with a manager who really gets it and provides the right environment for everyone in the team to love their work. That is when magic really happens and you achieve great things together.

In his book, Csikszentmihályi argues that with increased experiences of flow, people experience “growth towards complexity”.  In other words, people flourish as their achievements grow and with that comes development of increasing complexity. If you can create a workplace atmosphere that encourages flow and growth, this can absolutely increase the happiness and achievement of employees.

Once you have it, how do you keep it?

Once you have experienced flow, it can be even more disappointing when it stops. So, how do you remain aware and vigilant to ensure that you stay in the zone? Some of the challenges to staying in flow include states of apathy, boredom, and anxiety.

Apathy is often a result of the degree of difficulty in the challenge being too low and/or the skill level also being low. This means that there is a general lack of interest in the task at hand.

Boredom is a different beast. This generally strikes when the challenge is low and the skill level greatly exceeds the challenge. We have all experienced this with our work at some point! Generally, it means that you will seek out something else to do that is more interesting and challenging. That may well be in another workplace.

Anxiety takes place when the challenge is too difficult in comparison to the individual’s perceived skill set. This can cause great distress and unhappiness. This is also a difficult one for anyone to discuss openly in the workplace.

Keeping in mind the need for the right level of challenge and skills, you can use these levers to keep the level of flow consistent. By increasing/decreasing the difficulty of the task and increasing/decreasing the skill set, you will find your way back to the creative place that flow encourages.

In other words, make the challenge sufficiently complex to ensure interest and engagement – but not so difficult to discourage the individual. Include learning and development in the mix, to ensure that the skills are a good match for the complexity of the challenge.

I personally believe that it is also critical for everyone to understand the bigger picture and how their own goals fit into the organisational strategy. This ties in nicely for the need for communication and feedback, as an understanding of the relevance of a task or goal is generally pretty important to anyone’s satisfaction!

To maintain a flow state, you basically need to keep on challenging yourself. The same approach applies to managing your team – once a challenge is mastered, a new difficult stretch is needed. This is so powerful, because you are constantly experiencing personal growth and an increase in intrinsic motivation. These are the moments of joy, fulfillment and learning that I believe make life so much more meaningful.

Summary

Obviously, the meaning of life is different for all of us. This article doesn’t touch on the joy of relationships, spirituality or the importance of belonging. I certainly do not mean to diminish their importance in the meaning of life.  However, life is surely more than simply a series of milestones and mishaps.

I have found the concept of flow, as greatly articulated by Csikszentmihalyi, to create an excellent framework for how to enhance your level of happiness and success. It is an innately positive experience that produces intense feelings of enjoyment through achievement, learning and growth.

For those who have the great privilege of leading a team, creating the right environment for flow in your team will pay enormous dividends. Your team will not only achieve more and continue to increase their skill set, but they will be happier. Surely that is a big part of what it is all about!

Like what you have read? Feel free to share or visit my website to learn more: www.kyliesprott.com

[1] Mihaly Csikszentmihályi (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row.

[2] Cherry, Kendra. “What is Flow?”About Education. 30 March 2015.

 (Image credit: healingarts.org)