Work in the Flow

Have you ever lost yourself in work, so much so that you lost track of time?

As a child, we all remember times when we went out to play and then when we are called back home, we wonder why we are being called back so soon; little did we realize that so much time had passed. This is called being in the flow state.

We see this time and again in athletes, in dancers, in musicians, in artists, while playing video games, while planning vacations, and, yes, while at work. Being in flow is a state of mind when you are fully immersed in a task, enough such that you are completely disconnected from the world around you. It is a concept framed best by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychologist. In his seminal work, he writes that people are happiest when in a state of flow – a state in which nothing else seems to matter.

“The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what they are doing. This is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill—and during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored.”

 

For every activity performed by us we can attribute a certain challenge level on, how hard we feel the task will be, and skill level, how well equipped we feel to complete the task. To understand how the flow chart works, consider the following scenarios for a task – washing dishes:

  1. There are only one or two plates in the sink and the dishes are mildly dirty.
  2. The sink is full of dishes and more greasy ones are being brought.

In the first case, our perceived challenge level of washing one or two dishes is pretty low while our skill at washing them is very high. We would most likely feel relaxed and perhaps a little bored. On the flow chart, when plotting our state of mind, it would be somewhere on the bottom right corner of the chart. In the second case, our perceived level of challenge for this task is high while our perceived skill at doing a good job of washing a mountain of dishes is probably low. This would most likely leave us feeling stressed and tired before we even start. On the flow chart, this state of mind would be plotted somewhere on the top left corner.

For practical reasons we, at Beacon, look at the flow chart as having four zones. At the top right is ‘flow’, top left is ‘stress’, bottom left is the ‘needs a deeper look’ zone and bottom right is ‘boredom’. Furthermore, each of these are states of mind and you are either in them or not. During a typical day, one will fall into several states of mind at different times and while performing different tasks. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s framework is used as inspiration to determine an individual’s averaged weekly workplace perception of all tasks and is shown on the same axes.

One of the key hypotheses in flow theory is that for one to be in a state of flow, the task at hand has to be challenging yet within the skill level of the individual. What this means is that for your intrinsic motivations to peak, the task has to be difficult but not so difficult that you give up. Furthermore, for an individual to remain in flow state, objectives of the task must be clear, feedback must be rapid and unambiguous and, that the individual must always feel that he/she is in control.

While this seems to be a tall list of conditions, we see this happening often when we play video games – our faces are often contorted with concentration and find ourselves unable to think outside the limits of the game. If the game is too hard and we feel our skills are not good enough, we get anxious and eventually quit. If the game is easy and still feel our skills are not enough, we are apathetic to the game and if the game is easy and think that we can do it easily, we would get bored. So, it takes that right combination of the game being hard and us knowing that we can do it, to have us in a flow state.

Now, is this possible at work? Is it possible to be in a flow state at all times?

Yes and no. When I started to write this article, it was 10 am and now it is 1 pm, yet I hardly feel that any time has passed. To be in a true flow state, one has to be immersed in a different reality. At work, this is hardly possible or even recommended especially given that we have many and different responsibilities at work, we may have emergencies to attend to and at times we have to do tasks that we think are too easy to do. If we can’t be in flow all the time, then the next best thing we can do is to have our environmental conditions conducive to us which will lead us to the flow. What this means is that if we have clear goals, if the feedback to our actions is fast and unambiguous, if we feel in control and that the tasks are challenging but not too much, we may find ourselves completely immersed in what we are doing and have fun doing it.

Seminal work: Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row