The state of flow
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 practical reasons we, at Beaconforce, 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.
We can attribute a certain challenge level for every performed activity. This includes how hard we feel the task will be, the skill level required and how well equipped we feel to complete the task.
In order to reach the Flow State (upper right), it is necessary that you have:
- A high level of skills: All our concentration must be dedicated to the activity. In sports, we must reach a certain level of competence in order to achieve the state of flow, also defined as competitive trance. It is less known that the same concept is also applicable at work.
- A high level of challenge: The activity must be engaging, while also being balanced with our level of skills.
- Clear and immediate feedback: Feedback allows us to adjust performance to stay in the flow state, so it’s important to have someone, like a manager, to continuously show support.
As you will also see when you learn about the 7 pillars of intrinsic motivation, many of the pillars are also required to be able to get into the state of flow. According to much of the research surrounding the flow state, the following are considered the most important:
- Goals, objectives and/or tasks must be clear.
- Feedback should be rapid and unambiguous.
- Individuals should feel in control of their actions and output.
- Skill and challenge level must be reasonably high.
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.