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Flow: A practical guide to Flow

2 June 2011

± minute read

    Flow: A practical guide to Flow
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Flow part 1: An Investigation into the Optimal Experience Flow part 2: A practical guide to Flow In the last article a discussion about the characteristics of Flow were outlined and you were provided with an opportunity to measure your level of Flow. I hope that this has made you aware of your level of engagement at work. Flow is composed of many unique characteristics and processes. But, what are the advantages of Flow? Why should you as a manager or employee want to initiate Flow? Flow may elicit some of the following positive outcomes:

  1. Greater satisfaction and happiness with tasks, challenges and life in general
  2. A tendency to become far more productive in teams and forget individual squabbles and issues
  3. A higher quality of work as you are able to concentrate on your work for prolonged periods of time.
  4. An ability to initiate in-depth analyses of information and contexts
  5. Autotelic functioning may occur in which you accomplish a task not for external reward but rather for the enjoyment of doing so. This may allow for greater employee retention and development without the added costs
  6. Greater growth and development through the improved mastery of tasks, challenges and other life events
  7. Improved team functioning through seamless integration of individuals (elimination of egocentricity)
  8. Greater mental and physical health due to improved positive emotional states
  9. A boost in self-esteem as you master tasks and develop your competencies
  10. An ability to generate coping resources that help with future challenges or stressors (stress inoculation)
  11. An improvement in your quality of life as more positive emotions are elicited due to a higher level of self-actualisation
  12. A decrease in absenteeism (due to the varying stress related reasons for its occurrence) and presenteeism (where you are at work but unproductive)
  13. An increase in the quality and experiences of your life (richer and more fulfilling experiences) which may result in a better overall mood

Although Flow has many advantages, some argue that Flow is a difficult experience to create and maintain. For example, in Germany only 23% of people reported that they experienced Flow regularly, whereas 40% never had Flow experiences. Csikszentmihalyi explains that Flow is an exceptional experience and may vary in intensity. Thus, Flow occurs at intervals and is only like to take place when conditions are ripe for its occurrence.  However, it is possible to initiate Flow by ensuring that the following conditions are met:

1. Clarify your goals and make sure they are intrinsic:

Clarify those goals you wish to accomplish and try to express why you want to accomplish them. Are these goals aimed at external reward, or intrinsic reward? For example, are you working hard on a project to get a promotion (extrinsic) or because you wish to improve your own competence (intrinsic). You should always focus on those tasks and decisions that are made from the inside and not from the outside. It is important to write these goals down, and develop action plans for their accomplishment. The action plans you generate should empower and not exhaust you. In other words, a focus on the way you accomplish your goals is important. If we use a weight-loss example; it may be just as important how you lose the weight (by doing exercise that you enjoy) as it is to reach your ideal weight.

2. Free up psychological energy:

In order for Flow to occur you have to learn to free up psychic energy and focus this energy into the tasks that matter. This energy is related directly to attention and the ability to use attention to focus and be in control of consciousness and experience. If you are constantly worried by something other than the task (such as relationship difficulties, or whether people like you or not), you may have less psychic energy available to focus on the task at hand. Similarly, long-standing problems such as depression, anxiety, stress, and the coping mechanisms related to these elements (e.g., smoking and over-eating) may detract from using psychic energy properly. It is also evident that the more these distractions are consciously overcome the more able the person is at freeing-up this energy and consciously controlling its ‘flow’ into more rewarding and productive functions. In other words, practice makes perfect. William James, the famous pragmatic psychologist, believed that as bad habits are learned, good habits can be cultivated. Although difficult at first, these new behaviours soon become habitual. You need to find out what it is that distracts you from reaching deep levels of concentration? What thoughts constantly intrude when you are trying to do something else? In most cases dealing actively with the sources of these distracters may allow you to free up enough psychic energy for the conscious mind to use in a controlled and structured manner. The more these thoughts are overcome, the more able you will become at controlling this energy.

3. Make sure your goals and motivations speak from the heart:

It is vital that goals and motivations are linked to your authentic self. You cannot possibly make goals and be motivated to engage in Flow if such goals are not in line with your personality and true desires. Base your goals on those things you value the most. In this way valued goals are the most important. Ask yourself what it is that you will stand up for no matter what? What is the most important thing in your life? What do you enjoy doing the most? Generate goals that are congruent with these answers.

4. Know thyself:

It is a vital pre-requisite for Flow to be aware of who you are and what you are capable of. Socrates believed that the greatest knowledge attainable is that which is of and about the ‘self’. Knowing yourself allows for better decision making. Scenarios for work and life can more easily be matched to your personality, ability, skills, talents, interests, values and knowledge (this is also true of selection, promotion and placement). If these are areas of concern for you or your team, the use of psychometric tests, feedback reviews, psychological consultation, and/or introspection may be necessary. There are many psychometric tests which can provide insight into your true ‘self’. Gaining self-knowledge is pivotal as it allows you to clarify values and goals; and may even relate to better fit with relationships, work and people in general. Remember that a core requirement for Flow is the matching of knowledge, skills, abilities, interests, values and other resources with challenges and tasks. In this way functioning within the Flow channel can only become possible if you know your ‘do’s’ and ‘do not’s’, and you are able to engage in tasks that match these.

5. Build on your strengths:

It is important that you, your group, your organisation or your team focus on those things you are able to do well, or those values you deem important. These strengths or values allow you to reach the Flow channel where more intense challenges and tasks can be accomplished if they are matched to your strengths and values. For example, if you are strong in mathematics it may be more prudent that you are placed in a position where this skill can be utilised effectively (remember you have to enjoy it as well). Or if your organisation values ethics for example and has generated awareness and capacity in this area then it may be prudent for your organisation to engage in more complex ethical problems or more frequent ethical decision making than before.

6. Focus more on less:

It may be necessary for you and your team to learn to focus on one thing at a time. In many regards this seems impossible in the modern world, and may be the very reason why levels of Flow are so low in industrialised nations. In order for Flow to occur you must learn to focus all of your mental and emotional energy into specific tasks, instead of spreading your psychic energy across many different tasks or challenges. Setting a schedule where full attention can be given for certain predetermined periods of time can allow you and your team to become wholly focused and engaged with that task and experience Flow.

7. Build your positive emotions:

For Flow to occur, you have to be in touch with your positive emotions and related positive aspects. This may include building optimism, happiness, actualisation, contentment, excitement, interest, love, self-esteem, appreciation, and countless other positive emotional states and experiences. As Flow may result in the experience of positive emotions, positive emotions may in turn jump-start a Flow state. It is therefore important to build a passion for life, be optimistic, appreciative and work on having fun.

8. Make time for reflection and contemplation:

One of the pre-requisites for Flow is the ability to engage in activities that are meaningful and about which you feel passionately. However, constantly engaging in tasks without time for quiet contemplation may be disastrous for you and your team, and the attainment of the Flow state. We are all inundated with constant information on a day to day basis. Just think about the emails, phone calls, meetings, internet messages, news, entertainment, social interaction, and other infinite sources of information you may already have dealt with before you read this article today. Constantly taking in information without time to make sense, organise, attribute or structure such information in relation to yourself may result in a lack of self-awareness. In turn this may result in a disconnection between your self-identity and the values and passions you may privately and professionally have. Quiet time in which physical activities are emphasised may be the key to consolidate such information. Getting enough sleep, engaging in yoga, gardening, running, cycling, Pilates, meditation or other non-cognitive sensory activities may be the key to re-identification. The idea with these activities is to put a halt on new information from the outside, and structure or consolidate the information you have already received (this is especially important when you receive personal or sensitive feedback information).

9. Ask others:

In order for Flow to occur you need to be aware of your progress or lack thereof. In this regard two strategies can be implemented for yourself and your team or organization. For yourself it may be important to engage in activities that are pro-feedback. This may be as mundane as asking an individual to proof an idea you have or may be as complicated as asking others to rate your performance, check work, or give personal advice. The organisation on the other hand has to ensure that feedback is provided consistently to individuals (employees) regarding work and project performance. This may include an elaborate 360 degree feedback, or recommendations from a supervisor, mentor, co-worker or coach. In short, you may not always be self-aware enough to fully understand your performance in relation to a task, and shutting yourself off from feedback may result in task/performance ambiguity in which you may be unable to determine your own progress or lack thereof. Feedback also serves another important function in that it may generate meaning. In this form of feedback you are made aware of their larger role you play regarding a task, and the purpose and importance of that role or task. In this instance true meaning can be garnered which may cascade into motivation and increased productivity, or ultimately Flow. For feedback to work, it must be consistently and periodically provided; sensitive enough not to hurt you or those you are giving feedback to, but frank enough to spur change; and provided in relation to the task, challenge, or activity.

10. Make time for Flow to occur:

Olympic runners and other sportsmen often speak of ‘zoning’. This is a state during extreme exercise when the body reaches an automatic and easy state of work. Runners often express that the ‘zoning’ experience is characterised by prolonged periods where complete concentration on the movement and processes of the body occur. During this experience runners are often unaware of the outside world and focus all concentration inward. This is a deeply absorbed and high-concentration period where the runner is totally inundated by his/her body, and running appears to occur automatically without much effort. Runners will often explain how the hardest periods during a marathon include the first and last session of a run. This is because deep levels of concentration take time to occur and eventually wane at the end of a race due to external aspects (such as spectators or fatigue) which draw runners’ attention away from the internal world and the rhythm which has been generated. This process may also occur with you at work. It may often take time for you to get into a task but if enough energy is spent on the task without interruption you may eventually ‘zone’ and reach a state of Flow. In order for this to occur you must be given a long enough period to concentrate on the task or challenge at hand. Generating periods of quiet in offices, or using props to indicate engagement with a task so that co-workers will allow you to ‘zone’ and reach deep levels of concentration may be an interesting way of allowing this to occur. In conclusion, Flow is possible if work and life are structured to incorporate those elements of Flow which are vital for its occurrence.  However, Flow is different for everyone. Some people may experience extremely high levels of Flow and some may experience it to a lesser degree. Artists and those in the creative profession are by the nature of their work and general level of self-actualisation more inclined to experience Flow than those who are not artistic. This does not mean that an accountant or manager will not experience Flow. These individuals may experience Flow in a different way, or may need to structure their personal and work experiences to engage the construct more readily. Some people may experience Flow in their personal lives, and not in their work lives, or this may be reversed. However, it is possible to generate Flow and aspire to make it part of either personal or work contexts if the steps in this article are followed. Remember that Flow is a process and a journey and not a destination. Push too hard and it may never happen for you. Do what you enjoy, get focused on the right details, and your personal and work lives may Flow.

Flow part 1: An Investigation into the Optimal Experience

Flow part 2: A practical guide to Flow

References and Resources:

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow the psychology of the optimal experience: steps toward enhancing the quality of life. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: the psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York, NY: Basic Books. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Beyond boredom and anxiety: experiencing flow in work and play. New York, NY: Jossey-Bass Publishers. Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, I. S. (2006). A life worth living: contributions to positive psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, I. S. (1988). Optimal experience: psychological studies of flow in consciousness. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.  

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