Cultivating Flow

Concentration and Flow

Last week we defined the psychological principle of “flow,” how it relates to the business world, and what it might look like to cultivate a work environment more conducive to flow experiences (you can catch up here). This week we’re examining the research on flow and outlining the specific characteristics of the flow experience as it relates to the workplace. The purpose is to more clearly define the flow experience to paint a picture of what success looks like.

In his book “Good Business,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi lays out the 8 defining characteristics of flow:

1) Goals Are Clear:

The end result is important, but over-emphasis on the ultimate goal can interfere with present performance. Think clarity of purpose over hitting a quota.

“True enjoyment comes from the steps one takes toward attaining a goal, not from actually reaching it. People often miss the opportunity to enjoy what they do because they focus all their attention on the outcome, rather than savoring the steps along the way. Where does the pleasure in singing come from-finishing the song, or producing each note or phrase? Do we appreciate a fine dinner because we feel full at its end, or because each bite has tasted good? Isn’t negotiating a business deal more satisfying than signing it?”

2) Feedback Is Immediate:

“It is difficult for people to stay absorbed in any activity unless they get timely, “online” information about how well they are doing. The sense of total involvement of the flow experience derives in large part from knowing that what one does matters, that it has consequences. Feedback may come from colleagues or supervisors who comment on performance, but preferably it is the activity itself that will provide this information…The ability to give objective feedback to oneself is in fact the mark of the expert.”

3) A Balance Between Opportunity and Capacity:

“Flow occurs when both challenges and skills are high and equal to each other.”

Bear in mind that the balance is unique to each individual, as interests and skill levels are as varying as our fingerprints. However, the common thread of activities that induce flow is complexity – there must be room for growth in the complexity of the challenges.

“As skills improve, one is able to take on greater challenges. In fact, one must do so, to prevent tasks from becoming routine and boring.”

4) Concentration Deepens

“We no longer have to think about what to do, but act spontaneously, almost automatically, even when some aspect of the task at hand is very difficult or dangerous. In everyday life, as we move through the day from morning to night, we rarely concentrate our attention beyond a very brief and superficial level.”

5) The Present Is What Matters

“Because in flow the task at hand demands complete attention, the worries and problems that are so nagging in everyday life have no chance to register in the mind.”

6) Control Is No Problem

A common description of the flow experience typically includes a sense of being in control of the situation.  Rather than a power trip, it “has more to do with the ability to control one’s own performance than the environment itself…the possibility of making things happen as one wishes is present in a way that seldom occurs in ‘real’ life.”

7) The Sense Of Time Is Altered

“One typical element of the flow experience is that time is experienced differently. Quite often, this means that time is perceived as flying by. A chess player comments: ‘Time passes a hundred times faster. In this sense, it resembles the dream state. A whole story can unfold in seconds, it seems.’ A surgeon agrees: ‘Time is totally distorted – faster – [what] seems like fifteen minutes [has] been two hours.’”

8) The Loss Of Ego

“This is another result of the intense focusing of attention that pushes anything not directly related to the task at hand out of consciousness.”

While we seem to forget ourselves during a flow experience, research has identified an interesting paradox on flow’s effect on self-esteem:

“One finds that after approaching a flowlike state, a person’s self-esteem score climbs significantly. Similarly, people who have more flow experiences also have higher self-esteem overall…Half a century ago, the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote that happiness cannot be attained by wanting to be happy – it must come as the unintended consequence of working for a goal greater than oneself.”

Can you see some similarities between the activities you enjoy the most and the characteristics of flow? We may never have taken the time to stop and think about what these activities have in common, but I think it’s time we identify the aspects of our work day that produce flow, and those that simply frustrate and drain our energy. Next, if we’re truly concerned about the development of our staff force, let’s make sure we’re doing everything we can to be a positive impact on the flow experience at work.

What characteristics above are lacking the most in your company culture and management structure? 

photo credit: Ed Yourdon via photopin cc


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