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State of Flow

Last week, I estimate I read over 100 academic peer reviewed articles (okay, fine, a few were more “gave it a cursory glance”).

Why would I do this?


I honestly asked myself the same question. The easy answer is I had to because I was writing a paper for the Master’s program I’m currently enrolled in.

The other answer is because I liked it. Actually, I LOVED it.

When I started researching, time flew by.

Minutes became hours. And before I knew it, 2:00am became 1:00am (sorry, that was a really bad time change joke).

Essentially, I was in a state of flow.

Flow is a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 2008 to describe activities that stretch us outside our comfort zones to give us growth, but also work towards a challenging objective to give us personal satisfaction. It’s when we feel challenged to do something difficult, but not unachievable.

If the challenge is too hard and your skill level is low, anxiety (and your flight reflex) kicks in.

If the challenge is too easy and your skill level is high, boredom (and your yawning reflex) kicks in.

Flow is the Goldielocks of challenges. You need to find that “juuuuusssst right” challenge that is met with your slightly lower skill set.

For instance, on one hand, if my husband (who happens to be a scientific researcher) was tasked with the same challenge, he would likely have hit the boring button early in the week.

On the other hand, if my 10-year-old son was given this challenge, he might have grown frustrated trying to read the first paper.

And, me? I was Goldielocks--the paper was a challenge that had a goal and my skills are just enough below what was required to master the skill.

Sure, at times, when I thought about synthesizing all the information, I wanted to throw my computer across the room, but Csikszentmihalyi said it best:

“Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.”

― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

It did feel pretty darn good to submit that paper, so I would say it started to become intrinsically rewarding (I still don’t have a mark, so I can’t yet tell you if it was extrinsically rewarding as well. :))

When was the last time you felt in the flow zone? How about your employees (hot tip: this is a great question to ask them to learn more about what motivates them!).

While sometimes flow just happens when you’re doing something you love like gardening or running or knitting or painting, the good news is you can consciously work to create flow states for you and your team.

Here are a few tips summarizing The Hasty Reader:

#Goals - You need to set goals and be deliberative about what you’re hoping to achieve, even if they’re micro goals. Sorry, Malcolm Gladwell, but doing something for 10,000 hours isn’t going to put you in the zone, especially if it’s mindless repetition.

Manager's Tip: For staff, help them identify goals and break them down into more bite-sized goals if the bigger ones are too daunting

Back to Basics - You do need to have a foundational level of skills to reach flow. If not, it can just lead to frustration, anxiety, or even anger. One of my favorite examples of this is watching David and Moira try to fold in the cheese. “You just fold it in”, right?

Manager's Tip: When you want to challenge employees, keep this in mind and ensure they have a skill set that is close to matching the activities--too wide of a gap will result in fear and anxiety (deficit) or boredom and apathy (surplus).

Focus on the Feedback 411 - When you’re going through the activity, picking up on what’s working and what’s not provides you with feedback in the moment. This helps you to improve and eventually master the activity and it acts as a mindfulness activity. By focusing on the activity and being in the moment, you’re not only able to realize the benefits of mindfulness, but also recognize the feedback you may have overlooked.

Manager's Tip: For staff, this may include providing consistent, micro-feedback along the way or helping them recognize feedback and what to watch out for. In the absence of feedback, think about ways to create action -- feedback loops.

Don’t Zone Out - As I mentioned above, the flow zone is a sliver, and it’s important to understand what conditions you’ll need for you and your staff to stay in that zone. Take a look at the image below to identify the differences between the different states and how you can stay in the flow.

Manager's Tip: Think about your teams' responsibilities and projects and classify them according to each of the pie slices. Where do skill set and challenge adjustments need to be made?

Stay and Play in the Zone - Speaking of staying in the flow, this one is key: REDUCE DISTRACTIONS. I’m talking to you--the ones who over-schedule meetings, ping people left and right, and don’t believe in meeting-free/closed door policies. Why was I researching my paper at 2am? Everyone in my house was sleeping and no one could disrupt me.

Manager's Tip: Am I advocating that? Absolutely not. But it’s a great opportunity to look at your team’s schedules and carve out zone time.

* Source: Wikipedia


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