When was the last time you were so focused on producing great work that you lost track of time?
Athletes call this mental state being in ‘the Zone’ or the ‘sweet spot’; psychologists call it “flow” or a peak state.
Being in a state of flow is when we produce our best work and perform way above and beyond our normal levels of productivity and effectiveness. Being in flow facilitates greater job satisfaction and job performance. It’s an experience we’ve had but mostly don’t know how and why it occurred.
In flow we are fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, being present with full involvement and engagement in what we are doing. The ability to get in to a state of flow makes the difference between an average day and a great one.
In a state of flow we make new connections and insights, achieve breakthroughs and push the limits of what is possible for us and sometimes, for the human race. It is flow which enables many athletes break new record (for more on this aspect see ’Flow in Sports‘ by Susan Jackson and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and ‘The Rise of Superman’ by Steven Kotler).
The benefits of flow are not, however, exclusively for world-class athletes. Business leaders and companies are exploring the uses of flow states in the work place. A McKinsey study found that top executives in a state of flow are five times more productive then when not. The implications of this study against the backdrop of the remarkable achievements by athletes in flow are staggering.
From 6BC to the Present
Flow is not a new concept and has existed for thousands of years under other guises, across the world. Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher, described flow as the art of “doing without doing” or “trying without trying.”
The Yerkes–Dodson law was identified in 1908 by psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson. The law states that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point. When the level of arousal is too high, an individual’s performance decreases. The Yerkes–Dodson law is demonstrated by the following diagram
The actual term flow was first coined by Hungarian Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihályi described flow as completely focused motivation. The key characteristic of flow is deep focus on nothing but the activity; not even oneself or one’s emotions. This engagement can provide a sense of deep joy, albeit there is often a degree of frustration en route.
Csíkszentmihályi identified six factors as encompassing an experience of flow.
1. Intense and focused concentration.
2. Merging of action and awareness.
3. A loss of reflective self-consciousness.
4. A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity.
5. Ones experience of time is altered.
6. The activity is intrinsically rewarding.
Flow is the sweet spot between boredom and anxiety. The challenge or piece of work must not be too hard, but not too easy. The objective is to keep learning and creating with a degree of frustration, but not too much. Flow occurs when you find the perfect balance between these two extremes.
The Flow Model
In 1987, Massimini, Carli and Csíkszentmihályi published their model of flow. The model depicts the range of experience that result from differing levels of challenges. Flow is more likely to occur when the activity at hand is a higher-than-average challenge (above the center point) and the individual has above-average skills (to the right of the center point). The center of this graph represents average levels of challenge across all activities that an individual performs on a daily basis
Creating the Conditions for Achieving a State of Flow
We now know that being in a flow state is not random but is a state of ultimate performance that we can consciously activate.
In order to achieve flow, Csikszentmihály contends that the following three conditions must be met:
1. Goals are clear.
2. Feedback is immediate.
3. There is a balance between opportunity and capacity.
While achieving the highest levels of a flow state requires an analysis of the individuals circumstances, abilities, experiences, environment and objectives, taking the following steps will help cultivate the conditions for achieving a state of flow.
1. Set a Clear Goal. The goal must something you can achieve within your ‘flow session’ and must be difficult enough to challenge you, but not so difficult that you feel overwhelmed. This is not as easy as it seems, as make the goal too easy and you will not be sufficiently engaged, make it too hard and you will experience frustration and overwhelm.
2. Identify Your Optimum Time. Everyone has a time they produce their best work. In my twenties I seemed to produce my best work at 2am. Nowadays its around 5.30-8am. Your optimum time for achieving a state of flow will be influenced by a range of factors including family commitments, distractions at work, circadian rhythms’ and energy levels. Keep a diary or journal for a couple of weeks and you’ll be able to identify your highs and lows.
3.Create the right Environment. Our environment can significantly impact our performance. Clear the clutter and make your conditions as supportive for great work as is possible e.g. comfortable seating, a clear desk and good lighting. Many (including myself) find natural or blue light in the daytime helpful for increasing focus, alertness and energy.
4. Eliminate Distractions. At the heart of flow is focus. Focus cannot coexist with distraction so turn off your mobile, shut down your email and all notifications, block out as much noise as possible and consider wearing noise canceling headphones. Clear your workspace of anything that might distract you e.g. unpaid bills or our outstanding tax return. Lastly, ensure no-one interrupts you until you have completed your task.
5. Get into the Right State. Emotions have a significant impact on your ability to get into flow. Give yourself a head start by feeling good and energized before you start. You can do this by a brisk walk around the block, some caffeine (but not too much) or playing some music that leaves your feeling inspired and raises your energy. Make sure you have plenty of water before and during your flow session and are not hungry as this will distract you.
While there are advanced tools and strategies that will enable you to achieve the highest levels of flow, following the 5 steps above will, with practice, persistence and consistency, enable you to enter the flow zone and achieve new levels of performance and productivity.
A word of caution. It is not possible to be in a state of flow all the time. Flow is addictive and like most things in life, you can have too much of a good thing. A recovery period is essential. Attaining a state of flow on a regular basis is, however, quite possibly the most significant step we can take to achieving greater productivity, effectiveness and happiness.
Martin Soorjoo works with individuals and teams to increase their Performance, Productivity and Resilience.