When it comes to work, we often fall into one of two categories. For some, work is a Utopian experience, a place where employees and the organization share the same goals, values, beliefs, and strategic vision. In these organizations, associates feel valued, empowered, and confident. Let’s call the people in this first category “engaged” because these individuals are energized and know their effort investments make a difference. Engaged employees report greater work satisfaction, exhibit more creativity, have qualitatively better relationships with co-workers, and demonstrate higher work productivity compared with their less engaged peers (Combs, Liu, Hall, & Ketchen, 2006).
Other individuals evaluate work as an obligation—something they must do to support their families and lifestyles. People in the obligatory category may take little pleasure in the daily grind because work seems unfulfilling or tedious. The dissatisfied worker is often bored due to lack of challenge or disenfranchised from bad bosses or crappy leadership. Let’s call people in the second category “disengaged” because these individuals have low psychological commitment to their jobs. Disengagement is lethal and blamed for productivity lags, minimal employee commitment, and reduced company profits, all factors that influence organizational success (Crabtree, 2013).
What is flow?
It is unrealistic to believe one person can easily transform a matrixed organization from purgatory to paradise. The question then becomes how does an individual make the psychological shift from an unengaged, disgruntled worker to an invigorated, passionate employee? You can make the transition by orchestrating conditions that lead to the disposition known as “Flow.” The feeling is generally defined as an “optimal experience,” a psychological state that is influenced by your thoughts, emotions, and actions. The quality of the experience is measured by factors including the degree of motivation, concentration, creativity, satisfaction, and relaxation that individuals report when completing a task (Csikszentmihalyi & LeFevre, 1989).
I explain how to create the flow experience in my new book “Hack Your Motivation," and in this companion video." First, you need to know when flow happens. The feeling is easy to detect, but only when it is over. You cannot see flow, but you can clearly identify flow in others when it occurs. Ironically, detecting flow in the self is impossible because when you self-evaluate your attention and focus, you slip out of the flow mindset and flow inevitably ends. Maybe you are in flow now, but oops, you thought about it and now flow has slipped away. Like an elusive hypnotic spell, people who experience flow are immersed in a state of total engagement oblivious to their surroundings, without a sense of time, and completely engrossed in what they are doing. Concentration lapses devoted to assessing feelings, gauging task progress, or evaluating your motivational state simply do not exist during flow. Surprisingly, the seemingly mystical flow state is not a rare occurrence and most of us experience flow almost every day.
You may be thinking flow is artificially induced, achieved by swallowing a miracle pill or practicing some ancient ritual of spiritual awakening. But flow happens during many routine activities and tasks. Flow is most frequently reported during driving. Other instances of flow occur when you are fully absorbed in a project or when attempting to amuse yourself by completing a boring task in a record amount of time. Many athletes report experiencing flow by describing their behavior as being “in the zone,” which occurs during intense competition when the athlete’s mind is unable to focus on anything except the rigors of competition and the overwhelming desire to “win.” Surprisingly, people report fewer instances of flow during leisure activities because play time often lacks significant challenge, an important requirement for the flow experience.
Get in the flow zone
A flow prerequisite is perceiving value in what you do. If your job lacks personal value then your chances of achieving flow are unlikely. You will also need appropriate job challenge to achieve flow. When a task becomes overwhelming, or if you believe you lack the talent or experience necessary for job success then flow will end unless you adjust to the more strenuous conditions. Boredom is also a flow killer because the perception of challenge disappears when a job becomes routine and predictable. Individuals often report flow while playing video games because the degree of game difficulty can be adjusted by the player. Regardless, if the challenge level is too high or too low, flow is compromised. If all psychological and biological systems are synchronized, the flow state will appear to happen automatically and result in superior performance that will continue indefinitely until one of the needed requirements change.
You may be wondering how to achieve the Utopian flow state to maximize your performance. First, pick a familiar task, then kick it up a notch. In other words, take your performance to the next level. A higher level means taking on more responsibility, starting a project you haven’t already mastered, or doing something completely new. Next, repeatedly practice the task until you achieve a state of satisfaction, confidence, and mastery, or what psychologists refer to as “automaticity,” which occurs when you complete a task with minimal effort. Automaticity is the reason many people report flow during driving, because we drive without thinking about the actual driving mechanics, unless you are a novice who has yet to commit the procedural aspects of driving to memory.
Tasks can be deliberately structured to induce flow. Try making a repetitive task more interesting by testing your performance limits. See if you can complete a project faster than your last attempt. If speed is not your thing, try completing routine tasks but in a different way to induce a challenge. Consider swapping job duties with a colleague to break the monotony. Whichever approach you use, be sure that you have a way of generating internal feedback on the task you elect to complete. In order to remain in flow you need to positively assess your progress in relation to what it takes to complete the task effectively. Feedback can be anything from evaluating if you are on schedule, to meeting job-related quality and performance metrics. Just be certain your evaluations are based on objective data, not wishful thinking.
When work stops
Flow can also occur outside of work. If all else fails, sink yourself into your favorite book, movie, or leisure activity, but only if the activity is stimulating enough to warrant your undivided attention. There are also more intimate ways to achieve the flow state, such as deeply engaging with a partner in an intimate experience, or engrossing yourself in an intellectual debate with a formidable opponent. Achieving flow is a highly personal experience, and one that almost guarantees optimal performance when the appropriate flow elements are in place. Regardless of how you induce flow, after you achieve the state you will feel content, invigorated, yet relaxed, just one of the many ways to hack your motivation.
Combs, J., Liu, Y., Hall, A., & Ketchen, D. (2006). How much do high-performance work practices matter? A meta-analysis of their effects on organizational performance. Personnel Psychology, 13(3), 501-528.
Crabtree, S. (2013). Worldwide, 13% of employees are engaged at work. Retrieved on March 04, 2017 from: http://www.gallup.com/poll/165269/worldwide-employees-engagedwork.Aspx
Csikszentmihalyi, M., & LeFevre, J. (1989). Optimal experience in work and leisure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 815–822.