Published on 8/18/2015 12:00:00 AM
Zen, mindfulness, in the zone… Whatever you want to call it, flow is integral to producing great work.
Flow actually isn’t new age mumbo jumbo; it’s a specific term coined by Hungarian scientist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who conducted decades of research. According to Mihaly, flow is a state of intense concentration where all external distractions disappear and your mental energy literally “flows” toward the task at hand. With that level of focus, you’re able to perform at your peak and effortlessly complete otherwise difficult tasks.
When you’re in flow, all of your stress recedes to the background and the work at hand comes into focus. You lose track of time, and your sense of self disappears. Essentially, you’re putting aside your day-to-day concerns and concentrating solely on work. Once you’ve completed the task at hand, you’ll feel more relaxed and satisfied from producing something meaningful.
Flow can be achieved by anyone performing any task – as long as the conditions are right. The following four factors are essential to flow:
1. Challenge: To get into flow, there must be a challenge. If a task is too easy, you’ll get bored. On the other hand, if a task is too hard, you’ll get frustrated. Finding a balance is key. In the workplace, however, you can’t always choose what tasks you get to do. When you’re faced with an easy task, like sorting through your inbox, up the challenge level. For example, set a time limit and try to beat it, or look for quicker, more efficient ways to do routine tasks by utilizing keyboard shortcuts or setting up the “perfect” system. When facing especially difficult tasks, seek advice from coworkers or managers who are more familiar with what needs to be done.
2. Concentration: Achieving flow requires concentration. Surrounded by distractions and frequent interruptions, you’ll never be able to tap into flow. Wearing headphones is a good way to tune out noises and indicate to coworkers that you’d rather not be disturbed. If your office doesn’t allow headphones or if music takes away your focus, try performing basic meditations or centering techniques. Whenever you feel your concentration wavering, take a moment to focus only on your breathing. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your breathing. This exercise will hone your concentration and calm your mind.
3. Goals and immediate results: Clear goals allow you to measure your progress and, once you’ve met them, provide a feeling of achievement. Most employee goals are set by managers, but these can be long-ranging and won’t provide immediate results, essential to staying in flow. Setting smaller daily or even hourly personal goals can help you maintain your flow and enjoy a more frequent sense of accomplishment.
4. Control: You’ll find it easier to achieve flow if you have some level of control over your actions. One of the best areas to control is your schedule. It’s much easier to get into flow if you’re working in sync with your own natural rhythm. Whether you’re a morning person or a night owl, whenever you feel “off” or notice yourself more distracted than usual at work, take note – literally. Keep an ongoing journal for a week or two and look for patterns of when you produce your best work and when you’re less capable of handling important tasks. If possible, try to schedule your hardest tasks to line up with when you’re most “on” and easier tasks to when you’re not as primed.
With all of the above factors, the key to reaching and maintaining flow is to create a more flexible work environment. The more you can influence when, how or where work is done, the easier it is to tap into flow. That doesn’t mean you have to work in a setting with complete freedom and flexibility; even small steps can make a big difference.
If you’re a manager or head of a department, try to create goals together with your employees to make them more meaningful and appealing. Also, if your management style tends to be more “hands on,” consider easing up and allowing your employees to take the reins on tasks they’ve proven themselves to be capable at. One last bit of advice: avoid scheduling too many meetings, which can force an employee to step out of flow.