The surgeon in the operating room feels flow; so does the rock climber on a cliff, the athlete in the midst of a game or the mother playing with her child. Creating such an energized environment among a company’s cubicles might sound far-fetched, but there are a few surefire rules about setting up the right conditions. For flow, you need:
Clear goals - Don’t focus on the big picture. Instead, aim to achieve one simple goal that’s part of your larger task. The rock climber isn’t thinking about the summit, just about completing the next incremental step without plunging down the mountainside. The mother reading to her child isn’t worried about whether the child will someday read the classics; she’s simply enjoying quality time with her baby. Ideally, a salesman isn’t so concerned about his commission that he ignores a client’s other concerns.
Instant feedback - Sure, feedback can come from coworkers or bosses, but the best response comes from the activity itself. The climber who’s still clinging to the mountain knows the last step was successful.
A match between difficulty and ability - If a task is above your skill level, it becomes too daunting to tackle. If it’s below your skill level, the work turns dull. Balancing the two helps create flow.
Deep concentration - In daily life, you’re constantly distracted. You’re not living in the moment. Instead, you’re thinking about what happened yesterday or what will happen next week. Achieving flow requires a fuller devotion of attention. This state of deep concentration occurs quite spontaneously and feels perfectly natural.
A sense of control - In flow, you make decisions and see immediate results. You don’t worry about external events.
Time expands or contracts - A chess player feels that an hours-long match flies by. A sprinter perceives that a race lasts an eternity rather than just a few seconds.
Loss of ego - In flow, you’re so absorbed in the task at hand that you lose your sense of self.
“It is all too easy to become trapped under the glass ceiling of a job and to stop growing.”
You’re probably wondering what flow has to do with the 40 hours or more you spend at the office every week. Sure, flow is easy to achieve if you’re defying death as a rock climber or saving a life as a surgeon. But when was the last time a staff meeting made you completely absorbed and fully involved? Contrary to the popular belief that jobs are mundane roles meant to be tolerated rather than enjoyed, flow can exist in the work world. But before you can create flow, you must recognize the common obstacles that block it:
Jobs lack clear goals - Most goals foisted on today’s employees come from high up in the organization and make little sense to the employee.
Feedback is scarce - A century ago, the shoemaker or weaver could see his product take shape. Modern divisions of labor mean typical workers see no relationship between their unique talents and the final product.
Skills and tasks don’t match - In this era of specialization, even well-trained, highly educated workers use only a few skills. Think of lawyers who are relegated to monotonous research. A job requiring only a few skills is bound to become a chore.
Lack of control - Typical workers feel little input into their firm’s overall goals or into the steps they must take to achieve the organization’s objectives.
The time schedule is someone else’s - Most work schedules are inflexible nine-to-five harnesses imposed by the organization.
“To experience flow continuously, one must keep cultivating interest and curiosity, respond to a wide range of opportunities, and develop as many skills as possible.”
Flow on the job is achieved when employees feel that they are working not merely for a salary, but for something greater than themselves. Managers should strive to do more than squeeze the most from every employee. Leaders must have the vision to place employees’ emotional needs above market share and profitability.
“To be able to experience flow throughout life, it is necessary to become the master of one’s psychic energy.”
This requires clarifying the company’s mission to everyone, from the top executives to the line managers to the hourly employees. It also means making a commitment to set specific goals and to provide clear, timely feedback to employees. Finally, always remember that you and your employees will find more lasting motivation from meaning than from money.
Flow Arises from Self-Knowledge
To maximize your flow, follow the advice of the oracle: know thyself. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Few people can clearly express their basic identities and bedrock values. But to make your life and work fun and purposeful, you need to know exactly what your priorities are. This isn’t a spiritual quest so much as a practical one.
To accomplish your goals, you must first discover yourself. For those whose core values were forged early in life through religion or culture, self-discovery is a straightforward path. For others, it’s a more intellectual pursuit that involves asking questions, such as: Who are your heroes? Who are your anti-heroes? What matters most to you? What values would you cling to at all costs?
The first step to self-knowledge, says Sir John Templeton, is to examine your talents. Templeton once hoped to become a missionary, but he realized that some of his classmates who had the same career in mind seemed better suited to the job. When Templeton was a university student, he became interested in investments - and particularly in the fact that the parents of his classmates didn’t have investments outside any one nation. Armed with this insight, Templeton started one of the first international investment funds.
To keep yourself truly engaged, you must be curious and open-minded, not only at work but in your personal life, as well. You’re likely to work in an organization, one that will wield a huge influence over your life, so be certain to select your employer well.
After self-knowledge comes self-management, which requires manipulating and focusing your attention, time and habits in ways that match your self-concept. This includes:
Also known as psychic energy, attention makes things happen. People generally pay attention to fun, challenging activities. But people also come to appreciate things that they are required to devote their attention to consistently. Managing attention is a balancing act. Devote your attention to too few things, and you’ll become a specialist who’s blind to the wider world. Pay attention to too many things, and you’ll never master anything.
Like attention, people spend time on their favorite things. Many business leaders prefer to use their time at work - that’s where they can achieve the most direct results from their efforts. Family life often gets short shrift, in part because time spent with family members is less likely to follow the same rules or yield the same results as time at work. Unrealistic expectations about time are a huge hindrance to flow. Many work-obsessed types become so impatient that they think of time spent with family, or in a restaurant, or communicating with subordinates, as wasted.
People develop habits, or patterns, in the way they devote their attention and time. Habits typically are formed at an early age, but it’s never too late to change them. If self-management is your goal, develop the habit of reflection - daily, weekly or even semi-annual examinations of where your personal and professional life stands.
Good business, a business which enables flow, is based on vision and visionary leadership, including trying to do your best to achieve excellence, help others and improve the world.
Good businesses foster respect and trust, and encourage shared goals, personal growth and worthwhile work, focused on a product or service that succeeds in making people happy.
About the Author
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was born in Hungary. He is a professor of psychology at the Peter F. Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California, where he is also the director of the non-profit Quality of Life Research Center. Csikszentmihalyi’s previous books include Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium.