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Flow - what it is and why it's so important

When was the last time you were so focused on work that you lost track of time? Spending our working day entirely ‘in the zone’ is becoming increasingly difficult. In fact, Wajcman and Rose (2011) observed that employees engaged in an average of 88 episodes of work activity a day, and 79 of these episodes lasted just 3 minutes on average.

At first glance, this seems to be problematic for our productivity, but it turns out that a lack of focus can also have serious repercussions for our overall happiness at work. So, what’s the best way to increase our flow in the workplace?

What is flow?

In the early 1970s, psychologist Csikszentmihalyi became interested in understanding why artists remained intensely focused on their painting despite hunger, fatigue and discomfort. He concluded that they were in a flow state, which is when “people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter”. He concluded that periods of flow are characterised by: (1) a distorted sense of time such that it seems to pass faster than normal; (2) a lack of awareness and physical needs; and (3) a feeling of intrinsic reward in that the goal becomes an excuse for the process.

More importantly, in their book Ikigai: The Japanese secret to a long and happy life, the authors note that “flow is pleasure, delight, creativity and process when we are completely immersed in life. There is no recipe for finding happiness, but one key ingredient is the ability to reach this state of flow and to have an optimal experience.” So given that we spend so much time at work, finding flow is crucial for our wellbeing.

Why is it difficult to find flow?

Finding flow in the workplace, however, is slightly trickier, according to Csikszentmihalyi. First, many people’s jobs lack clear goals, and their daily tasks are driven by obscure demands which are only obvious at a higher level of the organisation. We rarely understand the motivation behind forms, rules and processes, which makes it difficult to enjoy the task. Second, people do not receive adequate feedback. We are unable to see the expression of our skills and so we feel like a “replaceable cog in an impersonal machine.” Third, the skills of the worker do not match the opportunities for action; for example a young lawyer may be asked to do weeks of library research. When our skills remain unengaged, we seek free time because it gives us the chance to be fully alive. Fourth, there is often a lack of control of our performance to the extent that we feel micromanaged and lose interest. Finally, the rigid nine-to-five schedule does not cater for an individual’s energy.

How do we achieve flow at work?

Garcia and Miralles (2016) offer several tips for finding flow at work:

  1. Set a clear objective: “In an increasingly unpredictable world, moving ever more quickly, a detailed map may lead you deep into the woods at an unnecessarily high cost. A good compass though will always take you where you need to go” (Ito & Howe 2016). Ask yourself what your objective is today, for example:
    1. How many words will I write for my next article?
    2. How much of the spreadsheet will I complete for my client’s audit?
    3. What research articles will I read for the pitch next week?
  2. Focus on a single task: It is almost ingrained that multi-tasking is an admirable ability, but in fact it makes flow impossible to achieve, decreases productivity, makes us more likely to make mistakes, and causes stress because we feel out of control. Concentrating on a single task, however, makes us feel calm, boosts creativity, and helps us pay full attention.
  3. Bundle tasks together: Different tasks require different mind-sets and skills. If possible, divide parts of your day into routine tasks, such as responding to all emails, sending out all invoices, returning phone calls and so on. 
  4. Find a focus room: If available, use a focus room or space where you can work distraction-free for a portion of the day.
  5. Choose enjoyable tasks: We will never love every aspect of our work, but if possible, start the day with a task which you enjoy because you’ll be more likely to lose yourself in it. If another task is more urgent, complete that first, then opt for something more enjoyable as a reward.
  6. If you’re struggling with the above, try engaging in microflow which helps us take pleasure in mundane activities. Bill Gates used to wash the dishes every night because it helped him relax and clear his mind. Crucially, he tried to do it better each day, focusing on an ordered set of rules.