Enhancing your wellbeing and productivity at the same time …
“Flow” describes the mental state where we are fully engaged in the activity at hand, to the extent that we lose track of ourselves and of time. We are highly productive in this state, as well as feeling a positive sense of achievement and purpose. This state feels so good that these “flow tasks” become rewarding in and of themselves. Imagine spending more time in flow, how much you could achieve, and how rewarding it might feel. Add to that, research shows more time spent in flow is associated with higher overall wellbeing.
In our everyday experience, we talk about times when we were so engaged in something that we “lost ourselves”. We might find flow writing a report, presenting to an audience, cooking a meal or playing a game of squash.
Psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes extensively on the concept of flow, and has described seven components:
- Complete concentrationon the task. We are 100% focused on the task at hand. No wonder we are more productive than at other times!
- Clarity of goals and reward. We know exactly what needs to be done, and are focused on doing it. We are also aware of how well we are doing, and getting immediate feedback as we engage in the task. That feedback might be about our performance (e.g., others nodding while we present something, music sounding good as we play it) or about our productivity (e.g., quantity of words written).
- Feeling of We experience the task as achievable and within our control, believing that no matter what comes next, we will be able to manage it well.
- Loss of true This is consistently described across experiences of flow, whether it be composing music, rock climbing or performing surgery. We’re not clock watching when we are in flow, we lose track of time because we are fully immersed. For some people, this has the quality that time speeds up and we can continue for many hours without fatigue. For others, it’s the sense that time slows down and we feel we could have just been lost for hours in this task, while it may have only been half an hour (often our productive output can make it seem like it must have been more time, too).
- The experience is intrinsically rewarding. This is the idea that flow is reinforcing because of an internal quality of the experience, and not an external reward. For example, if painting is a flow task, we might paint a picture simply for the experience of flow even if we do not want or need another painting, and have no intention of hanging it.
- Loss of self-awareness. We are so focused on the task that we lose sight of self-awareness. We lose self-consciousness, doubt or rumination, we are so merged with the task at hand.
- Challenge and skill are well matched. Flow occurs when both skill and challenge are high and well matched. The task must be challenging enough that it takes our concentration and we can become fully immersed in it. We must also possess skills in this area that are up to that level of challenge.
How do I find my flow?
It’s likely you already have some flow activities in your life. Think back over the last few weeks; what activities have you done where you have been fully engaged? Where you’ve lost sense of time? Where you’ve felt challenged, in a good way? Where you have felt productive and skilful? Great! Do more of these.
What other tasks do you do which are challenging, but where you feel confident about your skills? These are potential opportunities for experiencing flow. Which activities are mundane? Can you increase the challenge in some of these tasks to bring them into flow? What about activities that do challenge you, can you up-skill in these areas or invest in practising them to increase your skill and confidence, and therefore your potential for flow?
Amp up the flow…
Now that you’ve identified some activities which may be flow tasks, let them be flow tasks. Distractions which are significant enough to interrupt us, or frequent enough to stop us getting on a roll, are the enemy of flow. Stop the distractions during your flow tasks – turn off your email alerts, close your office door or put on headphones. Signal to yourself and others that this is important time not to interrupt. Likewise, in your own time, stop the interruptions as much as you can. If you enjoy cooking, find something challenging to cook, that you are confident your skills allow, and turn the TV off while you do it. Enjoy the intrinsic rewards which flow experiences bring.
For more about flow, check out Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk on the topic: