Flow, a theory originally conceived by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (that's "Cheek-sent-me-high-ee"), is focused on the optimal experience. In real terms, flow is about achieving a state of focused high-performance and enjoyment where the challenge level is a match for skill level. Easy challenges result in boredom and overly difficult tasks lead to anxiety. A perfect match is required.
Characteristics of achieving a state of flow include: extreme focus on the task at hand, a clear goal, a feedback mechanism, intense concentration and the feeling that time is altered. No, I'm not talking about time travel, but an intense activity where the rest of the world fades away. Hours may pass like minutes.
After the experience, the individual feels a sense of fulfillment and growth as they have become more proficient performing the task at hand. Many athletes are familiar with this – they call this place 'the zone'.
An example of flow from my recent past was when I was teaching myself to fly fish. I found myself totally focused on the angle of my swing, the motion of my arm, the direction of the wind, the force on the line, and the exact placement of the fly in the water. The heat, background noises, and time melted away. It felt like a few minutes had passed, but in reality it had been a few hours.
Although my wife was not happy, I was completely absorbed in what I was doing and afterwards I felt great – like I had achieved something as I watched my casts improve time and time again.
So can this be applied to work? According to Csikszentmihalyi, our answer is yes. I have met people who say, "I love what I do and I've never worked a day in my life". For them, work is natural. It is something they enjoy doing and find fulfilling. It can be anything metalwork, carpentry, writing, or even selling. A fit between the person and the work is essential.
For managers wanting to unlock flow in employees:
- Set attainable goals for each employees skill level
- Redesign jobs to include more flow characteristics
- Add variety or cross-training to reduce redundancy
- Coach employees to identify opportunities to improve
- Provide autonomy to make incremental changes and provide control
For employees, you can work towards achieving this state by:
- Performing work that interests you
- Concentrate on the task at hand – intense focus
- Ask about training opportunities to expand your skills
- Scrutinize your techniques and work towards achieving perfection
- Evaluate your own results and look for improvements that can be made
Remember that flow is an internal state. We can create this state ourselves by setting goals, focusing on improvement, and evaluating our results. Keep in mind that the most critical component of achieving a state of flow is the balance between skill level and challenge difficulty.