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Why you’re not finding flow at work (and what to do about it)

Artists are visited by the Muse. Athlete's get in the zone. Whatever you call it, you probably want more.

Why do some days drag on, every minute feeling like an hour while our to-do list remains intact. While others seem to fly by with task after tasking being ticked off without breaking a sweat?

The answer is Flow—the state of mind where we’re so focused, so disciplined, and so in tune with our abilities, that the world around us disappears and the work feels like it’s doing itself.

Artists call it a visit from the muse. Athletes call it being in the zone. Whatever you want to name it, I’m sure you want more of it in your life. Yet Flow is elusive. It’s not like we can schedule slipping into a transcendental state of effortless work.

But by understanding the conditions and qualities necessary to find Flow, we can give ourselves a better chance of slipping into it every single day.

Want to give yourself a better chance of finding flow? Download our free Guide to Finding Focus and Overcoming Distractions to learn how to take back control of your attention.

What is Flow?

The idea of Flow was first proposed by positive psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi in the 70s.

After speaking with professionals across fields, from artists to academics, Csíkszentmihályi noted how they would become “so immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity that we lose sense of space and time.”

However, this state was more than just a skilled professional doing their well-honed craft. Flow seemed to only be triggered when a specific set of criteria were met:

  1. A clear set of goals
  2. Immediate feedback on what you’re doing
  3. Balance between the perceived challenge of the task and your abilities

In other words, it’s not just being good at a task. It’s pushing your skills just beyond their breaking point while receiving and reacting to continuous feedback. As Steven Kotler describes it in his book, Rise of the Superman, Flow is “high-speed problem solving; it’s being swept away by the river of ultimate performance.”

Think of a skier flying down a difficult run. Their technique and training is being pushed to the limit while they react to the changing situation around them. It’s not the strenuous hit-your-head-against-the-wall kind of problem solving, but an effortless connection between skill and challenge.

Why you’re not finding Flow at work

For most of us, this sounds like a dream. Walk into your workplace, put your well-honed skills to the test and complete good work without even realizing it.

But Flow is elusive. Like most dream-like states, the second you realize where you are it disappears.

Worse than that, the conditions that make Flow possible are the same as the ones that make it so elusive in the workplace.

Most modern work environments weren’t designed with Flow in mind.

In fact, it often feels like they were designed with the exact opposite in mind.

The processes, policies, and busy work that fills our days has eroded the foundation that once held Flow up:

  • Most jobs today don’t have a clear goal. Unlike a championship skier whose goal it is to make it down a run as fast as possible, you probably don’t walk into your workspace every day with a clear, single-minded goal.
  • Feedback can be elusive, unhelpful, and inadequate. The pace of work has increased, and it’s hard for people to spend time thinking deeply and giving clear and actionable feedback. Again, this is no individual’s fault. The person you’re waiting for feedback from might be waiting for their own feedback, or is so busy with other work they can’t take the time to put it together.
  • Your skills aren’t well matched to the available challenges of the job. Either you’re mismatched, or you’re not given the freedom to take on challenges that would put you in a state of Flow.
  • There’s a lack of control over when and how you work. And even worse, the rhythm of the day is dictated by others, leaving you always on the edge of interruption.
  • Your job is too stable (i.e. boring). There’s no challenge or opportunity to step out of your comfort zone.

Feedback is one of the most important parts of getting into Flow. Sign up for your free RescueTime account today and get feedback on how you’re spending each day.

Here’s how to find more Flow at work

Sure, this sounds bad. But it’s not hopeless.

Flow is still possible even in the busiest of workplaces. Like meditation, which requires patience, practice, and discipline, Flow can be found with the same level of commitment. By understanding what triggers our states of Flow, we can find ways to bring more of it into our workday.

Here’s a few good places to start:

1. Take more risks to push your mind beyond its comfort zone

Flow only happens when we get out of our comfort zone. But this is where it gets a bit tricky. Not enough challenge and risk and you’re bored. Too much, and your mind enters anxiety mode. Instead, you need to know your limitations and consciously push past them.

These don’t have to be physical risks either. As Kotler explains in Rise of the Superman, “the brain can’t tell the difference between physical consequences and emotional risks.”

Speak up at a meeting. Share creative ideas. Approach your boss or leader and tell them your opinion when it feels awkward. Push yourself beyond your emotional comfort zone.

“In Silicon Valley, the idea is to fail fast or fail forward,” says Kotler.

“If you’re not giving employees space to fail, you’re not giving them space to risk. Move fast and break things. Engage in rapid experimentation. High consequences will drive Flow and you get further faster.”

2. Use deliberate practice to get better and battle boredom

Flow is dependent on having a certain level of mastery over your skills. At least enough to understand when things are going well and be able to adjust on the fly when they’re not.

However, when we do the same task over and over, it becomes monotonous, leaving us unable to push and develop our skills and find Flow in the process.

One answer to this is to engage in what’s called “deliberate practice.” Rather than simply going through the motions, deliberate practice is working in a way that is segmented, purposeful, and systematic.

As we get better at a skill at work it becomes easier to let small errors slip or miss daily opportunities to get better. Which leads to boredom—the enemy of Flow.

How this works in practice is actually pretty simple:

  • Take an activity you do regularly
  • Break it down into segments
  • Go through each segment systematically and look for ways to get better

Whenever you find yourself slipping into complacency or habit, ask why? How can you do this one piece of the task better? Even 1% better every day can help you find Flow.

3. Use job crafting to connect your work to a clear purpose or intention

When he originally wrote about Flow, Csikszentmihályi argued that the main reason we can’t find Flow at work is because our goals aren’t clear. While some tasks may fit into a larger plan or purpose, most individual workers don’t see where or how they do.

We’ve written about finding meaningful work in the past and how one of the best techniques you can use to imbue your current job with purpose is through job crafting.

In its basic form, job crafting consists of looking at your job at multiple levels—task, relationships, identity—and adjusting each one to find more purpose.

For example, you could adjust your daily tasks to include more challenging ones. Deepen your relationships with people inside or outside your department. Or change your job title to be more aligned with what you see as your most important work.

Each of these is a small way to bring more purpose into your daily tasks and help you find Flow more easily.

4. Get your self control in check and block Flow-killing distractions

Flow depends on being able to do focused work for long periods of time without interruption. Which is pretty much impossible in a lot of workplaces.

However, to find Flow, you need to be able to exercise control over your focus and attention, rather than let them be passively determined by external forces.

There’s no shortcut to this ability. You simply need to practice, be aware of where your mind is going, and try to limit your vulnerability to distraction. As Leo Babauta explains on his blog Zen Habits:

“This takes practice. You need to start on your chosen task and keep your focus on it for as long as you can. At first, many people will have difficulty, if they’re used to constantly switching between tasks.”

“But keep trying, and keep bringing your focus back to your task. You’ll get better. And if you can keep your focus on that task, with no distractions, and if your task has been chosen well (something you love, something important, and something challenging), you should lose yourself in Flow.”

5. Push yourself to learn new skills and get feedback

Flow is all about challenge. And few workplaces will actively try to help you push your skills. Rather, it can feel like we’re cogs in a machine, going through the process to make the beast move.

However, like we’ve said before, Flow is all about challenge and hard work. As Csikszentmihalyi explains in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience:

“The best moments occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile … in the long run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery—or perhaps better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life—that comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably imagine.”

If you want to find Flow, you can’t just sit idly back or feel content in doing your part. You need to actively push and search for opportunities for growth and challenge.

Lastly, while Flow is a solo experience, Csikszentmihalyi has said that limited feedback can reduce motivation and prevent opportunities for Flow.

Actively seek out feedback on the work you’re doing and use a tool like RescueTime to track your time spent on challenging tasks to make sure you’re putting in the kind of difficult work that triggers states of Flow.

Flow isn’t just about doing more work 

When we enter a state of Flow, we’re more likely to be happier, feel more accomplished, and get better at our jobs. It’s not a shortcut to hitting a deadline, but a path towards truly meaningful work.

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