Have you ever experienced a time when you were so focused on a task that nothing could take you away from it? If asked to describe it, you’d probably say you were ‘in the zone’. Psychologists define this zone as the state of ‘flow’ – an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.
A lot that we know about ‘flow’ today, is the result of decades of research by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In his words, flow is “what a painter feels when the colors on the canvas begin to set up a magnetic tension with each other, and a new thing, a living form, takes shape.”
Due to its immersive and focused nature, flow has caught the fancy of many leaders in today’s corporate world. McKinsey researchers say, if we could increase the time we spend in flow by 15-20%, the overall workplace productivity would almost double. Jim Clifton, CEO of Gallup, is a major proponent of this too. He says “to stay competitive, we have to lead the world in per-person creativity. People with high flow never miss a day. They never get sick. They never wreck their cars. Their lives just work better.”
As dreamy as it sounds, flow constitutes some key elements that are relevant in our work-lives today:
- Intense concentration
- Clarity of goals and progress
- Clear rules and positive feedback
- Personal control over the activity
- Intrinsically rewarding experience
Next comes the million-dollar question: how does one induce the state of flow?
According to Steven Kotler, founder of the Flow Genome Project, the state of flow is triggered by release of, and communication between five crucial neurochemicals – norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin. How can you make this happen?
- Move beyond your current comfort zone. Any task that challenges your current state and has consequences, will trigger a state typical to flow. Take calculated risks – be it physical, emotional, social or creative. Speak up more often in meetings, if you are the quiet one. Take initiative to propose a new business model for greater impact at work. Change your role itself!
- Balance the difficulty of a task with your ability to perform it. Too challenging a task overwhelms us with fear, whereas too easy a task will lead to boredom. Flow resides in the mid-point – what scientists call the flow channel. A challenge beyond our current abilities keeps our attention locked, and piques our curiosity due to the uncertainty of outcome. Thus, we need the right amount of stretch.
If you are wondering how much that amount is, research says it’s 4%. The challenge must be 4% greater than the skills one brings to it. Being uncomfortable is a benchmark you can have! Yet, go slow.
Quoting Kotler, “Restructuring businesses around flow means radically altering their DNA, shifting emphasis from mechanistic efficiencies to deep human engagement. In an era of relentless progress, making a present tense commitment to flow may be the only way to stay ahead of a breakneck future.”