6 Ways to Create More Flow at Work

May 21, 2015

8:00 am

There’s a great paradox of work: even though we experience more flow at work than anywhere else, we’d usually prefer to be doing something other than work.

Researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who developed the concept of flow by interviewing around 10,000 people, attributes this paradox to two things: our cultural attitudes against the dreaded “work,” and the fact that many jobs aren’t actually designed to promote flow.

Flow is a state of intense engagement with the world, when we’re so wrapped up in something that it almost seems effortless and time flies by. If you’re leading a team, you should be interested in fostering flow at work for your employees because they will be not only happier, but also more productive. Adults who spend more time in flow spend less time gossiping, reading the paper, or surfing the Internet on the job. Flow creates a sense of mastery and urges us on to new challenges.

So how can you create more flow at your company? Csikszentmihalyi has six suggestions.

1. Communicate goals clearly

Flow is more likely to occur when we’re working on an activity with a clear goal, like climbing a mountain or knitting a scarf. Even if we’re just preparing a spreadsheet or writing an ad, we can get into flow if we understand why what we’re doing is important.

That means that leaders should be constantly reiterating the company’s goals in meetings, and making sure they get translated all the way down to the newest employees. And that first requires that leaders actually know what the goals are. Could each and every team member explain the long-term goals they’re working toward?

2. Give more feedback

When we’re climbing a mountain or knitting a scarf, the feedback is built into the activity; we can see the ground getting farther away and the rows adding up. But too often, work isn’t like that: we get things done, hand them over, and assume they were acceptable because we haven’t been fired yet.

The simplest form of feedback to increase flow at work would have managers offering tips, tweaks, and praise constantly – not just at monthly or quarterly reviews, says Csikszentmihalyi. Anyone who wants more feedback and isn’t getting it can find a mentor outside work, as well. Besides getting feedback from people, you could also think about tracking data-based feedback in the form of pageviews, sales, likes, and more.

3. Match skills with challenges

Perhaps the most important factor for flow is that our skills are well-matched with the challenges at hand. If something is too easy, we get bored; if it’s too hard, we get stressed. The sweet spot of a big challenge we’re just capable enough to tackle creates flow.

That means giving team members more and more responsibility to match their growing skills, but also thinking outside the box. Skills aren’t just limited to coding, marketing, or strategy. Being funny, inspirational, or a good listener are also skills, and putting them to use might increase flow at work, too.

4. Reduce distractions

Flow is a concentrated state – if you’ve ever been in it, you might recall skipping meals or missing text messages because you were so focused and in the zone.

But forces at work conspire to break our concentration – among them, meetings, noise, and email. Having a meeting at 3 pm means we’re less likely to get into flow after lunch, because we always have to keep one eye on the clock. The ping of emails-that-seem-urgent-but-aren’t has the same effect. Protecting flow at work is particularly crucial for jobs that involve creativity or problem solving, like programming.

5. Increase responsibility

Another way leaders inhibit flow for their teams is micromanaging. The flow experience is supposed to give us a sense of self-mastery, not a sense of being puppets controlled by others. Flow is a state of effortless control.

One Harvard Business School study found that creative teams had more breakthroughs when they were given clear goals but freedom in how to achieve them. In other words, set the direction but don’t sweat the details – employees will find flow in figuring them out. And while you’re at it, give them more control over their hours and work location, too.

6. Reduce ego

Flow is actually a kind of self-less state, where we lose a sense of self and almost become one with what we’re doing. (That’s how we can forget to eat – we’re not thinking about our bodies, our worries, or our feelings.) But it’s hard to get into flow at work if we’re too focused on the self.

Unfortunately, some work environments actually encourage a focus on the self because there’s so much ego involved. Self-important managers or biting criticism send the message that team members need to obsess about getting promoted or getting fired. To avoid this environment, leaders can model a lack of ego by giving credit to others, admitting mistakes, and asking for feedback.

If we can foster flow at work, we can create work experiences similar to this CEO’s (quoted in Csikszentmihalyi’s book Good Business):

“It’s an enormous responsibility and it’s an enormous challenge. And it’s the most fun job in the world! I love coming to work every morning. I can’t wait to get here. I can’t wait, because every day something else is going to happen.”

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Brocken Inaglory / CC BY-SA-3.0

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.

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