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How to reach the sought after ‘state of flow’ and why we need to!

Author: Michael Luke Digital Project Manager

Have you ever been so engaged in an activity that you lost track of time or even your surroundings? You look up from your computer/laptop and realise you’re the last one left in the office (or in my case, restaurant) and Kayla is looking at you impatiently, waiting for you to get out of her way? No? maybe that example is a bit too specific … (sorry Kayla).

That’s known as being in a state of “flow” (the engaged in activity bit, not annoying Kayla) – a state of consciousness where we experience a task so deeply that it truly becomes enjoyable and satisfying. For me this usually happens while I’m researching and developing software or a ‘tool’. For you, it could be anything and could happen during any number of tasks – from work-life to personal-life such as climbing, cooking, surfing, etc.

A favourite comic strip of mine that I (jokingly) send to people who interrupt my state of flow can be found – here – and shows both why being in a state of flow can be so productive in terms of thought process and logical thinking, but also how detrimental it can be when colleagues interrupt this crucial state of mind – plus it makes me laugh, which is the main thing. It’s important to ensure that your work environment and surroundings help ease you into this as it’s during this state that we produce some of our best and most innovative work.

The Conditions of Flow

Flow can be achieved by anyone with any task, as long as the conditions are right. I usually get into a state of Flow simply while writing. I enjoy developing something new and to ensure the task at hand has my complete attention, I listen to music through my headphones, and after a few minutes I really get into my work, sometimes to the point where I become completely oblivious to my surroundings – it’s at this stage that I produce my best work.

There are eight characteristics to getting yourself into a state of “flow”:

  1. You’re challenged by the task at hand – This seems to be the main factor to achieving Flow and can actually prevent you from being in a state of Flow. The difficulty of your task has to be “just right”. If the task is too easy, you’ll get bored and eventually stop. If the task is too difficult, you’ll get frustrated and eventually stop. Either way, you lose – find that balance!
  2. The ability to concentrate is key. If there are too many interruptions or it’s noisy, you won’t be able to concentrate on your task. No concentration, no Flow – modern day offices can be counter-productive to this so make sure you have an area you can escape to if the environment becomes too distracting or inhibiting. Make sure that the culture that you and your colleagues develop is a supportive one – headphones and a good mix of Ed Sheeran, Feeder or the Verve can be a life-saver! (disclaimer: music choice not for everyone)
  3. You have clear goals to achieve. Goals establish a mechanism to measure your progress and provide a sense of achievement. People in Flow achieve their goals – simple.
  4. You receive immediate feedback. A sense of pride is vital to achieving the flow, when a colleague leans over and says “Hay! Check this out”, chances are they have been in the Flow for some time and are proud of what they have produced or achieved, it’s vital to take interest and encourage this behavior to develop cultures that encourage being in the state of Flow.
  5. Your worries and frustrations of everyday life recede into the background. This perhaps is one of the greatest benefits of Flow. You’re busy concentrating on your task and the rest of your world just “drifts away” for a short while. Even though you’re challenged, you end up relaxed, satisfied and you achieved something meaningful.
  6. Your sense of self disappears (if only for a while). When it re-appears, you’re refreshed with an even stronger sense of self – able to take pride in what you have achieved.
  7. You lose track of time and feel great when you’re done with your task.
  8. Challenge yourself! Ensuring you spend a portion of your week away from meetings and documents, doing something new and fresh that challenges you is vital to ensuring that your work stays new and exciting – continuous personal development isn’t simply a buzz-word managers like throw out there, it really does matter to your work-life enjoyment and sense of personal worth.

I’ve hopefully made this message clear throughout this short blog, but engaging in a challenging activity is a primary condition to achieve Flow and for many of us, this occurs while at work. You’re given a task or you volunteer for a project that’s just beyond your current skill level. I’m a strong believer in never taking up a task or role that you are 100% comfortable with, deep down you know you can do it and maybe it’s a stretch. But it’s the challenge that intrigues you and ultimately expands your knowledge.

This is how you grow both as a person and professionally – expanding your skills by continuously challenging yourself and moving to that “next level”. It’s at work where the opportunity to grow occurs most frequently. Creating those support structures and cultures to make sure this is possible is vital, and in the new world where ways of working change almost daily and distractions are everywhere, this has never been so important.

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