Finding Flow

“Because for most of us a job is such a central part of life, it is essential that this activity be as enjoyable and rewarding as possible. Yet many people feel that as long as they get decent pay and some security, it does not matter how boring or alienating their job is.”

Finding Flow, page 101

Does it matter to you? Do you care if your job is boring or alienating? I ask, because I believe you do care. I believe that, while job security and decent pay are nice to have, you have a desire – a desire to work in a job with meaning. A job that engages you, challenges you, and gives you an opportunity for growth.

In his 1997 book, Finding Flow, Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi teaches us that it is not only possible to engage and be passionate in some jobs, but that virtually any work can produce enjoyable states of mind if we can only learn to harness a few basic skills.

In case you don’t recognize the name, Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “chick-SENT-me-high”) is the man responsible for defining the concept of “Flow”; that trance-like state you can enter when doing something you really enjoy. The state where time slips by, and you get lost in the activity. From Dan Pink’s Drive to Chip Conley’s Peak, Godin in Linchpin and Sir Ken in The Element, the concept of Flow has been cropping up with increasing frequency lately, so we decided to dive right into Csikszentmihalyi’s research, ourselves.

Effectively, what the book says is that while we all yearn for more free time in our lives, the majority of our “flow” experiences in life come during our working hours. At first blush, it may seem counter intuitive to believe that we would have our most engaging moments at work, and not during our selected leisure activities. After all, if we have complete autonomy over our leisure activities, wouldn’t it make sense that we’d do things that make us most happy?

Golden Egg

Active or Passive Engagement?

“One must invest attention into the ordering of tasks, into the analysis of what is required to complete them, into the strategies of solution. Only by exercising control can stress be avoided.

Finding Flow, Page 107

According to Csikszentmihalyi, we are truly happy – and most likely to enter a state of flow – when the challenge of a particular task matches our level of skill for that task. (Pink talked about this in Drive.) While we might assume that leisure activities make us happiest, it’s important to acknowledge the fact that very few of our leisure activities actually challenge us. Certainly, rest is an important aspect of a balanced life, but passive activity doesn’t require any skill. Changing channels on the television is hardly an engaging activity, and therefore unlikely to produce this state of flow that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we know to be the pinnacle of good life experiences. It is only through tackling challenging activities that we get the rush of accomplishment and the high from being at the top of our game. We only experience flow when we are actively engaging in an activity. Which is exciting. Because this means we have control over how often we experience flow.

Experiencing Flow is a choice. A choice to engage.  A choice to get off the couch and actively seek out tasks that challenge us.

The opposite of flow is Stress. Anxiety. Worry. Interestingly enough, all of these negative emotions come about when we relinquish control over a situation. When we let problems overcome us, rather than actively work to solve them. These problems come from passivity. From doing LESS, not more.

The following two GEMs look at ways to increase the frequency of flow experiences in your life.

GEM # 1

Expand

“Our attitude to work usually involves spending a lot of effort trying to cut corners and do as little as possible. But that is a short-sighted strategy. If one spent the same amount of attention trying to find ways to accomplish more on the job, one would enjoy working more – and probably be more successful at it, too.”

Finding Flow, page 104

Cutting corners involves doing less. It involves actively engaging in the bare minimum and passively hoping (read: worrying) that it will be enough. It turns out there’s a tipping point in preparation and/or execution. We need to overcome certain hurdles – reach certain benchmarks – before the worry melts away. But getting just past worry shouldn’t be the objective. In fact, this is really just the beginning of getting into a rhythm (ie. flow), and truly enjoying a task.

If you look at a new task with the question, “What’s the most I can do here? How can I blow people away by my work on this project?”, the process of execution becomes an exciting one. You’re beginning with the end in mind (Which Stephen Covey spoke about in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People), and the work takes on a whole new meaning.

A great way to enter a state of flow is to think expansively about what this project could be.

GEM # 2

The First Half-Hour

“…each of the flow-producing activities requires an initial investment of attention before it begins to be enjoyable. … If a person is too tired, anxious, or lacks the discipline to overcome that initial obstacle, he or she will have to settle for something that, although less enjoyable, is more accessible.”

Finding Flow, page 68

We all work hard. We work long hours. We typically don’t eat or sleep properly and, as a result, our energy levels can be quite low when we get home from work. (Or, worse yet, at work!) The television, in this case, becomes the black box of escape. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a huge fan of television. When it’s an active choice. When it’s a reward, a social activity, or a deliberate downtime. But when it’s an automatic impulse, that black box literally sucks the life out of you.

Being in a state of flow actually increases your energy levels. Can you remember the last time that watching a couple hours of television left you feeling refreshed and alert? Me neither. There are, however, dozens of activities you can engage in (recreationally and professionally) that DO put you in a state of flow, thus giving you more energy and a general sense of positivity. The challenge is, these activities often require energy to get started. Certainly more energy than turning on the TV does.

My encouragement is to look past the first 30 minutes of any activity that requires active engagement. To think about about how it feels to be in the rhythm of it. Actually getting ready to go to the gym may feel daunting, but it’s important to connect with how you typically feel after a workout. Even during the work out! What about painting? Playing music? Playing a sport? Again, there’s a period of setup – a time (typically 30 minutes) – where you’re outputting more energy, but if you can see past the hump and do it anyway, you’re far more likely to find that Flow more regularly in your life. (Dan and Chip Heath have some great advice on how to “shape the path” in their book Switch, if you’re looking for tips on how to make it easier to engage in these “active activities” more often.)

I love Finding Flow for the fact that it addresses one of the most abstract elements of life – how to live a more enjoyable life – from a stance of science. Drawing from decades of research and study in the psychology and engagement of human life, Csikszentmihalyi has given us a road map for creating our own more satisfying existence. Finding Flow is a dense book, and certainly not for everyone, but the messages are universal, and the suggestion is simple: Choose to actively engage in the activities that give you energy, while maintaining a general sense of curiosity and playfulness. Simple lessons for a better life.

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Chris Taylor

ABOUT Chris Taylor

Founder of Actionable Books, Chris Taylor is a writer, entrepreneur and speaker. He spends his daylight hours helping consultants and employees alike find meaning in their work and discover rich team relationships through his company, Actionablebooks...
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