Positive Psychology — bringing ‘Flow’ to your Work

We are humans with emotions, not mindless automatons our days should be filled with enjoyment and satisfaction. We all remember a situation when we felt so immersed in what we were doing that we lost all track of time; effortlessly powering through tasks forgetting the rest of the world existed. Well, positive psychology describes this feeling as optimal experience — or more simply ‘Flow’. Understanding how to achieve ‘Flow’ is a powerful tool for an individual, and even more powerful as a business leader, educator or designer.

As people we feel good seeking the solution to a tricky problem, playing a great game of tennis or taking down that boss in a video game. So, developing motivating and enjoyable experiences can be key to creating a healthy workplace, inspiring students or generating meaningful product design. There isn’t a cure-all solution to making this happen, but the eight stages of a flow give us an understanding of actions, we can take to bring more flow into our everyday experiences.

It was the research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Me-High Chick-Sent-Me-High) who found flow to be a common phenomenon across a wide range of activities and cultures. His understanding of flow revealed a universal theory of enjoyment in human beings.

Flow happens naturally when we undertake an activity where we feel that our skills are well matched to the challenges we encounter. As we progress with our activity, flow happens because we don’t get distracted or bored by what we’re doing; neither do we feel overly anxious or frustrated by its challenges. Flow is feeling balanced in an activity, between skill and challenge out of which enjoyment arises. And if we enjoy what we are doing, then ultimately we are more motivated to keep on doing it.

Firstly, flow starts with a challenging activity that matches a person’s level of skill; let’s use Tennis as an example. A suitable simple challenge for a novice player would be to return serve, as it builds on the skills of holding a racket and hitting a ball. What’s key in jump-starting flow is our ability to see ourselves completing the challenge. Secondly, as our confidence in the task grows, we are able to merge our action and awareness, combining skills so that our actions begin to feel more spontaneous.

Third and fourth, to keep flow going, we must have a clear goal to aim for and receive relevant feedback on our actions. In our Tennis example; the goal is too successfully return serve, while the feedback should be either, immediate; the noise of the ball hitting the racket, or come afterwards; such a verbal “good hit” from the coach. Importantly, feedback allows us to judge how well and how far we have progressed against a given target. Enabling us to adjust our behaviour where needed and feel satisfaction if we are progressing on target.

With the first four flow stages in place, your ability to concentrate on the task at hand should be well supported. Being able to concentrate without distraction then supports the sixth stage; a psychological sense of control over the task and your actions. To put it another way, you won’t feel stressed, as you feel in control of the situation. Even if ultimately you are not in control of the outcome. It is the feeling that you are in control of what you are doing right now, that reduces your stress and heightens your enjoyment.

Finally, at stages seven and eight of your challenge you are fully immersed in a Flow state, all self-consciousness disappears as you are happily lost on task, totally unaware of the passage of time as you are simply enjoying, doing what you do.

To bring a bit of flow into your day or week start with structuring your tasks into manageable combinations by applying the first four stages; 1) define your challenge and note what skills will be needed, 2) define a clear goal to aim for, 3) imagine how your skills can be combined together to reach your goal, 4) decide on what feedback you need to receive; be it a 10 minute motivational timer to race against, or a defined point when you reach out for some constructive criticism from your boss or community.

You can use the next four stages of flow to measure and judge how well you have set up your challenge; 5) Were you been able to concentrate well on each task, or were some easier than others? 6) Have you felt in control over what you were doing? Or did you begin to feel overwhelmed? And the most effective measures; 7) did you lose yourself on task, 8) and forget the time?

By taking some time out to assess your work patterns you can make the small changes that culminate in a positive effect on your work day life. Now, go be a happy motivated human at work and get some Csikszentmihalyi in your life.


Dr Hazel Bradshaw is the founder of Driedfrog design studio, if you’d like to know more on how to Flow we’d be happy to help.