Work occupies a significant portion of our lives. So, if you’re not feeling fulfilled at work, life can feel pretty empty. Fortunately, there’s one guy who figured out how to enjoy work and shared it with the rest of us.
He’s the Hungarian American psychologist with the not-so easy to pronounce name of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (For those willing to wrap their tongues around the Hungarian language, “Mihaly” is pronounced mee-HIGH and “Csikszentmihalyi” CHEEK-sent-me-HIGH-ee.) He coined the phrase “flow state” and co-founded the “positive psychology” movement. His 2008 TED Talk has over 6 Million views.
Csikszentmihalyi passed away on Oct 20 at the age of 87 and he left us with a legacy that can help you generate a positive mindset at work for yourself and your team.
Flow State was born in the aftermath of a war
Young Mihaly learned to play chess in a post-war prison camp and he became fascinated with how, when he became engrossed in the game, the hardship of the camp seemed to evaporate and time seemed to fly by. Intrigued to learn more about how the mind worked, he attended a lecture by the great Carl Jung which inspired him to emigrate to America to study at the University of Chicago. Mihaly spent most of his teaching and research career in Chicago.
He came up with the term “flow state” to describe what it’s like to be ‘in the zone’, that delicious period when we are completely absorbed in a project. You’ve probably experienced this at your work when you were fully immersed in a challenging task for which you are well suited. Your focus narrows to the tasks before you and time seems to dissolve. You can emerge from your office, or workbench or computer or kitchen table hours later, invigorated instead of exhausted.
How does that happen? And, more importantly, how can we make that happen more often?
There’s a simple recipe that you can use to generate that state for yourself and foster in your team. The formula has two contradictory elements: don’t make it too easy and don’t make it too hard.
Don’t make it too easy.
To be truly satisfying, a job must provide opportunities for learning and mastering new skills. “Most enjoyable activities are not natural,” wrote Csikszentmihalyi. “They demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make… Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety.” So, if you want to instill the flow state, look for tasks in your work that combine both challenge and mastery.
Here’s how it works: picture a narrow band on an XY axis, where the vertical axis is the level of difficulty and the horizontal axis is the level of capability. That narrow band is where you are perfectly balanced between a task being too hard it being easy.
The flow state is achieved when our level of competence and the challenge we face is in balance with each other. Keeping an activity in balance requires constant tweaking. We become anxious when the challenge grows to become greater than our skill yet once we begin to master the task boredom and apathy set in.
You’re looking for the goldilocks zone when you’re good enough at a task to enjoy, but it is just hard enough that you can’t let your mind wander to all the other small stressors in your life.
Don’t make it too hard either.
Challenge and stress are good for you. So long as they are delivered in reasonable doses.
It’s important to challenge yourself and your team, but make a goal too difficult and the opposite occurs; stress turns toxic. The American Institute of Stress notes that:
- 25% of respondents to their survey have felt like screaming or shouting because of job stress,
- 10% are concerned about an individual at work they fear could become violent
- nearly one in four have been driven to tears because of workplace stress
- 19% (or almost one in five respondents) had quit a previous position because of job stress.
Consider the cost of this stress. Numerous reports estimate the cost of finding and replacing an employee can be as much as the equivalent of between 6-9 months of their salary.
It’s become so common for people to claim they’re stressed that some of us wear it like a badge of honour. As a result, some leaders feel trapped between caring for their team and meeting their targets. They may do one of two things: default to discounting the impact of stress, and telling their people to “suck it up, snowflake”; or letting their employees off the hook, taking more on themselves and burning themselves out.
Part of the problem is that we use the same word for both healthy challenge and toxic stress. Reframing the two allows both employees and leaders to differentiate between them.
Remember, toxic stress isn’t so much about a single one-time challenging incident, but about feeling chronically under-resourced and helpless in the face of ongoing incidents that seem to have no end. If you understand the flow state then you’re mindful of the tension between challenge and stress and can bring out the best in their team.
For many of us “healthy stress” is an oxymoron, but neuroscientists now recognize the differences between healthy stress and toxic stress. Healthy stress can help you accomplish tasks more efficiently. It can even boost memory and bind teams together. It is through challenges that kids learn confidence, resilience, determination, optimism.
As adults, surviving a stressful work situation makes us more confident in our work. We learn new skills we can apply when the next crisis arises and it makes us less likely to fear change. We may even adopt a more positive attitude towards stress in general, knowing how the last time it helped us grow.
Put The Flow State To Work for Yourself
High-performers agree with Csikszentmihalyi: “getting in the groove” doesn’t just happen. It’s something that we make happen.
I’m a writer, but it doesn’t come easily to me. So, I like to follow the example of artists I admire when I’m looking to create the flow state for myself. For instance, I follow the advice of Steven Pressfield, author of The Legend of Bagger Vance and The War of Art, and follow a rigid schedule of writing every day at the same time. When I’m writing a play, I’ll add in some arbitrary structural challenges, like making sure that a new plot point is introduced on every page or that each scene focuses on one element of the Hero’s Journey. If I’m writing an article such as this, I’ll give myself a clearly defined end time. These guardrails are useful in and of themselves, but the challenge also forces me to focus intently, making it easier to lose myself in the work.
Or you can take a page from the multi-instrumentalist musician Jack White (of the bands The White Stripes and The Raconteurs). He deliberately places his instruments farther apart than is comfortable. Having to take an extra step to get back to the microphone, or rush around an obstacle to get to his keyboard shakes him out of his routine and forces him into new ways of working. He’s also been known to play a toy guitar that he has to struggle to keep in tune. In the opening credits of the documentary It Might Get Loud, he constructs a rudimentary guitar out of a single string, a 2×4 board, a rusty nail and an old electric pick-up. Despite these severe limitations he uses a coke bottle as a guitar slide and makes it sound exceptional.
Productivity experts recommend similar gamification of mundane tasks. Force yourself to work under a time limit, or become efficient with each physical movement. When it gets too easy try switching up the routine or performing the tasks in reverse order. No one knows your work as well as you, so you’ll come up with the best hacks yourself. The trick is to dial up the challenge whenever they start to get too easy.
Put The Flow State To Work for Others:
If you’re a leader in an organization you can leverage the flow state to get the best out of your team. This way you can meet your Key Performance Indicators and increase employee satisfaction at the same time. The trick is to ensure that your team is presented with the right amount of challenge while maintaining the support they need. Wait until your team members master a skill or task before you offer increasingly complex responsibilities.
But there’s another key element that Csikszentmihalyi identified as key for the flow state: feedback. If you’re working on a task and not certain if you’re succeeding, then performance anxiety increases. The musician knows they’re on target when they get applause from the audience after the solo. The writer knows the sentence is just right when it crackles as they read it aloud. A good leader maintains the flow state for their team by ensuring that the worker sees tangible progress.
Talk a stroll through your office environment and try to identify which of your team members are bored and which are in a state of anxiety. When you observe those who are bored, there may be a tendency to trust them less and decrease their level of responsibility. But this provides a negative feedback loop. And leads only to more disengagement.
Instead, here are some questions to ask yourself:
- How challenging are your team’s goals and objectives for the quarter or year? Are they just out of reach and yet still attainable?
- Which members of your team need a greater challenge to truly engage them in their work? Which members of your team are disengaging because they require more support to succeed?
- What about those you’ve observed in a state of anxiety? Instead of our knee-jerk reaction to reduce their responsibilities in an attempt to reduce their stress, can you provide them training or mentorship to increase their skill level?
Flow Your Way to Satisfaction
It seems we are on the right track. The Conference Board “Job Satisfaction 2019 Report” finds that 54% of U.S. workers are satisfied with their employment. That number is up three points from 2018, and up eleven points from 2010. All of this suggests that the focus that we have been placing on ensuring we are challenged by and connected to our work is paying off.
But 2021 has seen “the Great Resignation” in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Being more intentional about what it takes to “get in the zone” may help you get happier with your work.
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