Finding the Flow: 6 Things it Helps to Know

Wouldn’t it be great if we could take long, difficult tasks and somehow make them appealing to our teammates?  I think there’s a way.  It comes from finding the flow.  Here’s what we can learn from research on flow, and how we can use it to make our teams more productive.

Finding the Flow - Six Things It Helps to Know

Flow on the Road

I’m nearing the end of my triathlon training journey this season.  My final race will be in October at the Hawaii Ironman again.  Preparing to compete takes an enormous amount of time.  My Excel spread sheet tells me that I spend 15-20 hours a week swimming, cycling, running, strength-building, or heat training.  I have been since last January.

From the outside looking in, it may seem like drudgery, with all that time in the pool or out on the road cranking out the endless miles.  Sometimes people ask what I think about when I’m out there.  The answer is everything.  And nothing.

I think about my speed, my effort level, my breathing and heart rate, the dangers of the road, the strength of my legs, the condition of the bike, my nutritional intake, the goal of the workout, the angle of my arm in the water, the position of my body on the bike, the direction of the wind, the slope of the hill, and so much more.  I even think about what I’m thinking about, so that I stay focused on what will make that workout a success.

All these thoughts coalesce into a kind of background hum, a sort of sound track to my effort.  The mental absorption can be so complete that it’s not like thinking at all.  It’s more a state of being.  Without a doubt, the workouts are long and hard, yet in that state, the miles can fly by.   Suddenly the work is done and I’m rewarding myself with a recovery smoothie.

Completing good workouts feels good, but being in the midst of them is just as satisfying.  Researchers describe this condition as being in a “Flow” state. 

The question is, if “flow” can help me get through today’s six-hour training session, can it help our teammates make it through a challenging day? 

I think it may.

In the Flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was the first to identify and research the concept of flow; he described it like this:

“A particular kind of experience that is so engrossing that it becomes autotelic, that is, worth doing for its own sake, even though it may have no consequence outside itself.”  

Studies have found a clear association between flow, job satisfaction and employee engagement.   Workers experiencing flow reported being more alert, happy, and involved at work, and many even take that sense of satisfaction home with them, sharing the positive vibes with those around them.

Researchers have pinpointed several characteristics that appear to encourage a flow state.  The four to highlight for our purposes are these:

  • Clear goals and immediate, unambiguous feedback.
  • A balance between the challenge and personal skill.
  • A sense of progression and reward, as one step leads logically to the next.
  • A sense of control and autonomy over our choices

When combined, these conditions can place us in a state where we become so wholly absorbed in a task that the we lose all sense of time.   We’re not thinking about any reward at the end of the work; the work itself becomes the reward.

Consider how a good video game works.  The goal is always clear, and we know immediately how we are doing.  As we get better at the game, the challenges increase and we move logically to the next level and get closer to our goal.  Every step of the way, the outcome depends on the choices we make.  

Good game designers tap into all of these elements to get us playing, and keep us on the platform.  When we finally put down the controller, we suddenly wonder how it has gotten so late.

So how do we create flow environments in the workplace where this kind of focus and effort is possible?

Finding the Flow

Start with clarity.   The role each of our teammates plays has to be clear, and goals well-understood.  The better our teammates understand their responsibilities, as well as their authorities, the more we encourage flow.  Beyond that, it helps if the work is clearly linked to an important team outcome, and our teammates can clearly see the critical role they play.

Provide immediate feedback.  Too often, we think of feedback as something we do as part of the dreaded annual rating cycle, or that occurs in an after-action review.  The problem is that this kind of feedback comes too late.  The key to sparking flow for our teammates is setting things up so that they are able to keep score themselves, without waiting for us to tell them how they are doing.  When we do that, they can self-correct, decide on their next move, and enter into flow.

Balance challenge and skill.  If the work is too difficult, our teammates can become frustrated or anxious; if it is too easy, boredom results.  The art of building a flow environment comes in striking the right balance between the two.  When our teammates sense that their cognitive abilities are challenged, and their skills and opportunities are growing, we’ve found the sweet spot.

Allow autonomy.   Flow comes easiest when our teammates have the opportunity to plan their work, and can decide when and how to perform their tasks.  In fact, Dan Pink lists autonomy as a critical human motivator, and Suzi McAlpine credits autonomy as an important way to stave off burnout in our teammates.  The more control our teammates have over their working environment, the greater the chance for flow to occur.

Eliminate distraction.  When I’m out training, it’s impossible to scroll through social media, and the email has to wait.  To encourage flow at work, it helps to remove annoyances that can impinge on our attempts to stay focused.  Carve out blocks of uninterrupted time, work in places devoid of distraction, and mute or turn off all the noise making, vibrating, flashing gizmos that continuously compete for our attention.  In our leadership role, that can mean protecting that time for our teammates, too.

Don’t flow alone.  Another revelation from flow studies is that people find flow more enjoyable when it is experienced as part of a team.  Some of the best examples of a flow experience come from group environments, such as a troupe of improv actors, a combo of jazz musicians, or a basketball team.  In a group setting, the same requirements apply, but success requires teammates who are able to set egos and agendas aside, and focus on listening and responding to each other.  

A Caution About Flow

Flow may not be for everyone.  Pioneers of flow theory suggest that people with autotelic personality traits tend to be more able to experience flow and benefit from it.  Autotelics are people who are receptive and open to new information and challenges, seek to develop their skill sets, and take an active approach to their work.  They are happiest and most productive when in flow, and less happy outside of it.

On the other hand, people who were low on openness (non-autotelics) actually reported feeling better when not in a flow state.  So take a look at the team and build the environment that suits them best.  

Finding the Flow – The Takeaway

Without a doubt, training for a ten- or eleven-hour race can seem like it would be long, repetitive, and boring.  If the only reward for all that effort came at the finish line, I’m not sure I would compete.  Six hundred and sixty-nine hours of effort this year (so far…) wouldn’t be enough to justify a couple finisher T-shirts. 

The effort required to reach any goal can easily outweigh the fleeting moments of satisfaction at the end.  The key to getting through it all has at least as much to do with the process as the outcome.  That’s where flow comes in for the teams we lead.

If we want to tap into the great potential of our teams, then helping them find the flow in their day can be a key to getting there.

We create the opportunity for a flow environment when our teammates

  • Clearly understand their roles and authorities
  • Can keep score themselves
  • Are challenged but not overwhelmed
  • Have autonomy
  • Are protected from distraction
  • Share the flow with others

When it comes to finding the flow, if we do it right, difficult work gets done, we meet our goals, and our teammates are happier about it. 

The process itself has become the reward (but we should still give them their finisher’s T-shirt).

Lead On!


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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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