Flow in the Workplace


Definition of Flow

Flow is the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.

Flow is completely focused motivation.

It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning.

In every given moment a vast amount of information is presented to us. According to one study we can process about 126 bits of information per second. Having a conversation takes about 40 bits of information per second, or 1/3 of our capacity. That is why when having a conversation we cannot focus as much attention on other things.

Components of Flow

Six factors encompass the experience of Flow:

1.    an intense and focused concentration on the present moment

2.    merging of action and awareness

3.    a loss of reflective self-consciousness

4.    a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity

5.    distortion of temporal experience in which one’s subjective experience of time is altered

6.    an experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding.

Mechanism of Flow

For the most part we are able to decide what we want to focus their attention on. However, in the flow state, we become completely engrossed with the one task at hand and, without making conscious decision to do so, we lose awareness of all other things: time, people, distractions, even such things as eating.

This occurs because all of the attention of the person in the flow state is pointed at the task at hand; there is no more attention available to be allocated.

Conditions for Flow

A flow state can be entered while performing any activity, although it is most likely to occur when one is wholeheartedly performing a task or activity for intrinsic purposes.

Passive activities like taking a bath or watching TV don’t elicit Flow experiences – you have to be actively doing something to enter into Flow.

Flow theory postulates three conditions be met to achieve a flow state:

1.    You must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task.

2.    The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps you negotiate any changing demands and allows you to adjust your performance to maintain the flow state.

3.    You must obtain equilibrium between the perceived challenges of the task and your own perceived skillset, thus fostering confidence in your task and in return creating positive internal feedback.

Application: Music

Musicians, especially improvisational soloists experience this similar state of mind while playing their instrument. Research has shown that performers in a flow state have a heightened quality of performance as opposed to when they are not in a flow state.

Application: Sports

The concept of being “in the zone” during an athletic performance is well known and its relationship with athletic competitive advantage is critical in the field of sports psychology.

Application: Art

Michelangelo can be said to have painted the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel while in a flow state. It is reported that he painted for days at a time, and he was so absorbed in his work that he did not even stop for food or sleep until he reached the point of passing out. After this, he would wake up refreshed and, upon starting to paint again, re-enter a state of complete absorption.

Application: Dance

Every dance activity has aspects of flow. For example, the Argentine Tango focuses on connection with partner, symmetry, synchronicity, and complete focus on the interpretation of the music in partnership with the other to the exclusion of all else.

Professional and the Work Environment

Flow plays an extremely important role in the workplace. Because flow is associated with achievement, fostering Flow has concrete implications in terms increasing workplace satisfaction and accomplishment, both for you and for those you work with.

Achieving flow in the workplace requires three conditions:

1. your goals must be clear

2. your feedback must be immediate

3. you must strike a balance between opportunity and capacity

With increased Flow, people experience “growth towards complexity,” in which people flourish as their achievements grow with which comes development of increasing “emotional, cognitive, and social complexity”

Creating a workplace atmosphere that allows for flow and growth can increase the happiness and achievement for yourself and your employees.

Consequences of Flow

Enhancing the time spent in flow makes our lives more happy and successful. Flow experiences lead to positive affect as well as to better performance.

Flow is an innately positive experience; it is known to “produce intense feelings of enjoyment”.

An experience that is so enjoyable should lead to positive affect and happiness in the long run. Happiness is derived from personal development and growth – and flow situations permit the experience of personal development.

Flow experiences imply a growth principle. When one is in a flow state, one is working to master the activity at hand.

To maintain that flow state, one must seek increasingly greater challenges.

Attempting these new, more difficult challenges stretches one’s skills.

One emerges from any flow experience with some measure of personal growth and heightened feelings of competence and effectiveness, thus deriving happiness, and channeling our direction once again towards Flow.

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