Do you struggle to stay focused at work? You’re not alone. We have so many digital distractions at work, from email to Messenger, WhatsApp and social media, all vying for our attention. It’s a situation made more difficult with work from home arrangements, where household distraction adds to the load. So, how do you stay on task and increase your productivity?
What is a Flow?
Flow is best known in positive psychology as being in the ‘zone’. It’s an intense mediative state of complete concentration. If you’ve ever been lost in an activity to the point where you simply lose track of time, you’ve probably experienced a flow state.
Originally named by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his classic book, Flow is a powerful state-of-mind where you are highly productive and feel amazing. His research into productivity and creativity – including interviews with Nobel Prize winners – revealed that great accomplishment was connected to an ability to achieve a state of flow.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, subjects reported feeling competent and in control and experienced such intense absorption in their task that they simply lost track of time.
Flow at Work
Research in neuroscience demonstrates that ‘flow’ states have a biological connection. When you reach a flow state, a cocktail of performance-enhancing neurochemicals flows through your brain. These highly addictive, feel-good chemicals – similar to the runner’s high – enhance focus performance.
In a study of adult workers, Csikszentmihalyi and LeFevre wondered if flow differed between work and leisure activities and was most influential in facilitating flow. The study followed 78 management and engineering, clerical, and blue-collar workers for one week using a sampling questionnaire response.
Interestingly, a much greater number of flow experiences were reported in work activities over leisure pursuits, despite motivation being reported as higher in leisure.
So, if you’re trying to increase your productivity, a flow state will have you powering through your deadlines while enjoying the process. Sounds perfect, right? But how do you achieve flow at work? The research points to eight ways to encourage a state of flow in the workplace.
Balance Challenge & Skill Level
If the work task is too challenging, it will be difficult to reach a ‘flow’ state. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that there’s a delicate balance between stretching your skills (avoiding boredom) and being stressed by the difficulty of the task.
So, if you are trying to write an annual report and this is a learning curve for you, you might have to let the flow go. But, if you’re completing a task you’re familiar with, but it’s a new, interesting subject area for you, there’s a good chance you’ll find flow.
Research shows that flow at work is significantly impaired by stress. So, clear your mind of the clutter before starting a work task.
Whether it’s writing in your diary to organise your week, a 20-minute run or morning meditation, it’s best to start working with your mind clear of other concerns.
We’re bombarded by distractions on a multitude of platforms every day. The age of distraction makes for fragmented bursts of concentration, which isn’t what’s conducive to flow states.
Research shows it takes between 10 to 15 minutes of concentration to enter a flow state. So, to truly achieve flow, you need to switch off completely. That means putting your phone on Focus mode (or in another room) to avoid distractions.
Many apps will help you switch off, such as Forest – Your Focus Motivation, enabling you to grow and plant trees! So, not only are you helping yourself be more productive at work, but you’re also helping the planet!
Cue Your Business Brain
It’s helpful to cue your brain to enter a flow state by performing a type of ritual.
You might light a scented candle (cinnamon, rosemary, and lemon are all scents that aid concentration and calm, which may assist in the transition to flow), drink a particular herbal tea or repeat a specific affirmation.
It doesn’t matter what the ritual is, as long as you perform it every time you want to enter a flow state.
Work When You’re Most Alert
If you have an important task at work, choose to work at a time when you’re most energised. It will be harder to get into a flow state if you’re tired. Are you a morning person, or do you come alive in the afternoons? Your peak productivity times will determine when and for how long you work in a flow state.
Tunes to Tune In
In research from the Psychology of Music, software developers experienced more positive moods, better quality of work and improved efficiency when listening to music.
Music is highly motivating but choose wisely. Lyrics may distract most people, especially when completing a task that requires intense focus.
Research also shows that classical tunes are the ultimate focus music (you might have heard of the Mozart Effect). Listening to classical music when you study arouses the brain, making it easier to absorb new information. Further, classical music has been found to help students perform 12 per cent better on exams.
Establish SMART Goals
You’ll need to begin your task with a clear goal in mind. Do you want to finish a time-sensitive report? Do you need to write and memorise an important speech? If you’re trying to focus on too many things at once, it’s impossible to achieve a state of flow.
Similarly, switching between tasks will interrupt your flow. So, set your intentions before you sit down to achieve a work goal.
It also makes sense to make SMART goals to clarify your ideas, focus your efforts and make the most of your ‘flow in the workplace’ time and resources.
Drink ‘Flow’ In
Caffeine is the ultimate stimulant and a popular one. Author of Hyperfocus: How to Work Less to Achieve More, Chris Bailey, maintains that coffee is a serious productivity and focus booster!
But don’t drink more than two cups if you want to go with the flow! Apparently, after 200 mg of caffeine (about two cups of coffee), the ability to focus starts to wear off, and in excess of 400 mg can induce anxiety.
More important than coffee … water! Make sure you’re hydrated to maintain hyperfocus. Being hydrated is paramount to concentration and focus – cornerstones of the flow state. Your brain consists of 75 per cent water, so think of water as the fuel to power your flow. Drink at least eight glasses of water every day.
What is Group Flow?
Group flow is conceptualised as a shared experience shared by a group that enables individual flow due to a common focus on parallel and organised tasks, shared social belonging and collective competency.
In a study of 300 professionals at three different companies, researchers discovered that the highest performers participated in group flow. In group flow, the activity becomes spontaneous, and the group acts without thinking first. Dr Keith Sawyer, a professor of education at the University of North Carolina, found that genius groups emerge in the presence of the following ten conditions.
The Group’s Goal
Group flow at work can be achieved when there is a balance between a team’s mutual goal and an open-ended problem to be solved.
‘In group flow, the group is focused on the natal progress emerging from their work, not meeting a deadline set by management. Flow is most likely to occur when attention is centred on the task and other things are put out of mind. Small annoyances aren’t noticed, and the external rewards that may or may not await at the end of the task are forgotten.’
‘Group flow is most likely to emerge when everyone is fully engaged – what improvisers call “deep listening,” in which you don’t plan ahead what you’re going to say, but your statements are a genuinely unplanned response to what you hear. Innovation is blocked when one or more participants already has a preconceived idea of how to get to the goal.’
‘Group flow is more likely when a group can draw a boundary, however temporary or virtual, between the group’s activity and everything else. Companies should identify a special location for group flow or engage in a brief “rehearsal” or “warm-up” period that demarcates the shift to performance.”
Being in Control
‘People get into flow when they’re in control of their actions and their environment…Group flow increases when people feel autonomy, competence and relatedness. Many studies have found that tam autonomy is the top predictor of team performance. But in group flow, unlike solo flow, control results in a paradox – because each participant must feel in control while at the same time remaining flexible, listening closely and always being willing to defer to the emergent flow of the group. The most innovative teams are the ones that can manage that paradox.’
‘In group flow, each persons’ ideas build on the ones that their colleagues just contributed…Small ideas build together, and innovation emerges, as the improvisation seems guided by an invisible hand toward a climatic peak.”
‘Group flow is more likely to occur when all participants play an equal role in the collective creation of the final performance. Group flow is blocked if anyone’s skill level is below the rest of the group; all members must have comparable skill levels. It’s also blocked when one person dominates, is arrogant or doesn’t think they have anything to learn in the conversation…Managers can participate in groups in flow, but they have to participate in the same way as everyone else – engaging in close listening, granting autonomy and authority to the group’s emergent decision processes.’
‘By studying many different work teams, psychologists have found that familiarity increases productivity and decision-making effectiveness. When members of a group have been together a while, they share a common language and a common set of unspoken understandings. Psychologists call these shared understandings tacit knowledge—and because it’s unspoken, people often don’t even realise what it is that makes them able to communicate effectively.’
‘Group flow requires constant communication. Everyone hates to go to useless meetings, but the kind of communication that leads to group flow often doesn’t happen in the conference room. Instead, it’s more likely to happen in free-wheeling, spontaneous conversations in the hallway, or in social settings after work or at lunch.’
Keeping it Moving Forward
‘Group flow flourishes when people follow the first rule of improvisational acting: “Yes, and…” Listen closely to what’s being said; accept it fully; and then extend and build on it.’
The Potential for Failure
‘There’s rarely time for “rehearsal” in the business world. The problem is that most businesses are designed to minimise risk, and most of them punish failure. But research shows us over and over again that the twin sibling of innovation is frequent failure. There’s no creativity without failure, and there’s no group flow without the risk of failure. These two common research findings go hand in hand, because group flow is often what produces the most significant innovations. There’s a way that you can rehearse and get better, even in the business world.
‘Psychological studies of expertise have shown that in every sphere of life, from arts and science to business, the highest performers are the ones who engage in deliberate practise—as they’re doing a task, they’re constantly thinking about how they could be doing it better, and looking for lessons that they can use next time. The key is to treat every activity as an opportunity to rehearse for the next time.’
The Flow Cycle
The flow cycle has four phases: struggle, release, flow, and recovery. The first phase starts with the intention of stepping outside your comfort zone to reach optimal performance.
Struggle Phase (beta brain waves, cortisol, norepinephrine)
The struggle phase doesn’t feel good. You’ll likely experience tension, frustration and even stress and anxiety, but it’s an important stage in the flow cycle.
Release Phase (alpha brain waves)
The release phase happens when you accept the challenge by stepping away from the problem and activating the parasympathetic nervous system
Flow Phase (theta and Gamma brain waves, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide) The flow phase, finally, comes after release and shifts you from conscious to subconscious processing.
Recovery Phase (delta brain waves, serotonin, oxytocin)
Recover is the final stage when your brain rewires and stores the experience of flow.
Autotelic Personality Type & Flow
Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of an autotelic personality is derived from his ﬂow model. And while flow research has primarily focused on ﬂow as a motivational state, Csikszentmihalyi and colleagues also suggested the idea of an autotelic personality.
The autotelic personality is the “flow personality”, which describes a person who actively seeks challenges and flow experiences. They have a more remarkable ability to begin, maintain, and enjoy flow experiences.
So, how do you know if you have an autotelic personality? According to Csikszentmihalyi, applied to personality, autotelic denotes an individual who generally does things for their own sake, rather than in order to achieve some later external goal. And the mark of the autotelic personality is the ability to manage a rewarding balance between the ‘play’ of challenge ﬁnding and the ‘work’ of skill-building.
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