Experiencing more 'ebb' than 'flow'? This is for you!
Experiencing more ‘ebb’ than ‘flow’? This is for you!
Err… no… not dancing in clubs, don’t worry.
What I mean is that we were ‘in the zone’ – energised, inspired and loving the challenge of learning and exploring wellbeing within a different cultural context. I posted at the time that we were “tired but happy”. Despite some cheeky comments suggesting otherwise, it was as far away from being a junket as it’s possible to imagine. In fact, it was bloody hard going. Yet immensely pleasurable.
We may not have had a moment to go up The Peak, but looking back, we felt at our peak.
In this article, I thought we’d unpack the concept of that feeling of being at one’s intellectual peak by taking a deeper look into Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of ‘flow’ – because in retrospect, that’s undoubtedly key to what we were experiencing as a high in Hong Kong.
The five Fs of flow
As followers of flow, here are five characteristics we use to encapsulate the concept into the work we do with leaders:
|1. Feeling||Being in a psychological state,|
|2. Focus||of effortless high attention,|
|3. Fulfilment||where we are positively captivated and lost in absorption,|
|4. Freedom||by choosing to pit our brains to challenging activities we feel well-matched to,|
|5. Fun||and where the net feeling is one of enjoyment rather than stress.|
Why psychological flow might be more important than cash flow
Flow can occur in a wide range of settings and activities, and for many of us is easily achieved through hobbies and interests outside of work.
Writing a novel? Building a robot? Trading shares? PhD in Physics? All fine and well, and ‘whatever floats your boat’ as the saying goes – but what about the senior leader who spends 40, 50, 60 or even 70+ hours a week immersed in their role? How important is it that executives experience a state of flow through their work?
We would suggest PDI… pretty damned important!
In a 10-year study conducted by McKinsey, top executives reported being five times more productive in flow. In fact, according to these same McKinsey researchers, if we could increase the time we spend in flow by 15-20%, overall workplace productivity would almost double.
Flow has a positive impact on both the person (gratification) and on results, i.e. the quality of their work and performance levels. High levels of flow proneness are associated with:
- Higher levels of psychological wellbeing,
- Higher levels of self-esteem,
- Greater life satisfaction,
- Increased conscientiousness,
- Lower levels of trait-based anxiety,
- Increased task enjoyment,
- Positive moods,
- High levels of intrinsic motivation,
- Stronger internal locus of control (that’s a belief that rewards are dependent upon one’s own behaviour rather than external factors),
- And lower levels of work-related depressive symptoms and burnout.
Six hacks to facilitate full psychological flow
In some environments smart, driven high achievers can feel frustrated by bureaucracies, hemmed in by the increasing attention on governance and compliance, or simply ‘stuck’ in a job they don’t love doing.
Many leaders – whilst skilled and capable – can feel bored or stifled, with little or no freedom to innovate, unable to do their best or to achieve and deliver on their full potential. In the worst cases, leaders’ growth and performance is stultified, and there is an accompanying atrophying of the spirit.
Interventions which increase flow could potentially reduce emotional problems at work – less depression, less anxiety and more happiness. Worth a shot, surely.
So how can we find flow without obvious inspiration?
As well as being a factor of job context and freedoms, proneness to flow has been established as having a moderately strong heritable component. But from looking at the habits of naturally ‘flowy’ people, we can determine a few basic principles that can help everyone.
For those of us with genes or jobs that don’t naturally favour flow, here are some practical suggestions for increasing its possibility:
- Have clear goals and a sense of what’s important.
- Look for learning. Seek balance between the size of the challenge and the match with your skill levels – aim for the ‘learning zone’, not the ‘lazy zone’ or the ‘danger/panic’ zone.
- Clear clutter – mental and physical. Minimise distractions. Turn off notifications. Find a quiet spot. Concentrate the mind on the present.
- Identify and use your strengths.
- Put your skills to the test – it’s mastery combined with challenge that brings the flow.
- Recraft your outlook and approach to the tasks you don’t like but have to do. Do them using your greatest strengths and very best qualities. For example, if you dread the Monday morning WIP meeting because it’s so boring, but one of your signature strengths is social intelligence, then commit to using this strength to the max in every Monday meeting – “try it and you will see!” (one for all the Dr Seuss fans)
We’ll leave the final word on flow to the master himself, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:
“The serenity that comes when heart, will, and mind are on the same page. In moments of flow what we feel, what we wish, and what we think are in harmony. When goals are clear, feedback relevant, challenges and skills are in balance, attention becomes ordered and fully invested. There is no space in consciousness for distracting thoughts, irrelevant feelings. Self-consciousness disappears, yet one feels stronger than usual.”
Flow: Flourishing in Work in Personal Flourishing in Organizations – 2018, Editor: Juan A. Mercado (2017)
MacGillivray AE. (2018) Leadership as practice meets knowledge as flow: Emerging perspectives for leaders in knowledge‐intensive organizations. J Public Affairs. 2018 18:e1699.https://doi.org/10.1002/pa.1699
Mosing, Miriam A. et al. (2018) Can flow experiences be protective of work-related depressive symptoms and burnout? A genetically informative approach Journal of Affective Disorders, Volume 226 , 6 – 11, January 2018
Create a work environment that fosters flow Harvard Business Review May 2014
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