Have you ever started working or playing in the morning and suddenly realized it was dinner time? Have you ever so thoroughly enjoyed a day of work that it seemed to go by too quickly? This feeling of absolute engagement can be found everywhere from gnarly single track to video games, so what is it?
After observing the devastation of otherwise normal people during WWII, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi embarked on a lifelong pursuit to answer the immense question “what makes life worth living?” His answer explores those rare but wonderful days that leave us exhilarated and go by in a flash - flow.
Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as “deep absorption in an activity that is intrinsically enjoyable.” This almost euphoric state arises in both the workplace and in leisure. It makes us feel focused, strong, capable, creative and happy. Dan Pink links flow to intrinsic motivation, showing how when we attain flow it creates motivation to do an activity for the activity’s sake- it just feels great. Certainly attaining a state of flow seems desirable, but in everyday life it seems easier said than done. How can we create flow for ourselves and help our employees or followers do so as well?
One answer is simple, go outside! You may have studied the theory of flow in business school, but have you experienced it on a mountain bike, climbing a rock face, or hiking through the wilderness? Flow outdoors both informs and enriches how we experience flow in the work environment. It gives us a somatic sense of what flow should feel like elsewhere in our lives. Csikszentmihaly outlines seven common attributes of flow in his TED Talk. Consider how all of these can all be found outdoors!
Complete Involvement: Engaging in difficult and often risky outdoor activities requires a certain level of flow just to be safe. Even when a climber or mountain biker arrives at the trailhead in a scattered frame of mind, the immediate requirement of choosing the right line or safest hold quickly absorbs attention.
Sense of Ecstasy: Ecstasy literally means an out of this world experience. Removing ourselves from the daily grind at the office typically delivers breathless amazement at the vastness and beauty of wilderness- out of our normal world.
Inner clarity: When we climb, mountain bike or hike, feedback to each movement is immediate. Do we need to go up, sideways, did the move we made work? While in the office environment, we may not get formal or informal feedback for months; a wrong move rock climbing results in an immediate fall. Interestingly this complete mindfulness often unlocks new clarity back in the office as well! Being in the wilderness allows us to cut to the essence of a problem.
Adequate Skills: We naturally choose the lines or routes that challenge our skills but do not completely overwhelm us outside. We choose difficult tasks to test our skills or reach incredible places, and we regulate the difficulty in order to remain reasonably safe.
Sense of Calm: The absolute concentration required in outdoor recreation and the serene environments of the wilderness lead to a sense of inner tranquility. Also as any rock climber will tell you, the mental strength to overcome fear and create calm allows better and more focused climbing. Inner calm becomes necessary to move forward!
Timelessness: Time flies when you are having fun. But seriously, if this aspect of timelessness was not strong and present in the mountains, 26 hour mountaineering pushes sure would be tough!
Intrinsic Motivation: Talk to any seasoned mountaineer- the summit is not the ultimate goal. In a sport where obsession with summiting commonly leads to loss of life, true mountaineers are most motivated by the journey and the time spent in mountains they love. True outdoor enthusiasts love the outdoors, not topping out, posting Strava times, or sending new climbs. Our motivation comes from the activity itself, not the outcome of the activity.
While the most natural way to develop a feel for and access to flow is outdoors, flow is very attainable in the work setting. Flow occurs when a person finds a perfect balance between challenge and capability. An under-challenged person becomes apathetic and an over challenged person becomes chronically stressed out. We can attain flow in several ways:
Increase the challenge: If work does not challenge us, seek new opportunities or re-frame the work we do in order to increase the challenge to match our capability.
Decrease stress: If we have taken on too many jobs or simply don’t yet have the skills to meet a current challenge, it is best to shed some of the load or ask for help.
Increase capability: Take classes, learn to focus, improve leadership skills, or get a leadership coach. Find ways to increase your capacity to take on a challenge and you can reach flow without altering the challenge at all.
Change your mindset: Carol Dweck makes a powerful argument that a success or failure mindset severely hampers attaining our best self, where a growth or learning mindset can open doors. It makes sense that shifting your perspective from fixed to growth could make “success” more attainable by redefining the goal.
We often have more access to and control over our daily tasks than we think we do. For one, we have the ability to add outdoor activities or other challenging hobbies to our lives to increase exposure to flow. Still, in the workplace we we can influence the challenge our people encounter to help encourage flow. We can provide tools and access to training, coaching, and great teams to increase our people’s capability and move them from stress to flow. We can increase the challenge, diversity or tasks, or access to a learning mindset to move our people from apathy to flow. What can you do to find flow for yourself and your people today? Are you challenging and supporting your people to optimize their performance? THink about how to provide more opportunity for flow in your organization today. Your people and your bottom line will thank you for it!
Caroline Aubé, Vincent Rousseau & Eric Brunelle. (2018) Experience in Teams: The Role of Shared Leadership. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi & Judith LeFevre. (1989). Optimal Experience in Work and Leisure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Martin E. P. Seligman & Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (2000). Positive Psychology An Introduction. American Psychologist.