“Flow” is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.
– FLOW: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Have you experienced “flow” in your work? Surely you have … if you haven’t, you must … it’s nirvana!
I will never forget my first time…
The occasion was a regional management meeting. Probably in the neighborhood of 100 managers and sales representatives from across the midwest.
I was on the regional staff, in an operations engineering role, and I was slotted to speak about the productivity and operating performance of the region.
Did I mention the visiting executives from corporate?
I was somewhat scared, but curiously confident.
I worked on my presentation for at least a solid week. I was head down, rehearsing the presentation over and over and over in my head. Adding a point here; dropping a point there; trying to make the graphs come to life; trying to wring out the blasé, trying to find the ways and means to be impactful …
And then there I was, taking the stage. As I was about to start, I noticed the VP of Operations walking down the middle aisle from the very back of the room to take a seat in the front row …
* * * * *
I only really remember a couple of notable things about the presentation.
I remember quizzing the audience and asking for a show of hands on a question. I remember it being a “game time” decision; I had rehearsed it, but I was wavering on actually using it. It was risky. But when it came time, it just flowed …
I also remember a very specific interaction with that up close and conspicuous VP.
At one point in the presentation, he rather intimidatingly interrupted me to interject “Well, John, what are you going to do about that?”
I remember this response flowing; from somewhere; from me —
“Ivan (real name, not kidding!) I will get there, I promise. If I don’t get there, I know I can count on you to return me to your question, but trust that I will get there in another couple of slides.”
Or something like that. I don’t really remember specifically what I said … and I don’t remember really anything at all about the rest of the presentation, or the rest of the meeting, or the evening socializing … nothing.
But oh do I remember finding and feeling the flow! It was otherworldly; time warping … I was ultra involved, immersed … the presentation was automatic, effortless; thoughts became words, spontaneously … I was not self-conscious in the least … I was floating; it was magical …
* * * * *
Some call the experience being “in a groove.” Others describe it as being “in the zone.” Bill Russell, basketball great, describes it this way:
“Playing in the zone is a moment when everything goes so perfectly that you slip into a gear that you didn’t even know was there. It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion … it became more than a physical or even mental game, it would be magical … when it happened I could feel my play rise to a new level. . . . During those spells I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken.”
“I was in a solo competition with musicians that were lifetimes ahead of me in talent. There were about 40 of us. I was in awe of most of them. But something happened when it was my turn to perform in front of the judges. I forgot myself. Time stood still, and the performance was beyond anything I ever dreamed possible. Technically, the piece was very demanding but everything fell into place.”
Others note that “your energy is flowing smoothly. You feel relaxed, comfortable, and energetic” and “you aren’t thinking of yourself as separate from the immediate activity” and “totally absorbed in what I’m doing” …
According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow experiences can occur in different ways for different people, but there are typically up to ten factors in the mix —
- A clear, challenging yet attainable goal.
- Concentration and focused attention.
- Intrinsic reward.
- A feeling of serenity; an absence of self-consciousness.
- A distorted sense of time; so focused as to lose track of time passing.
- Immediate feedback.
- A challenge that stretches current capability.
- A feeling of personal control over the situation and the outcome.
- A lack of awareness of physical needs.
- A complete focus on the activity itself.
I see two major take-aways —
For leaders, create the conditions for people to find flow. The above list has clear clues for dos and don’ts.
And for all of us, as satisfaction-seeking human beings, whatever our work —
Find the flow.
So, one more time: Have you experienced “flow” in your work? Surely you have … if you haven’t, you must … it’s nirvana!