Work can be something of a rollercoaster. One week, you’re struggling to get your basic tasks done, and anything else you have to take care of feels like a huge burden. The next, you might be racing through your backlog, taking on additional work and clearing it at breakneck speeds. Why was the second week so much more productive? You probably achieved a flow state.
What is a flow state?
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was one of the first people to write about flow states. He was inspired to study the topic after seeing artists get completely lost in their work.
Everyone, from artists to project managers and developers, can experience flow states. It’s when you don’t even notice the hours go by, when you feel like you’re on fire. You’re fixing bugs at an unprecedented rate, you’re flying through tasks, and you’re writing a hundred words a minute.
It sounds like something you can’t control, something that just happens, and all you can do is take advantage of it when it arrives. But that’s not true. To control your flow state, you just need to understand the concepts behind it.
Flow happens when we choose to challenge ourselves in a way that lines up with our skillset. Two things typically stop that from happening.
The anxiety vs. apathy problem
The main blocker of achieving the flow state is the pull between anxiety and apathy. Consider them the extremes of a problematic spectrum. Most of the time, we’re not in flow because we’re bouncing back and forth between anxiety and apathy. And it’s not rare; only 1 in 5 people experience a flow state at least once a day.
When we’re at the apathy end of the spectrum, our work days blend together in a kind of grey glob. We don’t really care about the work we’re doing, which can make for lackluster performance and work days that feel extremely long. This usually happens for one of two reasons. The first is when things are simply too easy. Maybe you’re overqualified for your role, or you’re just being assigned tasks that you don’t find challenging. Sure, those things might need to get done, but if there’s no challenge, there’s no room for you to flex your skills or problem-solve.
The second reason for apathy is lack of meaning. If you don’t find what you’re doing meaningful in some way, you won’t feel motivated to try particularly hard. You might be checking boxes and completing tasks, but you’re also asking yourself “why am I doing this?” You’re not motivated to achieve your goals and push yourself. So whether the task is too simple, or it’s just not meaningful, apathy will keep you from achieving flow.
The anxiety that blocks flow states can feel like a chorus of tiny, annoying voices in the back of your mind. You might second-guess what you’re doing constantly or hesitate to make a decision — even a simple one. Putting a deck together, planning your day, writing a blog post, it all feels too difficult. Just like apathy, flow-blocking anxiety can happen for a few reasons.
If you get unclear instructions when working on a project, you might feel like you’re playing catch-up, or like you’re constantly having to fill in gaps. And if your requests for clarification go unanswered, you’re left floating from one task to the next, wondering if you’re doing things correctly.
Sometimes, the tasks you’re given are just too hard. They don’t match the skills you already have — or are trying to develop. This can be due to a misunderstanding or miscommunication, and if it isn’t cleared up, you spend your day struggling to do something that feels like it should be easier.
Finally, things outside the task itself can cause flow state-blocking anxiety. Maybe someone in your department got laid off, or you’ve had some kind of conflict with your project manager. This might cause an undercurrent of dissatisfaction that colors everything you’re working on.
Does any of this feel familiar? You might have struggled with one or more of these on a particularly tough day at work. So what can you do to stop bouncing between apathy and anxiety and achieve a flow state more consistently?
How to achieve a flow state
In his book, Csikszentmihalyi puts forth a simple — but not necessarily easy — solution. Find that place in the middle where apathy and anxiety meet, where your tasks are meaningful and challenging, without being overwhelming. Much of it has to do with proper planning, communication, and mindfulness. Here are five steps he outlines — combined with some of our tips:
Choose your goals and define them.
You might be an ace at managing projects and running your team like a well-oiled machine, but what about your own goals? What are you looking to achieve not only in a day, but in your career? If you’re constantly jumping between meetings and decluttering your inbox, you might not be finding meaning in your work, which prevents you from getting in the flow.
Measure your progress.
Setting goals is all well and good, but you also need to be able to find out how you’re doing. Form an affinity for retrospection. Practice looking back at the things you’ve already achieved and evaluating your performance. Another side of it is having clear, open lines of communication with your leaders, so they can give you the feedback you need to improve.
Concentrate fully on the task at hand.
We live in a world of distractions. The devices that make our work easier are also great at distracting us. Whether it’s something as simple as turning off notifications on your cell phone or experimenting with techniques like Pomodoro, you should be doing what you need to in order to achieve true focus.
Develop skills that help you progress.
Stagnation kills the flow state. If you’re not consistently working on and improving your skills, you’re probably either doing work that is too easy, or you’ll be playing catch-up on more challenging tasks. Find out what skills you’re missing and seek out opportunities to improve them.
Raise the stakes.
There’s that stagnation again. As you improve your skills, the tasks you once found challenging become easy, even routine. Failing to challenge yourself is one way to slide back into apathy and lose that flow state. Volunteer for a little bit more at work, help a coworker on a challenging project, or ask your superior what responsibilities you could take on.
Go with the flow
Flow states happen at an intersection of skill, meaning, and challenge. By improving your skills, asking yourself what you find meaningful, and continually challenging yourself, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to achieve a flow state and completely transform your performance.