Take Away Line
The zone is one of the fairly rare moments that all athletes know and treasure. Indeed, most of us experience flow at one point or another. But like all physical states, it’s temporary and while we may derive satisfaction that comes in the wake of such as state hyper-effectiveness, it’s a fickle friend who visits only occasionally. For sustained satisfaction, we need to deploy other skills.
This tricky little thing called Flow
Observing Olympic athletes in full flow seems like the very essence of complete commitment. It frequently struck me as inspirational how, say, a pole-vaulter could focus on his jump when the crowd of 1000s was roaring at an event elsewhere on the track. Yet, they seemed to do that. And, I’m no sporting expert, but I reckoned that I could spot a potential winner by the expression they wore: the more focused and yet relaxed they seemed, the more likely I would be feeling they were the ones to stand a good chance. And athletes themselves often speak of it: ‘I was really in the zone at that point. And we know it too. There have been moments in most people’s lives, it not all lives, when we have somehow become what we’re doing, we are in the groove, we have ‘flow’ and we are in the zone.
If I think myself about peak moments at work, I can recall an occasional sense of ‘flow’. Perhaps I’m facilitating a group and if, in hindsight, there seems to be a strong connection and I seem to be making a contribution that meets their needs, addresses their concerns and they are working strongly together to produce what they need, a sense of flow can take over. It’s a lovely thing. Strangely, you don’t really notice it at the time, but afterwards you feel ‘yes, that was a great moment (or a great day); it just seems to flow.’
The same thing can happen to a group as well. I recall one board of a large housing association. Not one of its members would have disagreed with the observation that there had been little or no flow at their meetings for…no-one could really remember when. But following some significant changes in membership, including a new chair and in particular removing one particularly negative, polarising member, things began to change for the better generally. Not only generally, but occasionally, and after some development work especially, members started to look back on a discussion and wonder how they’d been so intentional, so productive, so challenging and yet so effortless, without really noticing it. That was flow; they had found their creative spot and were able to apply all their collective skill in a way that drew on their individual contributions but wasn’t really about individuals at all.
Flow, then, gives satisfaction, be that at work or more generally in life – with friends or in some other pursuit. If it’s so great, how do we cultivate it, to foster that treasured sense of well-being at work?
Upping the flow
Flow has been noted to have certain characteristics. Let’s check back to our memories of the Olympic highlights. For the individual concerned, the activity in question:
- Feels meaningful and important to them
- Has some pretty clear-cut goals or a sense of purpose
- Involves a challenges and the application of skill…
- …But there is a fair balance between the level of challenge and the skill available – it’s a winnable or achievable, in other words
- Engages them completely in a way that seems, if they thought about it, to be effortless
There is in other words a sense of union between the activity and the person in a holistic way: body, mind and perhaps more. For Buddhists, for example, this is akin to a meditative state or the one-pointed mind, demanding a certain sense of stability, acquired through training, learning and deep understanding. In itself it is not a sense of satisfaction: satisfaction may come as a result of this sense of union but not during it. In fact, it’s only afterwards that we realise ‘oh, yes, that was flow’.
If such a state is so productive, providing optimal results, the question must turn to how it can be replicated and sustained, for example in a work setting be that in a team setting or when working alone.
We know from both top athletes and from those who seriously follow a monastic way of life that these constructive states of mind come from a lot of structured training and mental conditioning, often via some form or supervision be that via coaching or mentoring or spiritual guidance. And there has to be a high level of interest in the activity or skills itself: this is something that comes from dedication and the ability to overcome obstacles.
When the flow slows to a tickle and stops
But even Olympic athletes aren’t in the zone all the time. It’s a temporary state of mind, almost physical in nature, and like all physical states, it doesn’t last. In fact, it can’t last. There can be a danger then in thinking that a state of flow is likely to be a permanent feature of one’s working landscape. In the search for work happiness, we may seek flow, we may occasionally benefit from it when we manage to co-locate all the facets of flow outlined in the list above, but we cannot depend on her for our continued happiness.
So to sustain happiness at work or more generally, we need other tools in the toolbox. And it’s to these tools that the next articles turn.
- When did you last experience flow? And at work?
- What about your work team – any flow there or down to a drip? Why?
- What do you do to cultivate flow and how do you sustain it?