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Experiencing Flow in Your Work

written by: •edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 11/22/2013

The Flow Theory is a psychological concept that describes the feeling that results when your skill set perfectly matches the task at hand and you feel a positive sense of control and total absorption in your work. How do you get there? Can you control it?

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    In the Zone

    Have you experienced Have you heard of the Flow Theory? You’ve probably heard the expressions, “in the moment,” “present,” “in the zone,” “on a roll,” “wired in,” “in the groove,” “on fire,” “in tune,” “centered,” and “singularly focused.” These are all common descriptions of the way people feel when they experience this phenomenon.

    When people experience “flow,” time seems to slow down, stand still or speed up—depending on which one makes you feel good. You don’t watch the clock out of boredom. Your mind does not wander and everything comes naturally and feels effortless.

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    The Theory

    Flow theory was discussed in the books “Beyond Boredom and Anxiety” and “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, considered to be the world’s leading researcher on positive psychology. Formerly the head of the department of psychology at the University of Chicago and of the department of sociology and anthropology at Lake Forest College, he currently teaches at Claremont Graduate University.

    According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is completely focused motivation characterized by total absorption in a task. The experience represents “perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning.” In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the actions.

    There is a story about how the actor Lawrence Olivier experienced “flow.” After a mesmerizing stage performance of Shakespeare that wowed the audience early in his career, he went backstage to his dressing room and threw a tantrum. He was throwing things and screaming his head off. Someone went back there and said, “You gave the most incredible performance! What’s wrong?” He replied, “I don’t know how I did it! And I don’t know how to do it again!” Olivier had experienced “flow” and reacted with an artist’s passion.

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    Finding Your Flow

    I remember experiencing “flow” as a teenage dancer. There were moments when I was so confident and engrossed in what I was doing that I couldn’t hear the music and I didn’t have to think about the steps. The elements came together, I just knew everything, I felt it inside me, and I performed happily, without thinking.

    There are three conditions that have to be met to achieve a “flow state”:

    1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task.
    2. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows him or her to adjust his or her performance to maintain the flow state.
    3. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her own perceived skills. One must have confidence that he or she is capable of doing the task at hand.

    When you do a job that truly aligns with your talents and desires at the moment, chances are you will feel the positive effects of “flow.” These days, I usually feel it when I write. Find your niche, find your passion and take time to enjoy it. The “flow” might just find you.

References