Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

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Thursday, December 4, 2014

In his 2008 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi investigates what makes an experience or task particularly satisfying. He describes the ideal state of work, which he calls “flow.”

His description of flow is very similar to the idea of an athlete being in “the zone.” People in the zone describe it as being fully engaged in an activity to the point of ignoring all distractions because they are so absorbed.

A combination of enjoyment, complete focus, and excellent results, a state of flow is the ideal mental state for increasing your ability to achieve. Unfortunately, flow isn't something you can attain with a series of steps. But, in his book, Csikszentmihalyi outlines ways that people can use his ideas to increase their output.

The main key is understanding yourself: what motivates you and when, so that you can tackle the important tasks when you are most likely to engage.

Csikszentmihalyi talks about the importance of intrinsic motivation. People who achieve a state of flow are most often working on projects that they care deeply about. They are achieving the tasks simply because they are important to them–not because they are responding to pressure from others.

However, the bulk of his theory deals with how your skill level and the relative challenge of a task or project will change your mental state. You can roughly envision the flow model as a grid with four quadrants based on the person's skill and the level of the challenge of the task at hand. (Csikszentmihalyi covers nine states, but we'll concentrate on these four).

Apathy: Low Skill / Low Challenge: When a person is not skilled at a task, but the challenge-level of the task is low as well, this quadrant is described as “Apathy.” The person asked to do the project will have little motivation and will devote little mental ability to completing the job.

Anxiety: Low Skill / High Challenge: In situations where a task is difficult, but the person has little skill in the area, the person may become anxious or nervous about a job.

Relaxation: High Skill / Low Challenge: Where a person has a lot of experience, and is taking on a job that is simple based on their level of experience, the tasks can create a sense of ease. Note that in this state, engagement may not be high, because the job can be fairly routine.

Flow: High Skill / High Challenge: This is the state most likely to create the optimal mix of focus and intensity. Working on these types of tasks will get someone highly engaged in their job.

Understanding the concepts in the book can help business professionals in a couple of ways. It’s essential to be aware of what state each task is likely to inspire in you based on the challenge/skill matrix. If a project or task is sitting in the Apathy quadrant, you're going to need to manage your time and focus much more tightly to accomplish the task. Conversely, when you're not “feeling it,” switch to tasks that sit in the Flow quadrant in order to get yourself moving.

In addition, understanding these quadrants can help managers assign and distribute projects to their staff. There's a temptation to give more junior members of the team the “simpler” tasks. However, be sure that you're managing workload to maximize the engagement of all employees. Look at all the tasks and contemplate where they sit on the grid for your team.

Make sure you distribute tasks based on skill and challenge so that each team member has at least a few tasks that will sit in their Flow quadrant. That will keep their motivation level high, and the sense of accomplishment from working on those tasks will get them more engaged in their jobs.

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photo credit: Keith Allison via photopin cc

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