Staying focused—even just reading a short blog post—can be a challenge in the flurry of distractions that make up the average work day. While I’m 100% convinced that being present is important, it’s harder than ever to resist the pull of endless notifications that jar us from our days.
And then there’s “flow,” the state of hyper focus we reach while engaged in activities we feel have intrinsic value. In his video on the subject, Evan Puschak claims we feel intrinsic value while engaged in activities we love, “because that activity is valuable for its own sake.”
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He goes on to describe a familiar situation: “It’s like my awareness is merging with my actions on the computer. The next thing I know, I’m feeling lightheaded because hours have passed and I’ve completely forgotten to eat dinner and it’s one in the morning.”
Musicians, athletes, and scientists routinely tap into the pleasurable experience of losing themselves in their work. In an interview with a classical composer, Positive Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi heard it put beautifully: “You are in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist. My hand seems devoid of myself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there in a state of awe and wonderment. And [the music] just flows out of me.”
So, what is it about escaping into intense focus that we find so enjoyable, and how does it work? When we are focusing intently on a challenging activity, we aren’t focusing on being tired, hungry, or the fact that we STILL haven’t bought that new microwave yet. Csikszentmihalyi claimed that “…using so much energy on mental processes causes [your] identity to disappear from consciousness,” freeing you to stay in a focused state of flow. Basically, the more you’re thinking about the work you’re doing, the less you’re thinking about everything else.
The key, though, is maintaining the right balance between your skill level and the difficulty of the task at hand. When you have lower skill in a particular area, high-challenge tasks can produce anxiety while low-challenge tasks breed boredom and apathy. That’s why expanding your skillset usually bolsters confidence and results in better outcomes for both you and your clients. When you reach the sweet spot between high skill and high challenge, you achieve a state of flow which can positively impact the quality of your work and your enjoyment of it.
So where can businesses and individuals get better? Let’s look at the conditions that drive flow:
- You have to be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and measurable progress.
- The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback.
- There must be a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task and one’s perceived skills.
At BFO, we aim to establish these conditions by:
- Setting Goals and Showing Appreciation at Work
- Providing clear and immediate feedback via Slack or Tiny Pulse
- Collaborating to put the right tasks in the right people’s hands
It would be great to come to work every day and glide through the day with perfect concentration, but the reality is that growth requires us to occasionally dive into challenges we don’t feel ready for. At healthy levels, the anxiety and worry that accompany new and challenging tasks can be overcome to build your skill level and move one step closer to Relaxation, Control, and Flow.
Problems arise when an individual is kept in one state for too long, so it’s up to managers to understand where their employees are and provide a consistent balance of low-challenge and high-challenge work. One of my favorite parts about working at BFO is the access to work I’m good at but also challenges where my level of skill isn’t fully developed yet. It’s not always easy, but it keeps us sharp and is part of what makes us a top digital agency.
In the meantime, be sure to check out our ebook on project management best practices!