What is flow state?

Flow state is the art and science of getting your team in the zone.

Getting into the Flow

The flow state is a mental state characterized by a sense of complete immersion and concentration on an activity, making the process satisfying and enjoyable. You may have noticed something like this feeling when time flies and you and your team are totally “in the zone” during work. However, flow theory suggests that flow isn’t just a spontaneous thing that happens: can actively create the perfect environment for achieving the flow state. Which is great news for time management, project management, team spirit, and just about everything you want to achieve in life.

Flow theory: a very quick history

Flow was a name coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975 after he observed artists who were able to become so lost in their work that they were ignoring, or simply unaffected by, the need for food, drink or sleep.

In a recent TED talk, Csikszentmihalyi went so far as to suggest that flow offers an “optimal experience” of whatever the task is at hand, leading to higher levels of satisfaction. It's considered a part of positive psychology, as an incredibly beneficial state of mind that positively impacts a human being’s entire state of being.

What is a flow experience?

So, precisely what is it to be in “flow state?” Csikszentmihalyi describes the following elements as tell-tale signs of a state of flow, regardless of culture, education, location and so on:

  • Intense concentration

  • A joining of both action and awareness

  • A loss of self-consciousness

  • A sense that task engagement is effortless

  • A strong sense of control over the task at hand

  • A distorted sense of time/losing track of time

  • A sense of the task being reward in itself, even before completion

Other psychologists have also suggested that a strong sense of potential success and immediate feedback—in the case of artists, the clear progress that comes with every brush stroke, for example—are vital factors.

When can flow occur?

While the original research into flow was based on artists, flow state can occur in a wide range of settings, including sports, the workplace, or even simply going for an evening run. The idea is that flow is a mindset nurtured by the following:

  • Clear goals

  • A surmountable challenge

  • An activity that is enjoyable/rewarding in its undertaking, also known as an autotelic task

Arguably, to experience flow state in its truest form—to a degree that rivals an artist at their canvas—the following are also needed:

  • A passion for or pre-established enjoyment of the task at hand

  • The sense that your skill level or general achievement can be improved upon via this task

Can you achieve flow in the workplace?

No matter how much you love your job, not every task you do as part of it is going to be your passion. That doesn’t mean finding flow state here is impossible; Csikszentmihalyi suggests that flow correlates with motivation, as well as general happiness. Translated to the workplace, that means things like corporate culture, work life balance, and your office or work from home surroundings all play a part in nurturing a flow mindset.

Flow cannot be achieved if the task is meaningless. The key reason why painters can be so engrossed in their work is because they feel a strong, personal sense of accountability, pride, and achievement even in the task itself. That means you and your team need to be able to share in these traits when it comes to tackling your joint tasks and projects.

Getting your team to flow

Your natural passion may not be for every task you undertake but, ideally, you should have a deep-rooted desire to do your best at work. That is, after all, the difference between knowing if we are in the right job or need to move on. A motivated and collaborative team can achieve flow, or something close to it, by doing the following:

Eliminate distractions

The flow state of mind doesn’t happen instantly, it takes time to settle into a task, and then a little more time to really tap into the zone. So, make sure nothing is going to distract you from that process. You can even set aside a block of time to dedicate to it, try using a time management technique like Pomodoro to make sure you’re completely committed to the task at hand. You’ll also want to stash your phone, silence notifications, or nix anything else that’s unnecessarily distracting.

Silence your mind

You and your team could be placed in a white-walled room and distraction can still find you. Drifting thoughts, ongoing stresses, and all the little worries that come with everyday life can easily ruin your chances of achieving flow. Another suggested element of achieving flow is the practice of mindfulness, where you are truly in tune with yourself. Things like daily meditation can help you calm your mind, keep distracting thoughts at bay, and push yourself to achieve your goals.

Know your team's timings

Everyone works differently: some people are at peak performance first thing in the morning while others hit their stride after lunch. Bear in mind that for your team to make the most of flow, you don’t have to all be doing it together. Flow is a personal experience and it’s about you pushing yourself, not your manager demanding you to “get into flow now.” So, the key takeaway here is to have realistic expectations. You also should be also be aware of your team members’ peak in-flow work times so you don’t distract them with an impromptu 1:1 at 3pm when you know that’s when they’re most likely to be in the zone.

Make it challenging

There’s a valid psychological reason people can lose days of their lives to video games, tackling the same challenge again and again for a sense of ecstasy and accomplishment when they reach their goal. While video games may seem the furthest thing from professional work, a lot of the intrinsic motivation requirements for flow are present in them. An immersive environment, constant challenges, the knowledge that they can be overcome, plus the constant feeling that you are improving and learning new skills. In fact, there’s even a video game dedicated to Csikszentmihalyi's concept of flow. The lesson here is don’t expect your team to be getting into flow over an excel sheet. You need to lay out your tasks in a clear, well thought-out and engaging way, and assign tasks that play to the strengths of each individual team member. Remember: the biggest enemy of flow is boredom.

Equip your team to focus

Just as video games are designed to be engaging, the right tool setup can also help you and your team focus, minimizing context-switching and maximizing their engagement. Smart workspace tools help your team collaborate and work in unique and free-form ways, so they can have control over and express themselves in their work. An example is Dropbox Paper documents, that allow you to create anything from video galleries to project timelines and to-do lists, all from one versatile template. This gives your team the tools they need in one place and the freedom to collaborate in ways they find most engaging, moving them closer to finding flow.

A grind is not flow

Don’t mistake long hours working at the same task as being the same as flow. Flow is when you don’t even notice the time passing, when you are motivated by the task itself and the work you are putting in, when you push on because you are so blissfully engaged with what you’re doing. Conversely, sitting at a desk for hours and hours to get a task done is just grinding your way through something due to necessity.

If your mind is on anything other than the task in front of you, or you don’t feel that what you’re doing is nourishing or positive, you likely aren’t experiencing flow. The good news is that flow itself isn’t a skill you learn—it’s an experience that naturally occurs and a mindset that you can help cultivate. If something isn’t working for you to achieve flow, reconsider your task, approach or environment and try again.

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