Find Your Flow

Everyone has days when work just seems to fly by effortlessly — when you’re laser-focused and hyper-productive. In short, days when you are “in the zone.” This proverbial zone, though, can feel elusive when distractions are high and time is at a premium. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “Chick-zent-mee-hal-yi”) has spent his career investigating this state, which he calls “flow,” and his insights can help you harness your most productive self.

Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal work, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” asserts that finding flow doesn’t just increase your ability to accomplish tasks, it also raises your happiness level. “Whenever the goal is to improve the quality of life, flow theory can point the way,” he writes. According to his research, a state of flow is reached when skill and challenge are balanced against one another. When the challenge is too low relative to skill, boredom follows. When it’s too high, anxiety overwhelms the ability to reach flow. Just the right proportion of challenge and skill, and your mind becomes totally engaged in the task at hand.

So, how do you get yourself into flow state? The first step is to set clearly defined goals. Once you know what you are working toward, it becomes easier to maintain the focus required to reach optimal flow. The next step is to eliminate distractions that will divert your concentration. Flow is easier to maintain than it is to build up to, and you don’t want your flow broken by something that could’ve easily been put off. Use smaller activities as a way to break up larger ones, and you’ll find a more consistent work rate.

Another important component of flow is what Csikszentmihalyi calls the “autotelic experience.” Autotelic means that you view what you’re doing as an end in itself, that the work is intrinsically rewarding. If you find meaning in the activity at hand, rather than relying on external motivators, it’s easier to throw yourself into a project.

The next time you find yourself going through the motions or watching the clock at work, don’t write it off as “one of those days.” Instead, take a step back, plan out your task list, and approach your assignments with vigor. Flow doesn’t strike you like a bolt of lightning; you have to work for it. Once you find a routine that puts you in the zone, stick to it, and great work will follow.