Book Summary

Flow: the psychology of optimal experience By MIHAI CSIKSZENTMIHALYI

Flow is that optimal state of mind between boredom and anxiety; where you perform your best and feel your best. It is the experience of being so engaged in a task that you lose track of time. Now you might think that flow only occurs when playing sports or a video game or at a party with a group of friends but flow can occur throughout your workday.

With a few tweaks you can convert boring tasks and stressful projects into flow producing activities. Flow can show up while you’re writing emails, updating spreadsheets or cleaning your house.

From the book, I’ve settled on 4 flow factors for conditions that can produce throughout the work day to experience a state of flow. Let me explain each flow factor and show you how to generate more flow at work so that your work can be a more enjoyable and fulfilling.

Experience flow factor number one: focus.

Author Mihai has studied flow States for over 50 years and he’s found that flow requires concentration so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant. A person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else. That means no distractions and no multitasking. All that matters is the one thing you’re doing right here, right now.

In the book, a chess player says that when he experiences flow in the middle of a tournament the roof could fall in and if it missed him, he would be unaware of it. A dancer in flow says your concentration is complete. Your mind isn’t wandering; you’re not thinking about something else, you’re totally involved in what you’re doing.

I found the best way to achieve total focus on a single task is to block out distractions and slowly sharpen my focus. If I want to experience flow I turn my phone to do not disturb, shut down any open browsers on the computer and put on noise cancelling headphones then I gradually sharpen my focus by doing a focus exercise.

My favorite exercise is to put music on close my eyes try to visualize a concert in my mind for a minute, my focus completely directed at the music. After a minute, I open my eyes and direct my one pointed focus on the work task in front of me.

Your favorite focus exercise might be mindfulness meditation or a five-minute walk outside. Think of a focus exercise as a warm-up routine before a workout. The purpose is to make the transition from scattered focus to single pointed focus as smooth as possible. When you do this it becomes easier to experience flow.

Flow factor number two: freedom.

When you’re having a conversation with a friend on a topic you know a lot about, two hours can go by and seem like 20 minutes but during a job interview, 20 minutes can seem like two hours. The difference is that you let your guard down when you’re talking with a friend you trust but during a job interview you’re very self-conscious. You’re worried about saying the wrong things your head is full of self-critical thoughts.

Mihai says, “In flow, there is no room for self-scrutiny. If you’re constantly worried about making mistakes or saying something stupid you’ll never experience flow.”

A rock-climber Mihai interviewed says, “You can get your ego all mixed up and climbing in all sorts of ways but when things become automatic it’s like an egoless thing. Somehow the right thing is done without you ever thinking about it.”

To get into the Zen-like state, you need to periodically let go and let things happen automatically by trusting your ability to solve problems. Michael Jordan trusted his basketball skills on the court even on a high pressure game which allowed him to forget the crowd and get into a state of flow. A surgeon can get into a state of flow by trusting his skills and his operating team enough to move past the fact that someone’s life’s at stake.

I found that the best way to experience freedom throughout the day is to set permission timers. Permission timers are 10 to 30-minute countdowns where I give myself permission to create or execute simple tasks without judging my efforts in real-time. If I’m writing a blog post or a series of emails, I’ll set a permission timer for 25 minutes and while that time counts down I won’t worry if my ideas are bad or if I’m making typos. When the permission timer expires I go into critique poet and scrutinize my work before I publish a blog post or send an email.

Flow factor number three: feedback.

A Gallup study of 1000 US employers found that managers giving little or no feedback to workers failed to engage them 98% of the time. Flow, the state of total engagement, requires a constant flow of information that lets you know if your actions are getting you closer to your goal.

Mihai says, “A tennis player always knows what she has to do: return the ball into the opponent’s court and each time she hits the ball she knows whether she’s done well or not. The climber inching up a vertical wall of rock has a very simple goal in mind: to complete the climb without falling. Every second, hour after hour, he receives information that he is meeting that basic goal.

Csikszentmihalyi says he can calculate whether he has come closer to this objective. To determine if your actions at work are moving you closer to your objective, you must give yourself frequent feedback. Throughout the day, I do this by setting an alarm every hour of the work day and the alarm goes off I ask myself, “what did I accomplish in the last hour and what can I accomplish in the next hour?” This hourly check in helps me clarify my goal and determine if my actions align with that goal. These brief check-ins help me find the flow sweet spot.

Flow factor number four: the 4% challenge

Steven Kotler, author of the rise of Superman and the founder of the flow Genome Project has continued Csikszentmihalyi’s research and found that if you want to trigger flow the challenge should be four percent greater than your skills.

If you’re playing chess, play chess against players who are rated four percent higher than you. If you play a weaker player, you’ll win too easily and be bored. If you play a much better player like grand-master Magnus Carlsen, you’ll get crushed and find it hopeless and frustrating but if you compete against someone who’s just slightly better than you, you know that if you try hard and you really focus you might win.

The four percent challenge will make you dig deep and dedicate all your attention to overcoming the challenge in front of you. The same can be true for work. If you adjust the challenge of every task to be just 4% greater than your skills or just slightly harder than what’s comfortable for you, you’ll experience flow.

The universal way to find this sweet spot is to slightly reduce the time you give yourself to complete a task. If I can comfortably generate a thousand words in 25 minutes, then I’ll push myself to complete a thousand words in 24 minutes. If I believe I can comfortably clean the kitchen in 20 minutes, I’ll see if I can do it 30 seconds faster and set a timer for 19 minutes and 30 seconds. You’ll know you’re in the 4% zone if half the time you meet your expectations in half the time you don’t.

In the end, it’s possible to turn work tasks into flow producing activities by first warming up your focus and directing it entirely the task at hand then freeing yourself from worry and self-scrutiny by periodically permitting yourself to work without your inner critic. After that period of freedom, give yourself feedback by assessing your progress and then adjust the challenge to be 4% harder than what you could comfortably do.

By activating these four flow factors you’ll dramatically increase the odds of finding that magical place between boredom and anxiety and having an optimal experience at work and learn to love what you do for a living.

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