What is flow and what does it feel like?

Have there been moments in your life when doing your work has been truly pleasurable? Moments when you are brimming with energy and zeal, completely immersed in what you are doing. When there is not a trace of frustration with coworkers, employees, or bosses. Then on the way home, you do not feel the slightest bit tired or worn out; instead, you are fresh, satisfied, and happy. This state of effortless concentration on a task accompanied by complete immersion is known as flow.

A state of flow by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi

Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi developed the theory of flow in his book Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play, published in 1975. This led to the popularization of the concept “flow.” This concept refers to periods in which everything runs smoothly and things are accomplished effortlessly, as if by magic. The term “state of flow” is fitting, as “flow” is not only a feeling, but also a particular mode of experience and (self-) perception.

What inhibits us from experiencing a state of flow

What actually prevents us from achieving a “state of flow”? Two things in principle: overwhelming demands and too little stimulation. Both are undesirable, especially when this overload or lack of challenge becomes chronic. If your boss piles on assignments that no one person could hope to complete alone, you will become desperate, frustrated, and wracked with fear of failure. Long-term, you may even develop depression (“burnout syndrome”).

On the other hand, if during the week you do not have enough work that demands healthy mental engagement, you will feel insufficiently challenged and become extremely bored. You will get sick of it, in the literal sense of the term – “bore-out syndrome” also exists. In surveys, at least 11% of working people in Germany claim to be chronically under-challenged and suffer boredom in the workplace. Anyone chronically overwhelmed or under-stimulated is hardly able to be swept up into a state of flow.

Intrinsic motivation facilitates flow

How can one arrive at a state of flow? Intrinsic motivation is an important precondition. Those who are intrinsically motivated complete tasks for their own sake and on their own initiative. This stands in contrast to extrinsic motivation, which is governed by external factors like reward and punishment. According to Csíkszentmihályi, intrinsic motivation is at its highest point when the right balance is struck between too much challenge and too little.


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The Eight Factors of Flow

Csíkszentmihályi cites eight distinguishing characteristics of flow:

1. Clarity of objective and immediate feedback

In sports in particular, rules and objectives are fixed. Furthermore, athletes receive rapid feedback concerning their success or failure. In basketball for example, once the clock runs out it becomes immediately clear who won the game and who lost. Translated to working life: before you begin and over the course of a task, you should discuss what goals you want to achieve with your boss and coworkers. Touch base regularly to stay updated.

2. Intense concentration on a limited field

A state of flow will be hard to reach for anyone who is already mentally going over the next team meeting or the big conference in the upcoming week, who is dwelling on personal issues, or who is allowing themselves to be distracted by messages. On the other hand, anyone capable of diving in head-first and with full attention to the task at hand can enter a state of flow.

3. The relationship between challenge and ability

Striking the ideal balance between a person’s capacity and the challenge presented by a task is crucial to experiencing flow. If a task is too difficult, you are likely to become flustered, anxious, tense, and frustrated. If a project is too easy or if the tasks are too routine, boredom will rapidly set in. As mentioned before, excessive demands and lack of stimulation are flow’s worst enemies.

4. The feeling of control

Control in the context of experiencing flow does not mean that you have complete “command” of the situation. In this case, control refers to the fact that you feel completely relaxed and free of anxiety.

5. Effortlessness of activity

Successfully accomplishing a task without great effort is a central characteristic of the state of flow; everything runs smoothly. From an outside perspective, the effort may be thoroughly apparent. But internally, the activity feels like a piece of cake. This can happen while jogging, for example. You may indeed be pouring sweat, but to you the steady motion feels so natural that it is like you never moved any other way.

6. Changes in the experience of time

In a state of flow, you perceive time differently. Time seems either to fly by or to expand. This is why Csíkszentmihályi also describes the state of flow as “outside of time.”

7. The fusion of action and consciousness

Normally we perceive our “selves” and our actions as two distinct things. But in a state of flow, person and action become one. This can occur while playing a musical instrument or spending time in nature – or even while working at a desk.

8. The autotelic aspect of experiencing flow: IROI

If someone is in a state of flow, their primary concern is not the result of their activity. The work itself is the purpose of the action. In ancient Greek, “auto” means “self,” and “telos” means “goal.” In modern terms, the activity itself carried out in a state of flow is the “immediate return on investment.”

Some tips to help you really go with the flow

Anyone who has ever experienced flow may think they arrived at this state by chance. However, it is possible to facilitate the state of flow. The following tips can be of assistance:

1. Discover meaning in the task

Many people find it quite motivating to pursue a meaningful activity. Sometimes, it is difficult to discern the purpose of a single task straightaway. It is therefore advisable to reflect on the task’s deeper significance.

For example, you may find yourself working on an Excel spreadsheet that at first glance seems dull, but the underlying purpose may be that you are using that data to lay the foundation for your project’s success. If you are able to keep sight of this overarching goal, perhaps the rows and columns filled with numbers will not appear nearly as dry as you once thought.

2. The right work environment

Another important factor in high-concentration work is your work environment. Whether you choose to work alone at a desk that strictly adheres to the principles of Feng-Shui or in a bustling open-plan office is a matter of personal preference, differing from person to person.

If your freedom to set up your workspace as you see fit is limited, calmly discuss the situation with your superiors. Perhaps there is a solution. Sometimes small changes like adding plants or using noise-canceling headphones can work wonders.

3. Set aside blocks of time for work

It is easier to avoid distractions when you specify periods of time that will be dedicated to single-minded concentration on a sole task.

For example, set an (ideally analog) timer for 30 minutes. During this time, private messages, e-mails, and social networks are a complete no-go! If a coworker or call interrupts you during this time, start the work period timer over from the beginning.

After each period of work, reward yourself with a short break to stretch your legs and briefly relax a bit.

4. Break up large tasks into smaller steps

If while working on an important project, you focus exclusively on the big picture, you are quite likely to eventually feel overwhelmed by the task. Mountain climbers do not scale summits in one fell swoop, but rather set intermediate goals and include time for breaks.

According to Csíkszentmihályi, project work provides very suitable conditions for experiencing flow because the work can be broken up into smaller steps.

5. Seek frequent feedback

Receiving regular feedback from coworkers or your boss helps you to avoid feeling overwhelmed or under-stimulated. Ideally, short meetings will be scheduled for that express purpose. Feedback meetings do not require an endless philosophical discussion of every topic under the sun. Even a stand-up meeting of 15 minutes suffices to discuss the essentials.

Recurring feedback has the advantage of ensuring that you, your team members, and your boss are all on the same page. Furthermore, you can address problems with a difficult client or issues that arise during an important process at an early stage. This allows you to avoid carrying around your concerns for weeks.

Flow cannot be forced, but it can be facilitated

Because experiencing flow is not something that can be entirely controlled, it does not make sense to doggedly strive to force the experience. However, there are some things you can do to help you reach the state of flow, even when they do not always seem to work straightaway and require a bit of practice.

With our tips you will work more efficiently, with greater concentration, and with less stress. And that is already something – with or without flow.