Peak job performance can be summed up with this 4-letter word

Finding flow at work can unlock creativity, problem-solving, and fulfillment.

Jonathan Kitchen

When enjoyment and focus intersect, flow happens.

Coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s, “flow” is one of the most puzzling and powerful psychological phenomenons. It is defined as a state of consciousness in which people are totally immersed and focused on the activity they are carrying out, feel pleasure during the activity, have control of the situation, have clear goals, and experience high intrinsic motivation. Flow often happens when challenge and skill level are high and balanced.

While flow is commonly associated with endurance sports, art creation, or music performances, people can experience flow in many of their common activities, including their job. When employees experience flow, whether they are a teacher or accountant, they are more engaged, creative, and fulfilled by their work. They’re also likely to retain their job, perform better, and work harder over the long run.

Flow is often considered a “peak experience,” which fluctuates minute by minute, hour by hour. Many individuals chase this seemingly ephemeral feeling, where there’s a profound sense of ease and focus, making hours go by in what seems like minutes.

It can be difficult to predict activities or environments that foster flow. But researchers Arnold Bakker and Marianne van Woerkom argue all employees can experience flow at work through four strategies: self-leadership, job-crafting, playful work design, and strengths use.

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Finding flow — Throughout his career, Csikszentmihalyi interviewed thousands of people -- mountain climbers, chefs, artists, and CEOs -- in an effort to pin down the secret of happiness. Across all occupations and backgrounds, people described this optimal experience called flow.

“Regardless of the culture, regardless of education, or whatever, there are these seven conditions that seem to be there when a person is in flow. There's this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity. You know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback,” Csikszentmihalyi explained in this 2004 Ted Talk.

“You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears. You forget yourself, you feel part of something larger. And once the conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake.”

In a work context, employees in flow are fascinated and immersed by the tasks at hand and are intrinsically motivated to perform them. In turn, they perform better.

Employees who engage in lots of knowledge sharing experience more flow and, ultimately, creativity. They are more likely to produce new ideas, solve problems, and demonstrate originality in their work.

Lead yourself — The first strategy to find flow at work is self-leadership. Self-leadership refers to the process by which people influence themselves to achieve the self-direction and self-motivation that is needed to behave and perform in desirable ways, Bakker and van Woerkom write.

Employees can put self-leadership into practice through self-observation, self goal-setting, and self-reward. They should also conjure mental imagery of successful future performance, focus on the pleasant aspects of a task, and engage in positive self-talk.

These tactics can help people avoid being distracted or held back by irrational work-related beliefs that prevent them from experiencing flow or accurately perceiving their balance of skill and challenge.

"You forget yourself, you feel part of something larger."

Rethink the day to day — The second step to finding flow at work is job-crafting -- changing the design of your jobs by choosing tasks or negotiating different job content, Bakker and van Woerkom explain. It’s about changing the job in order to experience enhanced meaning and creating opportunities to pursue passions, be challenged, or collaborate with others. Research shows people are likelier to experience flow when they’re conducting work high in skill variety and autonomy.

This can also lead to profound enjoyment, engagement, and meaningfulness, which adds huge emotional benefit to work experiences.

Job-crafting to incorporate more challenges day to day also staves off boredom, a passive state that can distort people’s sense of time and make it hard to focus.

Get playful — The third route to flow is getting playful at work. Playfulness is closely connected with greater intrinsic motivation, creativity, spontaneity, and job satisfaction. One way to make work more like play is to gamify it, Bakker and van Woerkom suggest. Some workers set timers and try to beat the clock on action items. Others build in rewards to keep them motivated.

Playfulness or fun can also mean taking a less serious or humorous approach to group tasks at work, which can strengthen social connections and make the workplace more enjoyable, engaging, and collaborative.

“It has been argued fun leads to higher job satisfaction, morale, pride in work, creativity, service quality, as well as lower burnout and absenteeism,” Bakker and van Woerkom write.

Play to your strengths — Bakker and van Woerkom also suggest pursuing tasks and activities that play to your strengths — from curiosity to empathy to public speaking. When employees harness their strengths at work, they can be authentic and are more likely to experience flow. They are also more likely to feel a sense of accomplishment and positive self-perception, which will translate into their performance on subsequent projects.

When people are doing what they do naturally best, they tend to be intrinsically motivated, excited, and invigorated, and ultimately experience more flow, the researchers explain.

And the difference can be huge: In a 2015 study including over 5,000 respondents from New Zealand, researchers found that workers who reported high strengths use were no less than 18 times more likely to flourish at work than those who reported low strengths use.

When put into practice, these four strategies can create a positive feedback loop boosting flow, performance, and fulfillment. Finding flow isn’t just an individual endeavor. The ability to perform optimally at work is shaped by company leadership and human resource departments which can facilitate this positive upward spiral, or limit it, the researchers write.

“Although our model proposes that workers are able to take their flow experiences in their own hands. They are still, to some extent, dependent upon the challenges and resources available in the work environment,” Bakker and van Woerkom say.

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