Lately, I’ve been digging into the concept of “flow” and finding what helps me get into that state, and what impediments I need to work through. What triggered this for me was an honest look at how I can seemingly get into a state of flow with non-work activities like baking bread or playing music, but have difficulty finding that state at work especially when my levels of stress increase.
For more background information on the concept of “flow”, please watch this TED Talk from researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – https://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_flow_the_secret_to_happiness
You’ve probably experienced that wonderful feeling of flow, where you are just at the edge of your mastery in a domain, where the rewards & enjoyment are immediate & apparent. Admittedly, flow doesn’t appear by default for me and I need to focus and truly be immersed in my activity, like playing music or baking bread. I also need to be in the right physical & mental state – exhaustion is not a state that enables flow for me.
When it comes to work activities, there are times when I imagine what being in a sense of flow would feel like. Usually, this comes as a result of being in a state that is not flow-like: situations that are stressful or uninspiring. Work sometimes uncovers many other layers of emotion & behaviour that get in my way of achieving a state of flow. Starting from that understanding, I started to dig into ways that I can more easily set the stage to achieve a state of flow at work.
I’ve mentioned briefly what flow can feel like but I’ll give you some more specific examples now. When I’m playing music with others, I’m filled with a sensation of freedom & play. Even when some bum notes come out or a missed phrase or rhythm, it hardly matters – we’re in the moment and experiencing things as they happen. We don’t stop playing and start critiquing our performances.
Adopt a mindset of acceptance & lack of judgement
There’s an unspoken understanding that we are totally accepting of whatever emerges from our playing music together. That safety net of acceptance clears the way for experimenting and truly being in the moment. In these explorations, there is no judgement. Sure, after the fact (especially if we record our session) there’s an opportunity to review what we played, but in the moment there’s no space for judgement and quite frankly, no need for it either.
In the domain of Change Management, there’s a behavioural model called “Jackson’s Neuroscience of Change” model (https://drdustinjackson.com/2019/05/10/neuroscience-of-organizational-change/). This model states that in moments of change, subconscious processes suddenly shift to conscious attention and this shift increases the energy we use and our stress & frustration levels. The way to combat this is through acceptance – acknowledging that you are experiencing something new and that it’s ok to feel a bit out of your realm.
When I’m baking bread, I’m observing quite a bit – the dough texture, temperature, time. During this process, I have the opportunity to ask “what if” questions – what would happen if I let the dough ferment for another hour? What would be the effect of adding a different grain to the mix? In work scenarios, I don’t give myself the chance to always be curious. I think I’ve felt that curiosity in a work context is a luxury that schedules don’t always afford. In retrospect though, I think embracing curiosity is a truly effective way for me to explore a work problem. I get to experiment in my head with different variables and hypothesize the outcome.
Curiosity fosters experimentation when I’m baking, and regardless of the outcome, my intent is to create a gift for someone. I now try to envision my work efforts in the same way, as a gift for my colleagues. And like any gift, the reward is in the giving regardless of how it is received.
For whatever reason, I had developed a habit where I’d seemingly interpret negative experiences at work (say a laptop crash or application bugs) like bad karma. It was meant to be because it was the universe putting me in my place. Seeing that written down now I can see how ludicrous that is. Nothing like this that happens is malicious or bar karma or evil. It’s what we associate with judgement we perceive from our colleagues or managers. The event itself is just an event – how we choose to interpret it will affect how we bounce back from it.
There’s a large portion of my work role that is support-related and I now view these issues that come up as completely neutral and objective. They are simply random items on a conveyor belt rolling towards me; and changing my perspective on them allows me to approach them without any negative bias.
Get support from others
When I’m in my flow state when creating music or baking, I am working with a perceived or literal sense or support. Music-making with others is an example of literal support, where I am contributing to something bigger than me with the efforts & creativity of others. Even when practicing music on my own, I have a perceived sense of support from others – people who I admire as teachers, the people I will eventually play with, the wealth of knowledge at my fingertips that I can apply towards my learning. Baking bread, while mostly a solo act at the present, is something I always approach with the perceived support I receive from others – the people I will share my bread with, or gift to them, the people I continue to learn from.
In work situations that are the most effective for me, there’s always the backdrop of team solidarity & support. When you’re working with others on a challenge, everyone can bring their best when we’re in a state of flow. However, when issues arise I have had the tendency to isolate myself and try to find a solution on my own.
Part of that comes from the feeling of fear, of not wanting to appear that I need help. There’s likely shame mixed in there as well if I perceive that I have contributed to the issue in the first place.
Now, I actively look for support from my work colleagues when issues arise. Taking a pro-social approach is more likely to get me back into a state of flow, which will help all of us come up with creative solutions. A pro-social approach will also help reduce the impact of any perceived negative emotions, like guilt or fear.
Know your reactions
Being aware of my reactions to situations, both positive & negative is a huge help to me. As you may guess, having an understanding of how I react to a negative situation will help me reflect in the moment and take a breath before I act. But I’ve also found that knowing my reactions in positive moments can help me steer myself into that frame of mind more easily.
I can compare how I react to various situations and if I find myself falling out of my flow state, I try to recall experiences that brought me into a flow state and see how I can change my reactions to course-correct myself. I find that reflecting on my reactions in positive situations also brings me feelings of gratitude. I can then use that sense of gratitude to reframe my current situation. Knowing that I can learn from any experience takes me out of the initial shock of a negative experience, and then makes it easier for me to get back into a flow state.
This will be a work-in-progress for me to see how I can continue shape my behaviours to favour a state of flow, no matter what I’m engaging in. I hope that some of this has resonated with you and I thank you for taking the time to read this.