Have you ever been in a state of intense focus in the pursuit of a clear objective and you lost track of time, your sense of self vanished and your performance skyrocketed? If you have ever experienced this, you were in a state of flow.
A “state of flow” is defined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as the state of peak performance. This state can emerge anywhere, whether you’re at the beach surfing or in the office working on a strategy report. Irrespective of what you might be doing, there are five neurochemicals that are activated in your brain during flow that fuel this supercharged performance.
I had the pleasure of attending a flow research workshop, and I’ve also learned about the state of flow by studying research and books on the topic. I’ve even experienced “flow” firsthand. The most amazing effect has been on my performance, as I was able to get into flow states that allowed me to achieve unimaginable performance levels in my professional life. While managing a high growth start-up, I also wrote my third book in English and French. This would not have been possible without being in a state of flow daily.
Over the past decade, McKinsey asked more than 5,000 executives about flow in their organizations and how much more productive they were at their peak. The most common answer was that senior leaders were five times more productive when they were in a state of flow. The same study reported that if we could increase the amount of time employees spend in high-EQ, high-IQ and high-flow environments by around 20%, workplace productivity would almost double.
So, how can you help yourself (and your organization) achieve a state of flow? Below are my tips on how to get started:
Create the right environment. In order to activate flow with your teams, start with your environment. Create workspaces that employees are excited to spend time in on a daily basis. Choosing to add some color to your walls, ensuring there’s natural light and creating comfortable spaces for work and break times is important. I’ve also found it’s helpful to provide closed-off areas or offices that allow employees to concentrate without interruptions for 60- to 90-minute periods. Open spaces full of visual and auditory distractions aren’t always conducive to states of flow.
Have clear goals and objectives that are inspiring. These goals should also allow your team the flexibility to choose their own creative paths to achieve those goals. When employees have complete clarity of what they need to achieve, as well as a sense of autonomy to leverage their strengths to achieve that goal, they might experience a sense of excitement that fuels performance.
Enhance communications and provide regular performance feedback to your team. To create sustained engagement from employees, they need feedback daily on what they are doing right and the areas they need to improve. The annual or bi-annual performance reviews cannot achieve this objective. The ideal approach is to ask people to rate their own performance regularly and ask them what needs to improve.
Find the sweet spot for each employee that fuels flow. Ideally, the challenge of assignments and skill levels of your employees would be at the same level. If you assign a project that is too easy for the employee’s skill level, the person will get bored, and they will never reach a state of flow. If the project is too difficult, that could lead to a state of stress and anxiety. To avoid over-stressing employees, find ways to expand their skills so they can feel ready for the new challenge. And to avoid boredom, offer your employees new challenges.
When the challenge is 4% greater than the skills required, this is the sweet spot of flow, according to Steven Kotler, author of The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance.
On the path to add the extra 4% of challenges to ensure the sustainment of a state of flow, from an organizational perspective, ensure that you do not fall into a “job-loading” trap. When you add new, meaningless tasks to an employee’s plate, you are focused on job-loading. I’ve found this can lead to a lack of engagement, which might fuel the departure of some of your most valuable resources. Ensure any reassignment of roles and responsibilities takes into account the strengths of individuals and their ambitions.
If you are fostering opportunities for growth through job enrichment, this is where creating the conditions of flow can be maximized. Leveraging the strengths of your employees and allowing them to pursue new challenges with increased responsibility and empowerment will lead to increased motivation and performance. Whether you are growing or in cost-optimization mode, these critical decisions will allow you to build teams that have the passion to win.
Blockers To Flow
Opening the door to flow in your life also means adopting a healthy lifestyle and getting seven to eight hours of sleep per night. Without this, you won’t have the energy to perform at your best, and after each state of flow, recovery becomes essential to regain your focus. In my experience, exhaustion, negative thoughts and a fixed mindset are some of the biggest blockers to flow. Moreover, interruptions and disruptions kill flow, such as email notifications or your phone. Finally, when your skills are not at the same level as the challenge you are pursuing, entering flow will be impossible.
As we’ve seen, flow can have phenomenal benefits both personally and in your organization. If you can establish clear goals, develop a strong sense of autonomy and curiosity, have complete concentration and balance the challenge-skill ratio, I believe you can enter a state of flow. Remember: The intensity of flow also requires a strong recovery period to recharge your battery. Without the recovery period, burnout is inevitable. Your mind and body can achieve great levels of performance, but only when your well-being becomes your No. 1 priority.