- How we experience work
- How we experience other people
This is the conclusion of numerous studies on human happiness and meaning. One’s self is largely defined by what happens in these two contexts.
If we have optimal work experiences, we’re more motivated to do good work, which also benefits the organization and our coworkers. Our satisfaction is energizing and self-perpetuating, and it carries over into our home life because we’re in a positive frame of mind.
To improve the quality of life through work, two complementary strategies are necessary:
- Jobs should be redesigned so skills levels and challenges are high. This contributes to a more cheerful and active workforce, improved concentration, and greater creativity and satisfaction.
- Workers must define and develop self-directing, intrinsic goals. When we learn to recognize opportunities for action, hone our skills, set reachable goals, and immerse our concentration and focus in the present, we become more engaged at work and experience a state of “flow.”
Without these strategies, it’s easy to multitask on autopilot and miss opportunities to excel.
Creating Flow At Work
People at all levels report a need for challenges that create flow at work, according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Challenges must stretch our capacity, without being overwhelming.
The main elements for flow include:
- Clear goals every step of the way
- Immediate feedback on one’s actions
- Balance between challenges and skills
- A merging of action and awareness, with concentration focused on what we’re doing
- Exclusion of other dimensions from consciousness to eliminate distraction
- No fear of failure, as we’re focused on what has to be done
- No self-consciousness or over-concern with ego
- A distorted sense of time
- Activity that becomes inherently enjoyable
How to Create Flow Experiences
All jobs have routine components that can become boring and unexciting. The key is to remain alert for opportunities to make them interesting.
To develop flow experiences:
1. Set clear goals: Self-directing people choose goals and directions that fit their purpose.
Although some work goals are chosen for us, we can always adopt them internally. This feeling of ownership means you’re more strongly dedicated to your goals. Actions are reliable and internally controlled.
When we adopt goals as our own, we can more easily modify our actions when the reasons behind them no longer make sense or serve our best interests.
2. Become immersed in the activity: Once our goals are clearly defined and we’ve decided on a plan of action, we can become deeply involved with whatever we have chosen to do. All of our attention and focus are invested in the relevant tasks.
For this to work successfully, we must learn to balance opportunities for action with the skills we possess. Goals should never be unrealistic or unattainable, nor should they be trivial and without complexity.
Consider developing your ability to concentrate and focus by limiting possible distractions. Avoid the temptation of multitasking, which has proved to be fallible and unreliable. Only by taking the necessary time to focus on one thing at a time, with deliberation, can we achieve the flow experience.
3. Pay attention to what’s happening: Periods of focused concentration set the stage for productive work activities. Maintain concentration with constant inputs of attention. Athletes know all too well that a momentary lapse of attention can spell complete defeat. A surgeon whose mind wanders can lose a patient.
Busy work environments and large rooms with incomplete cubicle dividers create negative conditions for many people. To make matters worse, we are continually interrupted -if we allow it -by email, phones, the Internet and other technologies.
Most of us will not face an athletic field or operating room at work, but we do have spreadsheets, computer screens, flow charts and other data on which to focus. Our own minds may be the greatest source of distraction, with self-consciousness looming as a perpetual trap.
The moment we shift our attention from the task at hand and allow our minds to wander to our egos -how we’re doing, how we’re perceived by others -we lose focus and cease to enjoy natural flow. Work becomes harder and less spontaneous.
4. Learn to enjoy immediate experiences: Focus on the present, and be “in the moment.”Avoid worrying about others’ reactions or future outcomes. Only then can you do your best work.
Taking Control of Flow
Being in control of your thoughts, powers of concentration and goals means anything that happens can become a source of joy and flow at work.
Achieving control, however, requires determination and discipline. Optimal experience is not the result of a hedonistic approach to life and work. Furthermore, a laissez-faire, “what-me-worry?”attitude at work isn’t sufficient to defend against chaos or apathy.
To be able to transform random events into flow experiences, we must accept challenges, stretch to develop skill sets and try to become our authentic self.