Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.
It is intensely gratifying and enjoyable to become deeply absorbed in an activity, whether it be playing tennis, writing, playing the piano, programming, climbing mountains, keeping house, painting, gardening, speaking to crowds, tracking down the sources of problems, or reading. These are only some of the activities that can lead to flow, the state of being so absorbed in an activity that one loses self-consciousness and fear of failure, feels action and awareness merge, and often loses track of time. The psychologist most associated with flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, claims that people will pursue activities that lead to flow even when they are difficult or dangerous because the experience is so gratifying.
In my work experience, my colleagues tended to know the state of flow well and be homesick for it if they weren’t experiencing it frequently. Flow isn’t just valuable to individuals; it also contributes to organizational goals. For example, frequent experiences of flow at work lead to higher productivity, innovation, and employee development (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991, 2004). So finding ways to increase the frequency of flow experiences can be one way for people to work together to increase the effectiveness of their workplaces, schools, families, and other social groups.
Flow doesn’t come on demand, but there can be situations that make it more or less probable. In brief, here are some of the conditions that make flow more likely (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991, p. 74).
• Activities require ongoing learning of skills
• Skills are adequate to the task
• Clear goals
• Frequent feedback that can drive behavior adjustment
• Chances to concentrate on task
• Sense of personal control
• A sense that the activity is intrinsically rewarding
Each of these conditions suggest ways that people can work together to make flow more likely for each other.
The first two conditions imply a balance between skill and challenge – not a new idea. Children know this when they pick library books, looking for stories that are not too hard and not too easy.
What people may not realize is how dynamic this balance can be. As skills grow, challenge may lag, leading to boredom. Or new challenges may seem to exceed skill, leading to anxiety. Csikszentmihalyi calls the balance the “flow channel” and argues that boredom and anxiety both tend to lead to disengagement from the activity that was previously rewarding.
People sometimes find it hard to share that they have fallen out of the flow channel. Anxiety might be seen as inadequacy. Claiming boredom might lead to just more of the same kind of work. But falling out of the flow channel happens to all of us. The flow channel picture (adapted from Csikszentmihalyi, 1991, p. 70) can be an interesting way to conduct conversations about whether adjustments are needed. Here’s where I am right now with this activity — boredom. How can we make this activity more challenging in a way that will require me to learn new skills? Or anxiety. What kind of support can help me grow skills to meet this challenge — perhaps additional training, temporary informal mentoring or help breaking a task down into manageable pieces. Or perhaps I need a different kind of challenge – given my particular strengths. Activities that lead to flow tend to become more complex as challenge and skill both grow over time, which is why progress along the flow channel from A1 to A4 points diagonally upward.
Are the goals of an activity clear enough that one has something to strive for? Is there enough feedback that one can detect getting better? A piano player can hear what he or she is playing. A tennis player can tell how he or she is performing in a given match. A computer programmer can run a program to see if it works. But in some activities, the goals are so vague and the feedback so long in coming that people lack the ongoing reinforcement that supports intense absorption. So sometimes it helps to work with others to clarify goals and establish more effective feedback mechanisms.
Time to concentrate can be at a premium in some settings, particularly in environments where time is chopped up into small pieces. One of my work friends said that she came to work to go to meetings and then took the “real work” home with her. That can be tiring over the long haul. Perhaps a group of people needs to remove some of the forces that chop up time or find ways to consolidate blocks of time for focusing on valued activities.
As many of these conditions indicate, flow is very related to intrinsic motivation and conditions that support it, especially competence and autonomy. People are more likely to achieve flow when they feel they have a sense of control over how they approach a particular activity.
In summary, although flow may be a solitary experience, establishing the conditions that enable flow can be a social activity where people help each other clarify goals, understand feedback, protect blocks of time for concentration, gain personal control, and stay in the flow channel for particular activities.
There’s a common expression in workplaces: “What gets measured gets managed.” Bakker (2008) has been working on a reliable and valid instrument for the assessment of work-related flow, exploring the idea that “a flow experience is characterized by three different, but interrelated aspects; namely, absorption (i.e., total immersion in one’s work), work enjoyment, and intrinsic work motivation” (p. 409). For those who want to measure before taking action, Appendix 1 in this paper contains a 13-question instrument called the WOrk-reLated Flow inventory (or WOLF).
Wesson and Boniwell (2007) discuss the relevance of flow theory to coaching.
Bakker, A. B. (2008). The work-related flow inventory: Construction and initial validation of the WOLF. Journal of Vocational Behavior 72 (2008) 400–414. Available online for a fee at www.sciencedirect.com.
Csiksentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.. New York: Harper Perennial.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2004). Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning. Penguin.
Dietrich, A. (2004). Neurocognitive mechanisms underlying the experience of flow. Consciousness and Cognition 13 (2004) 746–761. Available online for a fee at www.sciencedirect.com.
Dietrich (2004) explores theoretical and empirical work in cognitive science and neuroscience as they relate to the concept of flow. Perhaps that will be the topic for another article.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.
Chapter 7, Living in the Present, includes a set of activities for increasing flow experiences
Nakamura, J. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2005). The concept of flow. In C.R. Snyder and S.J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology, pp. 89-105. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN: 0195182790
Wesson, K. & Boniwell, I. (2007). Flow theory – its applications to coaching. International Coaching Psychology Review, 2(1), 33-43. Retrieved May 26, 2008 from
I would like to thank my fellow members of the Positive Workplace Discussion Group led by Jocelyn Davis. We have been discussing flow for many months with the goal of creating some kind of toolkit of ideas and actions that organizations can use to augment the workplace by increasing the probability of flow.