Getting into ‘Flow’: How Can You Make Your Work Feel Effortless?

How you can contribute to creating an engaged and collaborative workforce.

A river flows effortlessly through a landscape

»  Based on Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s theory of Flow

Curious about what flow is?

Think about a time when you were completely absorbed in an activity.

It could have been when you were trying to solve a difficult puzzle, engaging in recreational pastime, or maybe pushing forward on a challenging work project.

You probably felt like you were “in the zone”.

This state of psychological immersion is called “Flow’ which enables you to near-effortlessly ‘flow’ through your work.

Hours pass by like minutes and the outside world simply melts away, as you focus on the task at hand.

How does Flow work?

The human brain has a limited capacity of attention that it can utilise at any given moment.

Most of the time, our attention is spread across multiple different tasks, even when we make a conscious effort to focus on one.

If we are listening to someone speak in a conversation, we also use some of our attentional capacity to be aware of our surroundings or find our attention has floated off to contemplate unrelated matters.

When our attention is “scattered” in this way, it makes it more difficult to focus on or complete tasks, as our attention is spread across too many distractions.

In contrast, when we’re in a state of ‘Flow’ our attention is concentrated, so we don’t consciously notice the external distractions but we do remain aware of the bigger picture.

However, this comes with a risk of becoming “Attention-Captured”. This is when we focus on a task too much (akin to hyperfocus) to the detriment of other responsibilities and commitments.

Consider whether you tend to be ‘Attention-Scattered’, in ‘Flow’ or even at times, ‘Attention-Captured’!

What are the benefits of Flow?

Research indicates there are many benefits:

  • Increased Productivity: It helps us accomplish tasks more efficiently, as 100% of our time is spent focused on making progress. This can help add to overall productivity gains.
  • Grows Creativity: Dopamine levels surge during periods of self-reported flow. Dopamine helps motivate us and is strongly correlated with higher levels of creativity, producing more divergent ideas and more flexible thinking.
  • Decreases Self-doubt: When undertaking a task, we can be our own greatest enemy. Second-guessing ourselves, listening to our critical voice can slow our progress. Flow conquers this by quieting the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex area, the part of the brain responsible for our inner critic.
  • Generates Intrinsic Reward: A key aspect of ‘Flow’ is a feedback loop; receiving positive responses informs the next action and so on. Csíkszentmihályi calls this the “autotelic experience” – this makes getting into a flow state intrinsically rewarding.

Imagine someone who is climbing a rock wall. They make careful moves, pulling themselves upwards, being continually rewarded with progress towards their end goal. This loop of action and motivational feedback is what makes a Flow state feel so fiercely engaging, whether the activity is a physical climb or a challenging piece of office work.

Tips for entering ‘Flow’

It can be a tricky state to induce consciously. It usually arises naturally while completing a task, and oftentimes we don’t even notice we’re ‘in the flow’ until we’re out of it. However, there are a few actions you can take to increase your chances of entering a Flow state.

  1. Make clear goals and keep track of progress An important part is creating a sense of structure and direction towards an overarching goal. By breaking the task down into steps or subgoals, you create an understanding of both the ‘What’ and ‘How’ of the task, as well as tracking your progress towards overall completion. These sub-goals can also be useful for avoiding becoming ‘attention-captured’. You can use these milestones as natural pauses or, alternatively, set timers to remind yourself to take regular breaks.
  2. Get rid of external distractions Although Flow itself blocks out distractions, it can often help to get the ball rolling by getting rid of some of these distractions yourself. By limiting the number of things your mind can spread its attention to focus on, you create an environment which reduces the opportunity for ‘Attention-Scattered’.
  3. Work independently Another important component is to have a sense of autonomy over the work you are doing. This allows for a natural formulation of ideas and stops the flow state from being interrupted by dividing attention between the task itself and the input of others. However, don’t always work in complete isolation, as this can be detrimental to both your wellbeing and work.
  4. Pursue challenging work rather than passive workAn integral element is that one’s skillset is balanced with the challenges being faced. For Flow, the tasks being worked on ideally require an interest, curiosity, creative thinking and/or well-matched skills and motivation to find a solution or complete the task.Remember ‘Flow’ is characterised by a feeling of effortless, enjoyable engagement, so don’t overthink it! Often, you’ll enter a Flow state without even realising it. However, you can also influence this by setting up the conditions.

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