Flow 101: How to Love Your Work

Flow by Alejandro Juarez

Flow isn’t just important in parkour, it’s important in not despising your work.

For a lot of people, work sucks.

It’s built right into our cultural perceptions and usage of the word. When there’s something you don’t want to do, or something that’ll be difficult and unpleasant what do we tend to say – that’ll be a lot of work. Clearly ‘work’ as a concept tends to have some pretty negative connotations.

That doesn’t have to be the case though and, personally, I think the world would be a better place if we could correct this issue. Work can be fun, enjoyable and positive. You can love your work again, or at least change your work to make it something you love by using a single principle as your guiding compass.

Flow.

What is ‘Flow’ Exactly?

Flow, loosely defined, is that feeling of being in the zone when doing something. It’s that sense of being one hundred percent in the moment, of effortless and exhilarating activity, of rocking things out with no sense of struggle.

We say someone is ‘in flow’ or in a state of flow when they’re experiencing this. Think of an experienced traceur moving effortlessly through an obstacle filled environment, reacting instinctively, gliding through like a river around and over rocks and pebbles. That’s a person in flow. Think of a writer who sits down and loses themselves at the keyboard, fingers flying in a creative frenzy until a short time later there are several thousands of words on the page and a smile on the writer’s face. That’s flow. Think of someone playing a video game who tears through a level with perfect efficiency and dominates her opponents without taking a scratch the whole time reacting without having to think about what she’s doing. That’s flow.

This state of flow is essentially an optimal experience. Entering a state of flow both signifies and creates a sense of fulfillment and elation that makes each experience being in flow addictive and pleasurable. In general, when you’re in flow you’re happy.

Criteria for Creating Flow

One of the people responsible for studying and defining this concept of flow is Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The main criteria he lays down for what best leads to experiences of flow are:

  • A clearly defined goal.

  • Immediate feedback on progress toward that goal.

  • A task that is challenging, but not to the point of impossibility.

  • Clear indicators of when the goal is completed.

The gamers among you, along with the more astute people ought to recognize immediately that the list of flow creating conditions is almost word for word the foundation for good game design. Think about the last really great game you played and examine it along the items above.

  • A clearly defined goal – Finish the level, beat the boss, rescue the princess, capture the flag, eliminate the enemy team, etc.

  • Immediate feedback on progress toward that goal – Moving to the next level, progress indicators, intermediate bosses, leveling up, increasing scores, etc.

  • A task that is challenging, but not to the point of impossibility – Tic-tac toe gets old quickly because it’s too easy, you almost always tie. Conversely games that are too difficult (Ninja Gaiden series anyone?) quickly get hurled across the room in frustration. The best online games always happen when you’re matched against a team of similar skill level making it a challenge, but one where victory is still within reach.

  • Clear indicators of when the goal is completed – Did you die? Start over. Did you beat the level? Hooray! Here’s some fanfare and a big ‘You win!’ screen. Video games always make it extremely clear when you’ve met your goal, when you’ve failed and when you’ve got a little more to go.

This general set up that all games, intentionally or not, are designed to be perfect flow inducing environments in my opinion leads to their extremely addictive quality. Particularly as an escape mechanism when your life is spent in work and activities you hate and you never really achieve flow having an artificial means designed to let you experience that state fills a deficiency in your life.

Finding or Creating Flow in Your Work

So what’s the best way to create flow in work that you generally hate? A lot of it comes down to manipulating the variables above to find something that feels a lot like a video game. In other words you want to have clearly defined goals, clearly defined progress and it needs to be at the right balance of skill level and difficulty.

Challenge Vs. Skill Flow Continuum

Manipulating the balance of challenge level vs. skill level makes a huge difference in finding states of flow.

The first thing to do is make sure that you’ve defined clear goals. Proper goal setting is huge when it comes to success in general, but it’s also what makes finding a good state of flow possible. A good goal should be something that’s challenging enough to be worth pursuing, but still within the bounds of achievability. A good clear goal might be the completion of a project, or finding five more clients. Whatever fits your work.

It’s vital that the goal you make must be challenging but not impossible and on top of that it must have a clearly indicated completion point. Memorize 10 guitar chords is a goal that has a clear state of completion, learn to play guitar is not. We want specific – not nebulous.

Next make sure that you’ve set up milestones or progress markers so that you can track your progress. Have things in place, whether they’re smaller goals that add up to your larger goal or some kind of system of points to mimic the way the games work. Are you moving forward? Are you not making progress? You should always be able to tell if you’re looking to create a flow conducive environment.

A good example of something that’s used gamification to apply principles of flow to fitness is Fitocracy.

I’ve loved Fitocracy ever since I got to play with it in beta because it makes fitness fun. Exercise, like work, has a lot of negative connotations to a lot of people, but Fitocracy changes that. You have a clear goal (level up), an indicator of progress (points earned from workouts), a variable skill level (leveling up is easier for beginners and becomes more difficult as you get more fit) and a clear point of success (a hearty congratulations on leveling up from FRED).

Working to apply these principles to your work doesn’t guarantee you’ll start enjoying it, but it creates an optimal environment for finding joy in what you do when previously it was all pain and struggle. Sometimes the trick isn’t changing your current work environment to facilitate entering a state of flow, but rather finding other work that naturally puts you in a state of flow. I’ll cover that, including an easy test to see what you’d love to do most, in the next article on flow.

Have any personal experience wit flow? Any tips on the best way to get into a state of flow or understand what it feels like? Leave a comment and let us know.

Photo Credit: Alejandro Juarez

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com