The surgeon in the operating room feels flow; so does the rock climber on a cliff, the athlete in the midst of a game or the mother playing with her child. Creating such an energized environment among a company’s cubicles might sound far-fetched, but there are a few surefire rules about setting up the right conditions. For flow, you need:
- Clear goals – Don’t focus on the big picture. Instead, aim to achieve one simple goal that’s part of your larger task. The rock climber isn’t thinking about the summit, just about completing the next incremental step without plunging down the mountainside. The mother reading to her child isn’t worried about whether the child will someday read the classics; she’s simply enjoying quality time with her baby. Ideally, a salesman isn’t so concerned about his commission that he ignores a client’s other concerns.
- Instant feedback – Sure, feedback can come from coworkers or bosses, but the best response comes from the activity itself. The climber who’s still clinging to the mountain knows the last step was successful.
- A match between difficulty and ability – If a task is above your skill level, it becomes too daunting to tackle. If it’s below your skill level, the work turns dull. Balancing the two helps create flow.
- Deep concentration – In daily life, you’re constantly distracted. You’re not living in the moment. Instead, you’re thinking about what happened yesterday or what will happen next week. Achieving flow requires a fuller devotion of attention. This state of deep concentration occurs quite spontaneously and feels perfectly natural.
- A sense of control – In flow, you make decisions and see immediate results. You don’t worry about external events.
- Time expands or contracts – A chess player feels that an hours-long match flies by. A sprinter perceives that a race lasts an eternity rather than just a few seconds.
- Loss of ego – In flow, you’re so absorbed in the task at hand that you lose your sense of self.
But before you can create flow, you must recognize the common obstacles that block it:
- Jobs lack clear goals – Most goals foisted on today’s employees come from high up in the organization and make little sense to the employee.
- Feedback is scarce – A century ago, the shoemaker or weaver could see his product take shape. Modern divisions of labor mean typical workers see no relationship between their unique talents and the final product.
- Skills and tasks don’t match – In this era of specialization, even well-trained, highly educated workers use only a few skills. Think of lawyers who are relegated to monotonous research. A job requiring only a few skills is bound to become a chore.
- Lack of control – Typical workers feel little input into their firm’s overall goals or into the steps they must take to achieve the organization’s objectives.
- The time schedule is someone else’s – Most work schedules are inflexible nine-to-five harnesses imposed by the organization.
Flow on the job is achieved when employees feel that they are working not merely for a salary, but for something greater than themselves. Managers should strive to do more than squeeze the most from every employee. Leaders must have the vision to place employees’ emotional needs above market share and profitability.
Business & Economics
April 1, 2003
Professor of psychology at the Peter F. Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California, where he is also the director of the non-profit Quality of Life Research Center.