Welcome back to “On the Same Page,” the summer blogging book club that dares to take a densely written psychology classic and make it accessible to swimsuit-clad seekers on a serene summer day.
Yes, sir, I promise to let you know when I’ve got a bestseller on the New York Times list, become a Senior Fulbright Fellow, get asked to advise the Encyclopedia Britannica, and get “substantial articles” about me published in the NY Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.
Meanwhile, all you swimsuited seekers, don’t forget your sunscreen—you’ll be out here for a while.
For me, there is no finer moment than when I look at the clock and notice that a full coaching hour has gone by while I had no awareness of time’s passing.
It doesn’t happen for every session, but when it does, I can trace it back to being in “flow”—the optimal experience described by Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi in his book of the same name. I know I was in “flow” because the time slipped by, but why did the time slip by? According to the author, it’s because the activity I was engaged in met several criteria: a challenge complex enough to engage and improve my skills, a specific goal, immediate feedback, and a sense of control.
When I get completely immersed and am coaching in flow, I lose consciousness of my Self for that time; my inner critic goes quiet, as does my sense that there are other more important things to do. I emerge stronger, transformed by the work’s positive effect on my Self—a bit of growth that happened while I wasn’t looking.
In this chapter, Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “chick sent me high” for those of you who missed it in prior blogs, and because I like to say it) describes how people achieve a state of flow while working. If your job, like mine, constantly presents opportunities to ratchet up the complexity, learn or improve skills, and see the results of a job well done, you can simply show up to experience flow. I would add that the conditions for flow are more often met when we’re using our most unique gifts, and the skills we most highly value.
If, however, your job is repetitive or takes place in a “barren environment” with dangerous or uncomfortable conditions, you can still achieve flow, but it requires an ability to overcome those circumstances by creating a kind of game. The rules and goals of the game must be of sufficient interest and challenge to inspire you to play, turning a productive chore into a satisfying endeavor.
“The more a job inherently resembles a game—with variety, appropriate and flexible challenges, clear goals and immediate feedback—the more enjoyable it will be regardless of the worker’s level of development.”
For the Martha Beck fans out there, this supports her philosophy of life: “Play until it’s time to rest, and rest until it’s time to play.” Nowhere does Dr. Beck mention “work” because the assumption is that even at work you are meant to be playing—discovering new ways to do things, engaging your curiosity to learn new things, and creating results in the most delightful ways possible—basically working in a state of flow.
So what keeps so many people from enjoying their jobs? Csikszentmihalyi finds that it’s because people have come to value leisure time more than work, even though his research shows that they actually feel “more happy, strong, creative, and satisfied” while on the job.
This is, in part, caused by social stereotypes of what work is supposed to be like—a burden, “an imposition, a constraint, an infringement of freedom” to be avoided whenever possible—compounding the irony that while we derive more satisfaction and growth from work, we would prefer more of the less satisfying leisure time in our lives.
And how is it possible that people aren’t fully enjoying their leisure time? Apparently, we find it difficult to use leisure time for purposeful, growth-producing flow activities, but instead choose passive activities—watching others participate in their flow activities—watching sports, watching others act, sing, dance, cook, create, or (in the case of reality TV) expose their least appealing qualities to millions of viewers.
Finding that deep sense of satisfaction from work—that moment when we become aware that we’ve just finished something we chose to accomplish while totally in “the zone”—is possible for anyone. Find a job that challenges you, or find it in yourself to challenge your job. Either way, you’re more likely to experience the time-bending loss of self-consciousness that puts you smack in the middle of flow.
Grab a journal and write your responses to the questions below.
Identify the times you’ve felt ‘flow’ at work. What were you doing? Why did the time pass so quickly? Does it happen on a regular basis? What game does the work remind you of?
If you’re having difficulty thinking of any instances of ‘flow’ at work, or you’re not feeling it regularly, you have the power to create opportunities for flow. The three major complaints about work—that it’s not challenging enough, co-workers and bosses are difficult to get along with, and that work causes stress—can all be addressed by a shift in approach, often without changing jobs. Try taking full responsibility for your own perspective, your own state of mind. Spend some time playing with the exercise below.
Identify which of the three complaints above sounds most like you.
- If it’s the “challenge” complaint, get creative. How can you create your own challenges at work, and create a game with rules and goals that will create a state of flow? Start by thinking about times outside of work where you experience flow. What elements of those activities can you employ at work? Or is there another job that might allow you to engage in more of your flow activities?
- If it’s the co-workers and/or boss that are a problem, consider how you can reach your own objectives while helping others reach theirs. Shifting the focus from your own goals to include those of others may challenge you to become the solution.
- If it’s “stress,” how are YOU experiencing the stress? Stress exists only if we experience it. Eliminating your stress response to the issues and challenges you’re facing is easier than eliminating the issues and challenges themselves. Do you need to be better organized? Delegate responsibility? Come up with new ways to communicate with co-workers or supervisors? Can you take a few minutes a day for self-care? Make time to exercise? Meditate? Eat a healthy snack? Can you think about things differently—for instance, seeing a difficult co-worker as a teacher rather than an obstacle?