Theory of Flow and its influence on our work

Introduction

Many years ago my dad introduced me to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's theory of Flow. It has stuck with me all these years and something I often come back to and think about in both work and personal life. As a mainly technical cloud blog I will be focusing on how understanding flow could help you and your colleagues in relation to work, but hopefully you will also be able to apply the same to your personal life.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's theory of Flow identifies that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow. This is a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand. These are times your are so absorbed by the activity you are in "the zone" to the point you forget all other concerns or outside influences. Because you are so consumed by the task at hand you have no capacity for thinking about other tasks eating, drinking etc

Csikszentmihalyi highlights our nervous system can only process so much information per second so this is why when we are so consumed with a challenge you no longer have enough attention for these other outside influences.



Examples of Flow

As an example, and as an F1 fan, Lewis Hamilton in the 2020 Spanish GP race he was driving an amazing race delivering lap after lap of consistent and fast times. He was so in the zone he lost all track of the progress of the race and had to ask his engineer how many laps were left. After the race he was saying it was hard to explain, he said it was a very challenging race but he was in "the zone".

To bring it back to a geek level, as engineers this may be times when you are writing code. You are solely focused and engaged with the task and interesting challenge then after what seems like minutes you look up and realise hours have gone by. Even if it has gone past the end of your work day you are not concerned and you were in a state where you were enjoying the challenge. Regardless of the context being in the zone or this state of flow is a nice place to be and something we want to strive towards as it means we are challenged at the right level and enjoying the experience.

Finding Flow

This is where Csikszentmihalyi's diagram illustrating the challenge-skill balance comes in (see below). Getting to the state of flow requires the right balance of challenge/skill.

If the challenge level is too high and our skill level is low it means we will be in a state of anxiety. Not able to or struggling to complete the task as it is too difficult.

If our skill level is high but the challenge level is low we may be in a state of boredom, or just to the point where we can do the task with our eyes shut.

So we are aiming for that nice balance of high challenge level and high skill level to hopefully get us to the state of flow.  Arousel is where most people learn/develop from. This is where you have a high level of skill and need to learn to move to flow.



Image Source: Csikszentmihalyi M (1997). Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life (1st ed.). New York: Basic Books. p. 31. ISBN 978-0-465-02411-7.

Why does this matter for you and your work ? 

For you 

Identify the parts of the job you enjoy.  When can you think of times you have been in this flow state?  What were you doing? Why do you think you were in that flow state? Can you develop more opportunities to do more of what you love, this may be through showing the value of the work so you get backing to do more of this type of activity.  If you can not, maybe it is time to look for a role that can provide more exposure to the type of work you enjoy and that puts you in this flow state more regularly.

Csikszentmihalyi also identifies that an increase in material resources does not increase happiness.  A lack of material resource can contribute to unhappiness.  This is an important point around rewards at work, beyond a point, being paid more or getting bonuses, while always welcome, are not going to make you happier if the level of challenge is not there. 

Having a job where you enjoy some of the role and are able to get into this state of flow will bring you more happiness and fulfilment which is much more valuable than any monetary compensation.

Looking for opportunities to automate the boring stuff

From a engineering perspective one opportunity we have is identifying the things we do not like to do, commonly this may be repetitive monotonous work.  Are there opportunities to automate these tasks?  Writing the automation process/code is likely to be an interesting challenge compared to doing the actual task.  So actually removing the toil from work could be the path to getting to a state of flow.

For your Colleagues and customers

Take this model into consideration when you are working with colleagues or customers. Maybe you are training, mentoring or helping to upskill someone, think about what people may be going through, where they are on the flow diagram.  

If the person is given a difficult challenge it is good if they are on a trajectory to move from a low skill level to a high skill level to hopefully get to the state of arousel or flow.  On the way there though they may go through other stages.  What support can you provide to ensure they have the tools and are enabled to progress.  Maybe just acknowledge that they are going through this so you can empathise and let them know to ask for support.

Equally be aware that when we are asking people to do simple tasks well below their skill level what state this may put them in and the impact on them.

Conclusion


I hope you have found this subject interesting and provides some food for thought. I hope you have or can create more opportunities to get to the state of flow.  While I have put a work/technical slant on this theory I hope you can also see how this can apply to your personal life.  Looking for activities outside of work that challenge you and you enjoy to get to this state of flow will increase your happiness.

Want to know more about Flow, checkout this Ted talk from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.



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