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Focusing on Flow

Updated: Feb 22


In my first year of college, I took a course on human growth and development. In that class we were assigned the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. If I’m being honest, I don’t think I read the whole book, nevertheless, I certainly remember my professor talking about the gist of it.

If you’re not familiar with the book or even the term, my guess is you are familiar with the feeling. According to Wikipedia,

Flow in positive psychology, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one's sense of time. Flow is the melting together of action and consciousness; the state of finding a balance between a skill and how challenging that task is. It requires a high level of concentration. Flow is used as a coping skill for stress and anxiety when productively pursuing a form of leisure that matches one's skill set.

The easiest way I know to describe flow is to think about what you do as a hobby. Some people fish, others garden, some exercise, while others play an instrument. I find flow when I’m in the kitchen. I usually spend hours on Sundays baking something or another. Typically I try to bake something challenging because I want to see what I can do. I spend money on different gadgets and special ingredients. When I’m in the kitchen, I lose track of time and the next thing I know, hours have passed. This doesn’t mean what I’ve made always looks as good as I hoped it would. Honestly, sometimes it doesn’t even taste as good as I hoped. No matter the outcome, the feeling I experience is almost always flow.

When I’ve written or talked about engagement at the highest level, I use the term absorption, or “Getting so involved in a challenging task that the person doing it intrinsically wants to continue even when given the option or direction to stop” (p. 6).  In The BIG Book of Engagement Strategies, I write:

Where interested people will stop, absorbed people persist. You have to tell absorbed people to put away their work because you’ve moved on. Take away the extrinsic motivator for the absorbed person and they may not even notice because they were never doing it for that anyway—they are intrinsically motivated. When people are absorbed, time passes differently. An hour can feel like ten minutes and it still feels like you want more time. The work you’re doing is challenging but you are in-the-zone and feel fueled by the task. This is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” as described in the book by the same name. (p. 15)

(To learn more about absorption, read my post, “We Made It.”)

So imagine my surprise when reading the book Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity, and the author Gloria Mark said that flow is something that rarely happens at work. Though flow at work is difficult, the idea that some people have stated they’ve never achieved flow at work was almost literally unbelievable for me. In a Substack interview, interviewer Annie Duke asked Mark about focus, deep thinking, and flow. Mark said:

The epitome of deep engagement is known as “flow,” which describes total immersion in an activity. Flow is this nice mixture of being challenged at something and being able to use the skill. Let's say you're a pianist. If you're playing a simple tune, you're not going to get into a flow state. You're not being challenged and you're not really using your skill.

But if you're playing something that's too challenging, then you're probably not going to get into flow either, because you're struggling with it. It’s the sweet spot of challenge and skill that gets people into flow. Someone is playing soccer and the team is just perfectly coordinated. Your eyes are on the ball. You can get it into flow. Before I went into psychology, I was an artist. I would get into flow very easily because a lot of it was just the nature of the work. It's work that's inherently creative, and you can get deep into it really fast and really be challenged. Another characteristic of flow is that you just become unaware of the passage of time. You're so immersed in something that you're not paying attention to time.

There's a lot of hype about, “let's get into flow states at work!” That's not really flow. The kind of work I do now is more analytical thinking. I design studies. I do experiments. I do writing. Once in a while I might get into flow, but for the most part, it's a kind of analytical thinking. It's not necessarily a flow state. And that’s not bad. I think that the term “flow state” is just overused.

To be clear, Mark is not saying many people have never achieved flow; she is saying that flow at work is uncommon and many report not having experienced flow in a work setting. While Mark did not interview students to ask about their feelings in schools, I would suspect that the findings would be very similar. In fact, the title of my first book, Engagement Is Not a Unicorn (It’s a Narwhal), came from the fear that absorption–while native to experiences outside of school, was potentially mythical (like a unicorn) in schools. While I have come to believe engagement in schools is more like a narwhal (uncommon, but certainly real), the book’s title and symbolism were born from the lack of absorption most often found in schools. Interestingly, Mark’s research suggests that absorption at work is uncommon too.

So, if it’s not flow that is commonly achieved at work, then what is? In the paper, “Bored Mondays  and Focused Afternoons: The Rhythm of Attention and Online Activity in the Workplace,” Gloria Mark, Mary Czerwinski, Shamsi T. Iqbal, and Paul Johns explore the psychological states of work with a particular interest in attention. They found that there are four attentional states marked by two variables: (1) challenge and (2) engagement. Figure 1, below, is labeled in this paper as, “A theoretical framework of quadrants representing different attentional states in the workplace.”

If we explore the matrix, we will see that “flow” is not included. Certainly Q1, “focus,” is the closest, but the authors are careful to note the difference. 

Prior work in flow suggests that being in a state of flow causes people to be happy; however, our results did not find this to be the case for Focus, the state in our framework closest to flow. To investigate this further, we reasoned that focused activities may occasionally cause stress, which may be responsible for why people are not happiest when reporting they are focused (Q1). (p. 6)

In other words, though being focused at work is closest to the state of flow, it is not the same since flow connotes a positive experience and, well, work is work and is something we have to do. Whoa.

This makes me wonder…is there a way to cultivate environments that foster employee well-being, productivity, and ultimately, organizational success that are positive for both the employee and the bottom line? While achieving flow in the workplace may indeed be elusive due to the nature of many professional tasks, can the principles underlying this state provide a blueprint for creating conditions conducive to focused engagement? 

When individuals are fully immersed in their work, they are more likely to experience a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, driving them to perform at their best. However, performing at your best does not mean the experience is a positive one. Thus, how can we leverage the conditions that support focus to go beyond task completion into a realm of task enjoyment? This question matters not just for the decades of work we do as an employee, but also for the decades of learning we spend as a student before and during our employment.

Here’s my point: People enjoy spending time doing challenging tasks in their time away from work. In fact, people will spend their personal resources of time and money to do things they don’t get paid to do (no one has or should pay me to bake, for example, yet I spend a lot of time and money baking). Why? We want experiences that are challenging and engaging. What’s more, we want experiences that give us joy for the effort. So how do we create not just challenge and engagement at work–but build in opportunities to create positive experiences in the work we do?


P.S. My Catch of the Week is the latest episode of New Teacher Talk podcast, “Celebrating our Work Bestie.” In this episode, Melissa Laun and I discuss the significance of having a best friend at work who can provide listening, understanding, and support. The 5-minute podcast delves into the positive impact of having a trusted confidant in the workplace, particularly in the teaching profession. Melissa and I explore how such a bond can contribute to a supportive and nurturing work environment, ultimately benefiting both personal well-being and professional growth. I hope you check it out!

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