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How to achieve flow at work for better productivity

Being in the zone: How to achieve flow at work to drive greater performance

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Have you ever been so completely absorbed in a task that you forgot where you were? 

Or have you ever looked up from your desk, only to find that three hours have gone by and you’ve banged out a killer piece of work?

This state of absolute focus, or total engagement, is, in psychological circles, called flow. Or “being in the zone” to us laypeople. 

And while flow might limit your ability to keep an eye on the time, it’s the absolutely peak cognitive state for getting things done and doing them well. 

What is flow?

Like we said in the introduction, flow is a state of total engagement

In fact, it’s basically where passion meets intent, and you become fully immersed in an activity. And what’s more, you become more attuned to that activity and therefore more effective in doing it.

But before we really get into how to achieve flow at work, it’s worth having a little background information. 

Cognitive flow was first conceptualised by the Hungarian psychologist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, in the 90’s. In an interview with Wired Magazine in 1996, he described the phenomenon of flow like this:

‘The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.’

It’s a state of mind that is at play in and outside of work. Flow is often achieved by elite athletes in the middle of a 10k race, gamers when getting stuck in to the latest blockbuster video game or amateur artists and musicians when every stroke or note seems to land perfectly.

How does flow drive productivity?

As it’s essentially a state of heightened engagement, achieving cognitive flow in work has a variety of benefits

For starters, flow puts all of your focus onto the task at hand, and away from your environment, this makes it extraordinarily useful for filtering out distractions while being great for job satisfaction, and even workplace wellbeing

As Csíkszentmihályi put it, ‘happiness depends on inner harmony, not on the control we exert over our environment or circumstances.’

The various benefits of cognitive flow include:

How to optimise for achieving flow at work

Now we’re getting into the actual nitty-gritty of how to achieve a state of flow at work. Csíkszentmihályi established nine conditions that help to facilitate the onset of a cognitive flow state:

  1. The immediate availability of feedback
  2. Clear goals
  3. Motivation and initiative
  4. The alignment of personal skills with the challenges at hand
  5. Concentration
  6. A level of absorption that alters your perception of time
  7. A loss of self-consciousness
  8. Action-awareness merging (Only being aware of that which is relevant to the task)
  9. Autonomous initiative (Continuing for its own sake, as flow is inherently rewarding)

But we can’t always be in a flow state. After all, it takes time to go from nought to sixty, and you’ve got to slow down to refuel some time, right? To that end, there are actually four stages to the process of achieving flow.

  • The struggle phase: This phase is characterised by tension and anxiety, courtesy of Beta brainwaves, Cortisol, and Norepinephrine as we try to get into a focused mindset. It’s like going for a swim, in that the worst part is the initial shock of getting into cold water before you acclimate.

  • The release phase: Your brain makes the switch to Alpha brainwaves as your brain processes the challenge and helps you to distance yourself from it by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.

  • The flow phase: This is what you’re here for, this is why you’re reading an article about how to achieve flow at work. At this stage, your brain finally makes the shift to unconscious processing as those Beta waves change to Theta and Gamma, and your brain gets flooded with dopamine and endorphins.

  • The recovery phase: This is the point where your brain basically starts rewiring itself based on the experiences of your flow to help you be able to retain your newly acquired skills and knowledge. Your brain puts out Delta waves, as the dopamine and endorphins are replaced by Serotonin and Oxytocin. 

How Weekly10 helps achieve flow at work

If you’ll remember, one of the key parts of how to achieve a flow state at work is having access to timely, unambiguous feedback. 

This can’t just be some annual review eight months down the line. It needs to be a source of feedback that you can interact with and develop on regularly, or else your brain will just lose interest.

That’s where we come in. If you use a regular employee check-in to supplement, your traditional annual performance review, you’ll be able to stay up-to-date on the engagement levels for everyone in your team. 

But more importantly, you’ll be able to provide the level of ongoing feedback they need to drive their best performance. And while this is great for building up job satisfaction and autonomous initiative, it’s especially useful for enhancing an employee’s potential for skills development and creative problem-solving.

It’s also important to remember that feedback goes both ways. When you have employees regularly achieving flow states as part of their work, they’ll inevitably develop a lot of insight about the specific nature of their role in the business, which you can effectively leverage for actionable solutions to support your staff. 

Another key element for achieving flow is that of setting and maintaining progress towards clear goals. Well it just so happens goal (or OKR) setting is another key part of the Weekly10 process!

That’s why it’s important to use Weekly10’s regular check-ins as a mutually beneficial exercise between managers and their employees.

That’s about all we’ve got for you today, so we hope you’ve learned something about how to achieve flow at work. If you’re interested in finding out more about employee engagement, or exploring a whole host of related topics, there’s no better starting point than the Weekly10 blog!

Interested in maximising the potential of your employees achieving flow at work? Why not take a look at how we can help.

Head of People Science