Last week I was out on a walk, which is typically when my mind dishes out ideas faster than I can write them down. Prompted by a podcast I was listening to, I started thinking about the concept of flow.
If you’ve never heard of it, flow is basically the state in which the thing you’re focusing on or occupied with has you so captivated that time seems to stand still, everything else disappears, and you can spend hours doing it without even thinking about distractions.
According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (the godfather of flow), we experience this state of flow when our abilities match the challenge we’re faced with.
If the challenge is too great, we experience anxiety or stress that we’re not good enough to achieve the task at hand.
If our ability exceeds that which is required for the challenge, we experience boredom.
None of that is new, but while I was on my walk, I couldn’t help but think that there’s one missing piece to the puzzle.
See, if you’re simply wanting to experience flow itself, then ending things here is great. And I encourage you to do so. This is where our hobbies come in, including things like surfing, art, adrenaline sports, music festivals, etc.
But if we’re speaking about flow in a work context, there needs to be a slight caveat.
And that is that flow doesn’t help if you’re focused on the wrong tasks. In other words, if you’re in flow but are working on things that aren’t moving you closer to your goals, you’re still not going to make any progress.
I decided to make a fancy graph to illustrate what I mean.
On the left, you can see what we’ve discussed about flow being the sweet spot between challenge and ability. But as I mentioned above, flow on its own isn’t enough. There needs to be a healthy challenge point.
If we’re in a high state of flow but aren’t pushing ourselves or growing, we end up living in our comfort zones. This is where we’re comfortable, but not growing, and we end up stagnating or plateauing. Think about working out as an example. You could enjoy going to gym every week, but if you’re not pushing yourself, you’re not going to make progress.
Alternatively, if we have a high level of growth but are in a low state of flow, we end up unfulfilled. This is where a lot of us get stuck. It’s that place where you’re doing things that are pushing you and learning new skills, but not taking the time to enjoy them, or not wanting to do them in the first place. It’s the corporate job you don’t really want. It’s climbing the ladder and getting to the top, only to realize it was against the wrong wall. And it’s all the ‘shoulds’ you’ve been fed by those around you.
So where do we find the balance? Well, as you can see on the second graph, researchers have found that 4% is the zone where you’re pushing yourself while still staying in flow.
Over to you: How can you push yourself just a little bit harder each day? Remember, it doesn’t need to be a lot. Focus on getting just 4% better so that you continue to grow while staying in flow.
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