by Lucy Mullins
Do you know when you are ‘in flow’? Actually, let’s start at the beginning; do you know what flow is?
It’s an amazing state that we can experience… some combination of effortless, engaged, confident, optimistic, stimulated, happy, satisfied, focused, fulfilled, calm.
Sound good? Read on to find out how you can get to experience your own personal state of flow.
Flow is sometimes described as being in the zone. It’s a mental state when you feel fully immersed in what you are doing and you have no sense of time, or indeed anything going on around you. You are so engaged in what you are doing nothing else catches your attention.
Flow is different for everybody. For some people running elicits this deep sense of engagement where nothing else matters, for others it might be painting, playing a musical instrument, or doing a crossword. It can be anything from the mundane to the extraordinary that captures your attention and effort to the point where you are aware of nothing else.
You might be thinking what has running or doing crosswords got to do with succeeding as a leader, a founder or somebody that wants to make a difference in the world? Well I’m glad you asked…
Flow is associated with achievement, so it’s important in terms of success, satisfaction and accomplishment in your career and your business. It is also important for leading people, as understanding and creating the conditions for flow can ensure your team are engaged, happy and achieving their goals.
The conditions for flow are described as a state in which the challenge of the task is high and equally matched to the skills of the person performing that task. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced Chick-sent-me-highly in case you were wondering), the Hungarian psychologist who recognised and named the concept of flow said;
“Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.”
The image below shows challenge level plotted against skill level and eight resulting states you can find yourself in:
The Flow Model (Csíkszentmihályi, 1997)
In this image, you’ll probably identify four positive states; flow, control, relaxation and arousal. So, when you’re not in flow, you ideally want to be in one of the three other positive states; relaxation, control or arousal. Although there is research to suggest that being bored sometimes is a good thing, so it’s perhaps worth spending time there too.
You’ll notice it’s the skill level that is important for the positive states. So for relaxation you want to be doing something at which you are highly skilled but isn’t challenging for you. Elevating the challenge a little further but still doing something at which you are skilled results in the calm and collected state of being in control (how much time do you spend there?!). It’s important to note here that when we refer to highly skilled, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a highly skilled task, it means something that you are highly skilled at.
The fourth positive state in this model is arousal - the state you are facing a high challenge but only have a medium skill level. This is an important state to spend time in because when you are faced with a challenge higher than your skill level you have the opportunity to develop your skills and learn. However, looking at the image you’ll see that if your skill level is too low and the challenge too high you will enter a state of anxiety.
You might make a connection here with the commonly referenced comfort, stretch and panic zones.
The control, arousal and anxiety states from the flow model can be thought of as the comfort, stretch and panic zones respectively, What Csíkszentmihályi's model offers is five additional states that you might find yourself in. It's worth reflecting on this for a few minutes to think about where you spend most of your time and how you can get in the more positive states more often.
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