I've been approached recently to elaborate on the "flow" state at work.
Flow, the state where we feel in command of what we do, execute tasks effortlessly, and perform at our best, was discovered by researchers at the University of Chicago. They asked a wide range of people, "Tell us about a time you outdid yourself -- you performed at your peak." No matter who answered -- ballerinas, chess champs, surgeons -- they all described the characteristics of the flow state. One of flow's best features: It feels great.
We all know that we do our best work in those exceptional moments when we've achieved a state of flow. And for leaders, helping people get into flow and stay there means they will work at their peak abilities.
So how can you get into the state of flow? There are three approaches.
The first method involves assigning tasks according to skill set. In the Chicago study, this was put in terms of the ratio of a person's abilities to the demand of the task. The more a challenge requires us to deploy our best skills, the more likely we will become absorbed in flow.
When we're not challenged, our performance suffers and we become disengaged. That's the plight of a large portion of knowledge workers, some statistics suggest. Upping the challenge would help to immerse these workers, and for a lucky few perhaps get them into flow.
Another path to flow lies in finding work we love. Doing what we're passionate about is one sign of "good work," the topic of research by Howard Gardner at Harvard, Bill Damon at Stanford, and Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi, the discoverer of flow. In good work we align what we're best at with what engages us, and also what fits our sense of meaning and purpose. Good work puts us in a frame of mind where, again, flow can arise spontaneously.
Lastly, we can get into a state of flow through fully absorbed focus. The stronger the concentration we bring to a task, the more likely we are to drop into flow while doing it. While the other paths to flow depend on external factors -- the challenge/demand ratio, finding work that aligns ethics, excellence and engagement -- full focus is an inner dimension. The better our ability to pay attention to what we choose and ignore distractions, the stronger our concentration.
Strong focus can actually bring us into flow no matter the task at hand. This is inner power we develop and strengthen. Mindfulness, for instance, is one way to bulk up the muscle of attention, particularly if we use mindfulness to notice when we have wandered away from a chosen point of focus and bring our attention back. In fact, this repetition exercise is the way to tone up concentration in the mental gym, according to research done at Emory University.
We can reinforce this skill on our own time, just as we would go to the gym after work. A daily mental workout where you use your breath as the point of concentration, and continually bring your wandering mind back to your breath, will bulk up your power to focus. Daily focus and breath work should help you find your way to flow no matter what you do.
The original version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn.
Learn more about maximizing creative energy at work from my conversation with Teresa Amabile.