September 01, 2021

Go with the “flow:” Focus that works for you

Your fingers are flying across the keyboard. It’s almost as if you’re not even thinking about what you’re doing — you’re just doing it, and doing it well. Nothing else in the world exists but the task you’re working on right now. Welcome to the flow state.

The concept of flow was named and introduced by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. One über-bestselling book later, and the concept is has transcended academia and planted itself in the business world. Flow, which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “optimal experience,” is a state of total immersion in a task, driven by intrinsic motivation. Flow feels great; you’ve probably experienced it, and might think of it as being “in the zone.” When it comes to focus and motivation at work, flow is the gold standard.

Flow can be rare. If it’s not something you’ve experienced often, that’s okay! Not only would it be impossible to live in a perpetual state of flow, it wouldn’t be nearly as beneficial as it sounds, either. Focus and motivation are partially determined by the task itself, and understanding the different levels can help you find the balance to keep yourself on the right track to conquering your workload.

This article will use the nine mental states in Csikszentmihalyi’s flow model as a framework.

Skill vs. Challenge

In Csikszentmihalyi’s model, your emotional state while completing a task is largely dependent on two factors: your skill level as it relates to the task, and the challenge level of the specific task. Flow can happen when you are working on a challenging task at which you are highly skilled. As you may already realize, this does not describe a lot of your day-to-day work. Sometimes you’ll have to do work that you don’t find particularly engaging or challenging. Other times you’ll be thrust into a project that isn’t in your wheelhouse.

It stands to reason that you can increase your chances of reaching a flow state by making your work more challenging, improving your own skills, or both. The truth is, flow won’t always be possible, but you still have to get the work done. Luckily, there are other states that you can make work for you.

Meet the other eight mental states

Flow is one of nine mental states in Csikszentmihalyi’s model. Let’s get to know the others.

Control

When it’s most common: High skill, medium challenge

What it’s like: All the ease of flow, without the sense of immersion or total concentration

What it’s great for: Sustainable productivity over a long period

What to watch for: All control and no flow makes for an unfulfilling life at work

Relaxation

When it’s most common: Low challenge, high skill

What it’s like: This is what you experience with what you call “mindless” tasks. It’s peaceful and easy.

What it’s great for: Staying productive when you’re tired or distracted, recovering from intense anxiety, or “warming up” for a more challenging task ahead

What to watch for: These tasks can be addicting — spend too much time with them, and you may struggle to switch back to more challenging work.

Boredom

When it’s most common: Low challenge, medium skill

What it’s like: You’re not interested, but it’s tolerable.

What it’s great for: Not much! This might be a great time to try to increase the challenge to keep yourself engaged.

What to watch for: Falling asleep, becoming careless

Apathy

When it’s most common: Low challenge, low skill

What it’s like: This is a pretty miserable state, and getting yourself to devote any time to the task can feel like a chore.

What it’s great for: It may be a signal that you’re not the right person for this task.

What to watch for: Procrastination, avoidance

Worry

When it’s most common: Medium challenge, low skill

What it’s like: You’re fearful about a bad outcome, but there are likely solutions in reach.

What it’s great for: This isn’t a productive state to spend much time in, but can be an “easy win” for your problem-solving skills.

What to watch for: Letting it fester into anxiety

Anxiety

When it’s most common: High challenge, no skill

What it’s like: Your fight-flight-freeze is triggered.

What it’s great for: Stress doesn’t have to be a bad thing — at the first sight of the anxiety state, make moves toward more productive stress.

What to watch for: It’s all too easy to overreact to stressors. Know yourself to keep it in check.

Arousal

When it’s most common: High challenge, medium skill

What it’s like: You’re aware that you’re stretching yourself and growing, but still concerned about whether you’re succeeding.

What it’s great for: Keeping yourself on your toes, increasing your skill level through experience

What to watch for: Taking a hit to your confidence if the challenge gets the best of you

What now?

Now that you’re familiar with the nine mental states in the flow model, start taking note of when you’re experiencing each. With time, you’ll master strategically moving from one to another, keeping up focus and motivation that work for you.

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