The Concept of Flow

Lately I’ve become fascinated with the concept of ‘Flow’. I came across it through the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who I believe is a preeminent thinker in this area. Now, the more I read about it, the more I can relate to it through either personal experiences or the experiences of others. Warren Buffett in Alice Schroeder’s “The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life” describes why he enjoys his work and what he enjoys about it; the key word being “intensity”. This is a simple word that changes our understanding about doing what we love and loving what we do. The word “intensity” clarifies that we enjoy doing something not because it’s easy, but rather that it’s something that challenges our capabilities. I remember experiencing ‘Flow’ on a professional level while working with an outstanding management team in Dhaka, Bangladesh. We worked hard and despite having regular conflicts and obstacles, we would solve everything together with sense of a bigger purpose than our own individual selves. This led to a leap in the overall business performance and productivity. I didn’t realize at the time that this was a type of professional Flow that resulted in constant progress and achievement.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines Flow as the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed with a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process. In essence, Flow is characterised by complete absorption in what one does. It is stage between boredom and anxiety where you feel:

  • Completely involved in what you are doing – focused, concentrated.
  • A sense of ecstasy – of being outside everyday reality.
  • Great inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done, and how well you are doing.
  • Knowing that the activity is doable – that your skills are adequate to the task.
  • A sense of serenity – no worries about oneself, and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego.
  • Timelessness – thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes.
  • Intrinsic motivation – whatever produces Flow becomes its own reward.

Doesn’t that sound awesome?! Does it sound familiar? The below matrix clarifies that the difficulty component must be relative to one’s skills. I believe this is what Warren Buffet meant by “intensity”.

Flow

When Flow is achieved, how long does it last? Is it temporary or sustainable? These and many other questions are at the forefront of understanding Flow. I believe most people experience Flow in at least one area and stage of their lives. I also believe that happier people are able to sustain Flow for longer periods than others. Perhaps happier people are those who regularly find flow in their daily lives? Although I don’t know if they intentionally make this happen or not.

With regards to business, could Flow be the next step beyond talent management? Perhaps in the future we will see the creation of a new position such as Head of Organisational Flow. When undertaking talent and performance reviews as an HR professional, I look at various information to decide if we need to do something to help or support an employee. For example, should we promote/transfer the individual, enrol her in a development program or retain the status quo. Most companies I know use a matrix looking at performance vs potential or variations of it to drive these decisions. The more I learn about Flow, the more I believe we should primarily depend on the matrix of challenges vs skills to inform decision making about the individual or the organisation. This could lead to a different set of decisions and tactics that would foster longer periods of Flow for a larger number of employees.

The common wisdom states that happiness is the highest pursuit for all humans. Hence, I believe Flow is a state that we should seek as individuals pursuing happiness and that we should foster as leaders and Human Resource professionals enabling motivation.

Do you remember the last time you experienced Flow? Are you experiencing Flow now? If you are, good for you! You might have reached Flow intentionally or unintentionally but you can never reach Flow by coincidence. The conditions that create Flow start with a very important step; you need to know yourself.

Tarek Beram

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