You’ve lost track of how much time has passed since you started your work. All that’s in your headspace right now is the task immediately at hand; everything else is white noise. All of your worries, anxieties, and grievances have faded into the background, replaced with the sheer joy and exhilaration that being absorbed in your work gives you.
If you’ve ever felt all of these before, it’s likely that you know what it’s like to experience the flow state. According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the “flow” state refers to a state of total mental absorption and focus on the task at hand.
The enjoyment that flow precipitates is its own reward; in this state, you are intrinsically motivated to pursue excellence simply because you just enjoy the work that much.
Csikszentmihalyi’s research indicates that flow is instrumental in producing peak performance across almost all fields of work. From artistic pursuits like music and painting, to athletics, to individual and team performance in the corporate world, the flow state is integral to delivering seamless (almost thoughtless) performance. Just how does this happen, though?
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Unsurprisingly, the more frequently people enter into a “flow state” at work, the more productive they are. As reported in the Harvard Business Review, a 10-year study by McKinsey reaped two major findings on the impact of flow state on workplace productivity:
One of the perennial dilemmas of the modern workplace is how to balance between productivity and creativity—two seemingly contradictory processes. Where productivity often requires depth of thought, creativity frequently calls for breadth. On the surface, then, it may seem like the more productive and focused you are, the less creative you become.
In flow, however, the chemicals that are released in your system also heighten your creativity by:
It’s an inevitable Digital Age reality that all day long, we’re subjected to constant information overload. It leaves us feeling easily mentally exhausted, giving that same sense of “being everywhere and nowhere at once”; information goes in one ear and out the other, never turning into properly formed knowledge.
Flow, though, changes this by greatly accelerating our learning processes. When in flow, we don’t just absorb more information than before. We also transfer more of what we learn into our long-term memories, instead of just letting it sit at the surface of our consciousness for a few moments before being unseated by a new piece of information. In other words, we learn faster in flow the state because we have:
High-pressure situations have a way of making us panic at the crucial moment and forget everything we’ve learned and rehearsed beforehand. Consequently, we botch critical presentations, fail spectacularly at job interviews, and end up feeling extremely disappointed with ourselves.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, though, in flow, “the ego falls away.” Since you’re so totally absorbed in your work, you forget yourself; you don’t think about how people might judge you if you don’t perform well, nor are you at all concerned about what will happen should you succeed or failing.
The level of mental presence that you achieve in flow often means that you don’t overthink things or self-sabotage at the crucial moment by being too self0-conscious.
So often, we tend to think that achieving happiness, purpose and meaning at work and in life is a passive state. In other words, we think it’s something that happens to us while we’re casually going about our daily lives—that it’ll happen once we tick off certain milestones in our careers our lives in general.
The truth, though, is that meaning is an active state: it’s something we each have to create and strive towards every day. According to Csikszentmihalyi, a huge part of this is knowing how to engage in optimal experience through getting into flow. The deeper we experience flow, the more it enhances our personal strengths in ways that make us feel that we’re contributing to something larger than just ourselves.