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Demystifying the “flow” state among  leaders and managers

Can you recall the last time you found yourself utterly absorbed in your work? When the world around you seemed to disappear, there was a perfect harmony between your thoughts and actions. You were filled with a vibrant, creative energy, a positive force that enveloped you. Time lost meaning — there was no past, no future, just the here and now. In that moment, you were so aligned with your task that nothing was beyond your reach.

If you felt this, you have experienced the state of “flow”.

Another way to describe this state of flow is mindfulness. Individuals in the Armed Forces, athletes, and elite performers are often trained to reach this state of mindfulness or flow to achieve exceptional accomplishments.

For soldiers, achieving this state is critical and can mean the difference between life and death. Their training focuses on maintaining acute alertness and responsiveness at all times. Staying fully present in every situation is crucial. For them, performing at their peak, both physically and mentally, is not just an option but a vital requirement for survival.

This same state of heightened focus and presence is replicated in elite athletes, where even milliseconds can determine performance outcomes. While it may not be a matter of life and death as it is for soldiers, the intensity and importance of this state in achieving peak performance are just as critical.

Researchers are working to find out how the state of flow can help managers and leaders give their best in their testing work environments. Multiple researchers have found that such a state of flow lies within all of us, and it can lead us to a state of peak performance if you can make a connection between inner and outer conditions.

    Why is achieving the state of flow necessary among leaders and managers?

    Leaders and managers typically don’t consciously shun the pursuit of a state of flow. Indeed, many might not even be aware that achieving such a state is possible. Their main challenge is the relentless barrage of distractions that consistently hampers their ability to focus on the task at hand.

    An Udemy study has revealed that 70% of workers feel distracted at work, and 54% say they’re not performing as well as they should. A University of California research has found that, on average, it takes 23 minutes and 50 seconds to focus on your work after a distraction.

    Add to these distractions the disruptive, competitive, and complex business environment that constantly vies for their attention, and you have a recipe for suboptimal performance.

    Reaching a state of flow at the workplace involves establishing mechanisms to minimise distractions and learning to focus on the current task.

    McKinsey and Co. executives, in a study spanning a decade, witnessed a remarkable 500% surge in productivity when they achieved a state of flow.

    A University of Sydney research discovered that the participants experienced a 430% increase in creative problem-solving capabilities after they received a brain stimulation that helped them reach a state of flow.

    These studies and numerous others indicate that achieving a flow state among leaders, managers, and other team members can significantly enhance an organisation’s productivity and increase job satisfaction.

    What is the state of flow?

    flow state

    Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a University of Chicago research psychologist, coined the term “flow” in the workplace context. The entire process and its outcome are known as the “flow model”.

    A flow state is an optimal state of consciousness where you and your work become one. It is a meditative state but unlike the traditional ascetics who head to the forest, you remain in your work environment and strategically put yourself in a state of being that allows you to become immune to distractions and immerse yourself into your work.

    The term “flow” is used because, in this state, effort seems minimal. However, it doesn’t imply that you can tackle complex differential calculus problems without prior knowledge of advanced mathematics. The fundamental skill or ability must already exist within you.

    In the flow state, you release yourself and allow your abilities to take over. Distractions don’t hinder you, worries don’t weigh you down, and deadlines don’t overburden you. You step into a realm of productivity, leaving everything else behind. You’re in the zone where nothing else exists or matters. Time seems to slow down, and fatigue doesn’t touch you, no matter how long you work.

    Often I ask clients, “When are you in flow?” Responses range from surfing to running, reading, DIY, meditation and dancing. Then occasionally, someone says at work or mentions some specific part of their role.

    Is reaching such a state of flow possible, especially at work?

    Yes, it is. Let us see how.

    Reaching the state of flow at work

    This is how Professor Csikszentmihalyi defines the state of flow at the workplace:

    • Complete concentration and focus on the task at hand.
    • The work is the reward.
    • There is a sense of timelessness because you work in the present moment.
    • Full control over the situation, the outcome, and the potential.
    • There is a pleasant synergy between the challenge and the skill set.
    • Goals are attainable, and you know how to achieve them.

    How do we achieve these attributes? Individuals and teams can achieve a state of flow by taking the following steps:

    For individuals

    state of flow
    • Have clear and specific goals. These goals must align with your personal values and strengths. This will help you focus on your task without causing inner conflicts.
    • Establish a routine to get into the right state of mind. Keep your tools and materials at hand. Create a ritual or a habit that helps you transition into “work mode”.
    • Minimise distractions and interruptions. Create a quiet and comfortable workspace. Delegate repetitive tasks. Keep the things you need to work in one place to be easily accessible.
    • Set aside blocks of uninterrupted time. These time blocks should be used to accomplish important and complex tasks. Avoid multitasking. Don’t switch between tasks. Decide individual time blocks based on your comfort level.
    • Strike a balance between the challenge and the capability. The task shouldn’t be either too easy or too difficult.
    • The task should be meaningful. You’re more likely to enter the flow state if you are passionate and curious about what you’re doing. The task should have a positive impact on you or someone else.
    • Don’t force. The flow is supposed to be natural and spontaneous. It cannot be controlled or manipulated. If you try too hard, you achieve the opposite. Let your proverbial muscle memory work for you.

    For teams

    team performance
    • The team must have a common goal, preferably aligned with the personal goals of each team member. Have a shared sense of purpose and direction that fosters collaboration and commitment.
    • Every team member should have a clear role and responsibility. Ensure that their skills and talents are integrated and complementary.
    • Eliminate distractions. Make sure there are no interruptions when your team is collaborating. Avoid unnecessary meetings, emails and notifications.
    • Establish open and honest communication among the team members. Provide immediate and constructive feedback on the progress and the outcomes. This maintains an atmosphere of trust and learning.
    • Just as in the case of the individual, the task should neither be too easy nor too hard. You don’t want them bored. You don’t want them stressed. Find the sweet spot.
    • Let the individual team members work autonomously. Contemporary technology allows people to work flexibly. Avoid micromanaging or imposing rigid rules.
    • Promote collaboration, trust, and communication among the team members. Celebrate achievements and successes.
    • Motivate your team members to find a healthy equilibrium between their professional responsibilities and personal life. Urge them to engage in and derive pleasure from activities unrelated to work.

    Training your team to achieve the flow state can be a game changer. Initially, the idea may seem esoteric, but systematic and consistent changes can help your team reach this coveted zone. Set clear goals. Create focused routines. Help them reach a level where they find their tasks not too difficult or hard. Learn to differentiate between distraction and productive activity. Let the team have shared ambition, clear roles, and collective goals. You’re in a flow state once your team members learn to thrive together.

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    Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here. Read his new book, ‘Mind Your F**king Business’ here.

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