Going with the flow

Professional happiness can come from finding your flow, or “the zone,” when you work.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Are you happy at work? Like, really happy?

If not, it may have to do with flow, or rather a lack of flow, or flow interrupted.

If flow theory isn’t a concept you’re familiar with, you may likely know it by another name: the zone, a state of body and mind familiar to athletes.

Flow theory is a psychological concept that originated with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychologist, in the early 1990s. Flow is an optimal psychological state that people experience when engaged in an activity that’s appropriately challenging to one’s skill level, often resulting in immersion and concentrated focus on a task. This can result in deep learning and high levels of personal and work satisfaction.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, the loss of self-consciousness is critical for the experience of flow. This means that while a person is in a state of flow (e.g., a pianist playing a particularly complex piece of music), this person cannot describe or articulate what the experience is like. When people talk about what it feels like to be in a flow, those reports are retrospective. Notes Psychology Today, “Some people may not be able to say anything at all about how they felt while in flow; all they know is that they are feeling terrific now, when looking back at what they have so expertly accomplished. If so, flow is not a component of happiness, but rather a cause of it.”

When I write, it’s not uncommon for me to enter a state of flow. I personally find it helps when I put on music. While that might sound distracting, I’m not actually listening to what’s playing when I’m in a flow. Instead, I’m hearing the beat and it’s providing a background tempo that feeds — and speeds — my writing. For me, flow feels a little like gravity’s been reduced and I’m suddenly more buoyant. I find myself dancing as I write and I barely even realize I’m doing it. Those are the times I’m happiest at work, and I’ve gotten better at making them happen.

You can find your flow, too, by following these three steps:

1. Clear your head and your calendar. Take a glance at your to-do list and decide what you will do today and when you will do it. Scheduling tasks can make a big difference in our ability to focus on something else. Note what you’ve just accomplished, what you hope to accomplish next, and what you’ll work on after that.

2. Put up walls to keep distractions out. It’s simple — if you can’t concentrate, you’ll never get into a zone. Since flow requires deep state of concentration, you need to make sure interruptions don’t happen. Open the documents or programs you need on your computer to do your work and close the rest. Silence your phone and anything else that might send you alerts or push notifications. (Nicely) make sure everyone around you knows you don’t want to be disturbed.

3. Prepare your body and mind for a deep state of focus. Hit the bathroom, grab a healthy snack and a drink — something that won’t dehydrate you is best. Put on music that puts you in a good mood but isn’t distracting. Music without lyrics might work best if you find yourself signing along more than working. Finally, take some deep, cleansing breaths before getting started. Breathing profoundly affects our nervous system and blood flow in our brain — and, therefore, our performance.

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