Think about your day today. How much time did you toil away on the information highway? How many emails did you read and send? How many tabs are open on your screen right now?
When we talk about workflow we’re often speaking of a range of activities: the way a project moves from stage to stage, how information is disseminated across an organisation, a detailed strategy for bringing a product to market, a sexy excel sheet that peers into the future to anticipate how we work might flow.
But flow is a wholly different affair. We only need to observe a footballer effortlessly dribbling around defenders or a jazz musician build on a riff to get a glimpse. Flow is not reserved exclusively for sports arenas or music studios. The same psychological and physiological effects of flow-states can be realised in knowledge work.
If we investigate the scattered, fragmented, and hectic activity that is ‘knowledge work’ — it’s no wonder finding flow often escapes us. The attention economy keeps us in a regular state of responding. And this runs antitheses to inducing states of flow.
Indeed it’s a distraction-free state of mind that we must cultivate if we are to have any chance of getting into the zone. When the activity at hand is autotelic — done for its own sake — the experience takes on a different shimmer. It feels deeper. It feels more meaningful. And this is because we are totally engaged in what we’re doing
When we’re feeling the flow, we experience many things, but two qualities stick out like a sore thumb:
∆ Time feels different
∆ The world and its demands melt away as do you
the other characteristics of flow include:
∆ Complete concentration on the task
∆ Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback
∆ The experience is intrinsically rewarding
∆ Effortlessness and ease
∆ There is a balance between challenge and skills
∆ There is a feeling of control over the task
The problem is that for too many, work has not been devoid of flow — the above qualities rarely felt. The lack of engagement at work is all the proof we need that people don’t feel connected to their work yet this is an essential ingredient to finding and feeling the flow.
In many ways, the opportunity to experience flow has become more pronounced don a global scale. A pandemic has changed our relationship to time, and the regular demands of the world have shifted to a different set. Laying fertile ground so that we move more easily into flow has one trigger that’s abundant right now: boredom.
A New Conception of Productivity
We’ve gotten so enamored with productivity, that we had forgotten how to slow down. Now we have the opportunity to do so. Busyness is no longer a bragging right. Connecting with others (and yourself), showing up in new and novel ways for family, and staying home is.
But the logic of making space for doing nothing runs antithesis to the ‘time is money injunction’. It’s confusing. Yet if we reflect on it, it’s here — in being idle — that we find virtue. It’s here where the good life resides. It’s why famed philosopher Bertrand Russell advocated for working a four hour day way. He knew what was up long ago.
Allowing ourselves to be bored is exactly what we need in today’s knowledge-driven economy. The benefit of boredom is that it catapults our creativity. It is the breeding ground for innovation. From Darwin to Dickens, many famed creatives were keenly aware of the virtues of navel-gazing.
It’s a magical moment when the noise of the world quietens and we feel no pressure or concerns. When we’re so intensely focused on the matter at hand that we lose ourselves in our work we emerge with more aliveness. A professional life full of this type of deepness is a gratifying one.
While there is no conclusive evidence that flow leads to greater productivity, there is strong evidence that our perceptions, emotions, and motivation over the course of the workday are improved. And this ain’t a bad thing. This is especially helpful for those activities that require both spontaneity and creativity. The residual effects of being in flow also ride with us throughout the day. And right now this feels like it’s more urgent, more important, than ever.
Knowledge work will only continue to rise. Understanding how we find and sustain flow will be increasingly important as our work changes and becomes more complex. We need to stay cognisant of how, when, and where we can set the optimal conditions for flow. We need to stay in sync with our mood. We need to pay attention to our attention. And as we ourselves change and our work life is shaped in tandem, it’s discipline, desire, and determination that becomes our best mates.