Finding your flow: why focus is a skill that can be learned
It is Monday morning. After struggling for a few hours to get started with your day, you eventually get going with the first item on your to do list. Although it doesn’t always happen, you find yourself diving into the task, and, before you know it, a few hours have passed by. Was it pure luck or is there a reason you felt so immersed in your work?
Although it may seem to occur at random intervals, being entirely focused on the job you are doing is in fact a state you can aim towards. In modern science, the experience is referred to as ‘flow state’, a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihályi in the 1970s.
Despite being a relatively new area of research, historically there are references to this sensation across the Eastern philosophies. Athletes also talk about ‘being in the zone’ when they are completely focused on their movement and immediate goals.
In Japanese culture, the first step towards reaching ‘flow state’ requires an individual to discover their ikigai, or reason for being. An ikigai could be something as simple as gardening or cooking, but it will be a task that the person is both good at, and one in which they can become purposefully engaged (1).
What can you do to find your flow?
The first step towards finding your flow in any task is to first ensure that the assignment is within your range of capabilities. Ideally, what you are doing will allow you to confidently use skills you already possess, while challenging you to learn something new. At this point, you will be able to meet your edge, and will be far more likely to become fully immersed.
If you are able to reach this sweet spot, what you produce will also be of a higher quality, meaning you can go home at the end of the day with a greater sense of satisfaction and of having achieved something meaningful.
As human beings, we are driven by the need to learn, grow and discover more, both about the world and ourselves. When we experience growth and learning, it can be difficult but, ultimately, the satisfaction of having completed a new challenge will outweigh the scary part of taking the first few steps towards it! We are happiest when we are both open to new opportunities and given the chance to explore.
For managers and employees alike, this has real implications for productivity and could be used as a starting point for communication on which tasks are allocated to who. Managers, are you setting your employees manageable tasks which enable them to find their flow? Employees, are you communicating with your manager? Is the task too easy, or too difficult?
Of course, in an ideal world, we would be completing tasks that engage us at all times, and it is important to be realistic. However, if you could reach ‘flow state’ even a few times per week, you are far more likely to be happy in your job. Sometimes we need to get down to the nitty gritty and complete the mundane yet necessary tasks that every organisation requires for daily operations, but this could improve morale and make the workplace better for everybody.
Whether you see flow as an exciting area of scientific research or a snippet of ancient wisdom, here are our top tips for working towards it, or supporting others in your team to do the same:
- Think about where your strengths and weaknesses lie. What are you really good at? Which areas might require a little more attention?
- Are the tasks you are being set playing to your strengths? If not, think about ways you could communicate this to your manager and see if there is any room for change.
- If being allocated different tasks isn’t an option, which areas of learning or personal development would you like to focus on? How could you apply these to your current tasks? For example, if your goal is to communicate more clearly, you could challenge yourself to complete a course on communication skills and apply what you learn to the emails you send.
- If you really can’t connect with an activity you have been set, the chances are it is either too challenging, too easy or not interesting to you personally. If the task is too easy or uninteresting, think about how you could make it more challenging, either by checking with your manager if there is anything additional you could be doing, or setting yourself a personal goal within the task. If the task is too difficult, you could break it down into more manageable steps or ask for further clarification.
- Sometimes, an activity will be pitched correctly but we are fearful of getting started and procrastinate. If you think this might be a problem for you, say to yourself that you will spend 25 minutes on the task and then take a break. More often that not, you will find that the 25 minutes flies by once you get started.
So, next time you find your mind wandering and you can’t connect with a task you are doing, think about how you could find your flow and make everyone’s day a little bit better!
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(1) Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles, 2016, Penguin Books, New York.