Self Motivation

How to work in the zone? Let it flow

Self Motivation

How to work in the zone? Let it flow

Does self motivation come easy for you?

If not, perhaps you should consider the work of positive psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced: Chick-sent-me-high-ee). He found that when people say they love what they do, they are often engaged in work or other activities which they find intrinsically rewarding. They are in a state of effortless concentration which he calls “flow” – an easy metaphor with which to identify. We talk about being “in-the-zone” or “in the flow”, when things seem easy to us and we feel very productive.

This is the second article in our series on optimum performance in the work place. In the first article: Improving Motivation at Work, we introduced the optimum performance graph.

One element of this graph is a continuum which helps determine how challenging you find work. Does work bore you or are you stressed because you feel over-stretched by the challenge? (You can read more about this at the end of this page).

This article examines how we can achieve “flow” at work, and help you find a balance between work that is too hard and work that is too easy. Plus some useful self motivation tips!

Finding Flow

Self motivation - in the flowLet’s start with some questions. It’s easy to imagine artists, performers or athletes, full of self motivation, describing themselves as “in the flow”. However, is it possible for anybody to get into flow, in any work situation? Even if we can, are there any indications that flow makes us happier, and does it aid performance in the workplace?

Csíkszentmihályi carried out his research with people from all walks of life. He summarised some rather surprising general findings about happiness and work in his book: Finding Flow. In essence, he found that:

  • we are unhappy doing nothing;
  • we are happy doing things;
  • we don’t know what makes us happy!

More pointedly he also identified what it’s like to be in the flow, perhaps the ultimate self-motivation. When people experience flow they typically:

  • are completely involved;
  • merge action and awareness – concentration is focused on what you do, a single-mindedness takes over;
  • exclude distractions from their consciousness;
  • don’t worry about failure – they are too involved to be concerned about failure;
  • have a distorted sense of time – generally in flow people forget time, allowing hours to go by without any real awareness of their passage;
  • see the activity as an end in itself – activities which are seen as valuable in their own right, worth doing for their own sake.

However for this state to be reached, Csíkszentmihályi found that flow can only be achieved when the work you are doing:

  • has clear goals requiring appropriate responses;
  • provides immediate feedback – i.e. it’s clear how well you are doing the activity;
  • requires skills which are fully involved in overcoming challenges that are just manageable – high challenge matched with high skills.

Would you say your work puts you “in the zone”? Did you use the continuum in our first article to position yourself? The flow continuum illustrates two dangers of work: when there’s too much of it, or when there’s too little of it. Either circumstance can have a serious effect on your self motivation. Would you say your work is interesting or do you get bored? Does it test you or are you stressed because you feel over-stretched? If the latter, is it perhaps because of deficits in skills, experience, or knowledge?

From Apathy to Flow

Csíkszentmihályi expands on our basic continuum with his “challenge – skills” graph. This is a graphical illustration of the relationship between challenge and skills, and apathy and flow. He found people experienced flow when experiencing high challenge activities with the skills to cope. People engaged in work which combined low skills and low challenge would more likely find themselves apathetic and uninspired. This graph is a useful help in analysing your own work situation, and that of the people you manage.

Finding flow

Given that flow seems so beneficial, you’d think we’d all be trying to achieve this state more often. In his surveys, Csíkszentmihályi identified some interesting statistics:

  • 15% of people say they have never experienced “flow”;
  • 15 – 20% say they experience it every day (or several times a day);
  • up to 65-70% experienced it on a more random basis.

According to Csíkszentmihályi, one reason for this is that self motivation is important in creating the conditions for flow. Flow-producing activities require an initial investment of interest and energy before they begin to be enjoyable. Self motivation then, is an important precursor to reaching a state of flow.

Another important element in creating flow is the workplace. Does the work environment constrain or contribute to flow? Work which doesn’t offer you the chance to feel “in the zone”, reduces your self motivation and can cause both stress and sub-optimal performance. Csíkszentmihályi’s extensive research suggests three main reasons why people resent their jobs:

  • the job seems pointless – appearing to benefit nobody;
  • the work is boring and routine – providing no variety or challenge;
  • inability to get along with bosses or colleagues – particularly when expectations are too high and contributions are not recognized.

What advice would help to address some of these issues? Csíkszentmihályi suggests that ultimately:

“in terms of the bottom line of one’s life, it is always better to do something one feels good about than something that may make us materially comfortable but emotionally miserable. Such decisions are notoriously difficult and require great honesty with oneself.”

However, short of dramatic changes in your employment, there are a number of approaches you could apply to help change the situation. The first is to try and re-frame how you feel about the work you do. Is your work just a job, or do you feel it’s something that makes a difference to other people?

Sometimes the distinction is in the way we view our work. “A supermarket clerk who pays attention to customers” or “a physician concerned about the total well-being of patients” are using self motivation to define their work as something worth. This will then contribute to a feeling of “flow”.

Managing Flow

In many situations it’s not the work you do, but how you see it that makes the difference. A key to motivation in the workplace is how you view your work. Is it a job, a career or a calling? Csíkszentmihályi’s has some advice on how to convert a dull job into one which facilitates “flow”:

1 How can you change what you do into something which satisfies any need for novelty and achievement?

Pay close attention to each step in your work. Ask, is the step necessary? Can it be done better, faster, more efficiently? What additional steps could make my contribution more valuable?

2 Don’t cut corners in what you do – decide to perform at your best.

Why? Because evidence suggests that we enjoy work more when we do things well. Is it really true that people go to work to do a mediocre job? Have we come to accept this too often of ourselves and of our colleagues?

You may say that this is just good management – and it is. Unfortunately though, too often it is not practised. The “challenge – skills” continuum has two extremes: boredom and anxiety. Neither are good places to be.

Use self motivation to begin creating the conditions for generating “flow” in what you do. Ask yourself: do your skills meet the challenges you face at work? Are things getting too easy? If so, think about increasing the challenge. Is work too challenging at the moment? If so, is the answer to improve your skills, or do you need to reduce the challenge?

Finally, are self motivated people happier? Can more flow in the workplace make for a happier and a more productive context? Csíkszentmihályi thinks so. “It is the full involvement of flow, rather than happiness, that makes for excellence in life. We can be happy experiencing the passive pleasure……..but this kind of happiness is dependent on favourable external circumstance. The happiness that follows flow is our own making, and it leads to increasing complexity and growth in consciousness.”

This is because “flow is most powerful when achieved in service of a goal that will better society.” Csíkszentmihályi argues that we should seek significance in all that we do. Then, “if everything is worth doing for its own sake, then nothing is wasted.” Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, is a leading thinker in the field of Positive Psychology. This interview was recorded at the Purpose Prize Summit at Stanford University Sept 8, 2006 by Tom Munnecke.

Moving to optimum performance

This is the second article in our series on improving work motivation. The first: In Search of Optimum Performance, introduces the series. If you haven’t read this article yet then it may be a good place to start. The model is based on six common management problem areas:

    1. Ease of work
    2. View of workload
    3. Amount of discretionary time
    4. Energy to tackle work
    5. Ability to be creative
    6. Getting the right things done

The second article: “Self-motivation”, addresses the first of these problem areas, ease of work . The article examines how we can achieve “flow” at work and find a balance between work that is too hard, and work that is too easy. It also contains some useful self-motivation tips!

In the third article we’ve considered your view of work – do you feel buoyed up or weighed down? Working to your strengths is a crucial step in enjoying your work and in optimizing your work performance. This idea complements and builds on the concept of flow at work. The idea here is that you’re much more likely to be “in-the-zone” when you’re using your strengths.

Take a look at the Optimum Performance Graph, below. Think about these questions to see how you can improve your performance and workplace well-being:

  • Where would you position yourself on each line, 1-7?
  • Which is most important to you?
  • Where would you like to improve your score?
  • What actions do you need to take to move yourself along the line?
  • What can you do to enhance your work motivation and feel more buoyed up at work?.
  • What do you need to do to work more with your strengths on a regular basis?
  • What do you need to do to address any issues you’ve identified?


Work motivation using the optimum performance graph

The Optimum Performance Graph

For more on the Optimum Performance Series just follow the links in Further Reading.

More resources to help your work motivation

If you’re looking for more resources on motivation at work, we’ve bundled together these six PDF e-guides to help you put motivation at the heart of performance. At half the normal price! Read the guides in this order and use the tools in each. These guides are great value, packed with practical advice, tips and tools on how to motivate yourself (and others) to perform. (6 pdf guides, 176 pages, 26 tools, 15 tips and 22 insights for half price!)

Motivating Performance
Manage Your Own Performance
15 Performance Management Tips
SMART Goals, SHARP Goals
Workstyle, Lifestyle
Leading Insights

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