Csikszentmihalyi: Work as Flow

This is round 8 of our adventure to find happiness following the trail created by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi in his book “Flow”. Only 2 more after this!

What to remember from round 7: In round 7 we saw how to experience flow form our bodies and minds. The two main focus areas are getting enjoyment from movement of the body and problem solving.
What is in round 8: Most of us work. And most of us have to work. Like it or not, work is important. Can we get flow out of this? Round 8 discusses how we can.

If the research is correct (and there is no reason to doubt it) most people do not find much flow in work. To the contrary, work is for most people stressful at times as well as boring. They crave release from work – weekends and vacation and ultimately retirement. To put it bluntly,  unless you are in the lucky minority, work sucks. And even if you find your work inspiring, odds are that there are still aspects that suck. This is a problem for us as workers and for employers. Is there anything we can do?

Before answering that, there is some more interesting research to consider. Even when people report that they are not enjoying what they are doing in their free time (for example, they may be bored), they are highly motivated to demand and take ever more free time. In other words, lack of work may suck just as much work, but for different reasons.

So what is going on? One thing is clear. Vacationing our life away is not a recipe for happiness. We need work to provide meaning in our lives. So we have a challenge — how can we find ways to enjoy work more so that we can learn from it — how can we find flow at work? Professor Csikszentmihalyi offers two ideas.

The first is a tool to help us get more out of work — even when it appears to be boring. The tool is to understand the path of “Yu”. Yu is a Tao idea. It is a path one walks “without feet on the ground”. Sounds great, right? One does things (walks the path) while transcending the immediate challenges at hand (without feet on the ground). How? You can get this feeling by focusing on the skills we need in order to do the task rather than the task itself. It is a two step process. The first step is to see the skills one must learn to move along a path to genius. In other words, to focus on a path rather than being a single place. The second step is to focus on achieving the next step up in skill, rather than the rewards for completing the task at hand. It is a matter of extreme focus that requires discipline and practice. This is a life style and it takes practice.

If you have some doubts about adopting something taoist, consider that the above is exactly what people report they did in order to meet an extreme challenge. And here I mean survival challenges. They resolved to see a path beyond where they were and they focused relentlessly on what they needed to master in order to get to the next step up. Want an example? Just ask for a follow up note, and I will give you more on learning how to focus on skills.

Professor Csikszentmihalyi also argues that it is worth thinking about how to better organize our work. When we gamify work, we open the door to engagement. As we saw earlier, gamification is easy, but it is not taught in schools. And btw, the process starts with asking a simple question. “What is winning?” With that answer in hand, we play to win, measuring our success on our own terms. This type of gamification can work on a personal level and as an organizational tool. If you want a real life example, just ask me for a follow up.

The above ideas sound simple, and they are. But they are radical. Can we commit to a process that takes us beyond mastering tasks an follow a path where we find genius in work? When we do that, leisure is just rest. The time we need before we have more fun. There is nothing wrong with it. But there is no need to crave it either. For most people, the effect would be to turn their life priorities upside down.

This raises a question. If we can produce flow at work, can we use flow to better balance how we relate to ourselves and to other people? That is up next!



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