Understanding the “Flow” – the Shortcut to the Highest Productivity

by Ciprian Paraschiv on 2nd March, 2016


How often do you feel totally immersed in your activity, be it your daily work or one of your hobbies? Remember those days when you get completely caught in your activity, when you simply don’t realize that the day outside turned into night, when all your thoughts, wishes, emotions are all directed to the same activity you are involved in, when everything is in harmony. You simply switch off to your automatic pilot.

This experience is called the “flow”, and I consider it a shortcut to reaching your highest productivity. This article will help you better understand the mechanisms of this optimal experience.

Understanding the “Flow”

Remember this name: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Me-high Cheek-sent-me-high). An eminence in the field of positive psychology, he spent more than 30 years trying to find an answer to the question:

“When, in our normal experience, do we feel truly happy?”

At the core of his thinking is this idea that a person can make himself either wretched or happy, regardless of what is happening around him, by simply changing “the content of his consciousness”.

One of the best ways to achieve it is to put ourselves into this optimal experience: the “flow”. In his first papers, Mihaly simply defined it as:

“the holistic experience that people feel when they act with total involvement”.

There are many ways in which the “flow” was described by a wide range of professionals from various domains. It has been observed that their experiences had the following characteristics in common:

  • a sense of complete engagement in the activity performed.
  • high concentration and lack of attention to any other particular problem.
  • a sublime sense of ecstasy;
  • clarity and lucidity, feeling in control of what needs to be accomplished and the quality of work.
  • clearly stated goals and fast feedback, so that you can adjust and make improvements.
  • time distortion, an altered sense of time passing.
  • intrinsic motivators.

How to move into the “flow”?

Let’s have a look at the flow diagram. I’ve mentioned before that the difficulty of the activity performed shouldn’t go beyond your skills level in that particular area. If it happens, you will end up nurturing a feeling of anxiety that would rather damage your inner balance. You also don’t want the task to be too easy; otherwise, you will get bored.

By balancing these two, you end up within the “flow channel”. Your goal is to reach the upper right corner, to constantly increase your challenges and skills simultaneously. You get better at doing it, raise the challenge. This way you intensify the state of flow.

I’ll illustrate it better with an opposite example: watching television or scrolling your Facebook feed. No matter how much you may enjoy both, these are not optimal experiences. These are best described by apathy, as there is no challenge involved (unless you are a professional troll ). The chances are that during those activities daily problems and worries will pop up in your mind.

What’s in for managers?

There is no need to argue much with the fact that entering the state of flow will boost creativity and motivation among your employees. So what can managers do to allow this happen? Eliminate distractions

It can get frustrating to “plug into” your optimal state and be “woken up”, especially if the distraction can be avoided. Studies have shown that it takes more than 15 minutes on average to get back on task after the interruption. When constantly interrupted, the state of “flow” is becoming harder and harder to reach.

If you think of the modern offices, they are designed to allow co-workers more interactions. Interruptions are more or less part of our working culture.

The entire organization should be aware of the balance they have to maintain. People should think of using e-mails more when deciding to interrupt others. However, there is no strict rule to apply here, but such aspects should be discussed among team members.

One simple, but practical way to avoid disruption is using the Pomodoro technique, a time-boxing method discussed in an earlier post. There are great tools such as Pomello that will display on your desktop the time left until your next small break. If anyone needs your advice, he knows when it’s the right time to ask for it.

  • The meetings should be well organized to keep their number low.
  • Try to observe what particular tasks each one enjoys working at and assign them accordingly.
  • Give your people time to understand and research every new challenge. Make it interesting and detail its relevance.
  • Let people go away and ruminate, allow them to come up with ideas. They will enjoy more working to their solutions

Ciprian Paraschiv


I am a breed of SEO specialist and UX Design advocate. My strong engineering knowledge is key to reconcile the distinct goals of the two areas. I design with user’s delight in my mind, while not averting from optimizing conversion rates.