Watching Jiro Ono prepare sushi is like watching art come to life through food. “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”, a documentary about the first sushi chef to earn the prestigious three Michelin stars at his ten-seater restaurant, is a story about mastery in one's craft and work. At the time of production, Jiro was already 85 years old and yet had no intention of retiring. He focused on perfecting each piece of sushi in his hands—he was in the flow.
Have you ever got involved in an activity so deeply that nothing else seemed to matter, and you lost sense of time? You felt satisfied and happy from the effortless concentration. It didn't matter what result you achieved, but the journey and state of concentrated focus brought a positive sense of enjoyment.
What is flow?
That immersion experience is flow. Others refer to these moments as being in the zone. The experience can happen while painting or reading a book, practicing a sport, or at work, such as performing a complicated analysis or closing a business deal. Passive activities such as watching TV or scrolling through social media, on the other hand, don't lead to flow.
While we may be transported away in a movie or in endless TikTok videos, the types of activities that absorb our attention and create flow require the presence of a few elements. First, the activity should be challenging to one's skills. The task should not be too hard to become frustrated or too easy to become bored. It should be, as Goldilocks said, just right.
Understanding one's skills will lead to setting the right level of goals (and accompanying parameters) to achieve the task. For a product designer, for example, knowing the user persona and their pain points can lead to setting out the prototype, testing, and launch milestones to achieve goals. When the right person is assigned to the task based on challenge and skillset, this can increase creativity and engagement in the designer.
Why find flow?
Flow happens when one needs to improve or learn new skills to overcome the challenge. Whether the challenge is to climb a mountain or write a computer program, there must be a stretch to one's current physical or mental capabilities. The stretch motivates one to continue with the activity. Because it is about the task rather than the destination, people in the flow tend to fail forward. They embrace the feedback that comes from trying and failing—the learning process drives them forward towards improvement until they overcome the obstacle.
This intrinsic motivation that comes from being in the flow gives a sense of inner clarity and serenity. When I am in the writing zone, I have clarity and focus, which helps me be more creative. Different ideas start to connect, and new perspectives emerge. These new perspectives birth ideas for further articles and other areas for exploration, and the cycle continues.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who published “Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life”, started his TED talk on the subject with the question: What makes a life worth living? Indeed the point about finding flow is to achieve pleasure through our activities—and this could lead to doing meaningful work. The combination of knowing one's core values and achieving flow could result in many of us feeling more contented in our jobs. Ultimately, this leads to higher performance at work.
How to Achieve Flow at Work?
One can achieve flow at any job. A supermarket assistant could make a mundane task more interesting by asking: how could I better serve customers today? What would make my contribution more valuable? How could things be better for colleagues? Connecting daily activities to core values, such as customer-first or helping co-workers, can transform the type of attention that one pays to their job. Not only will one enjoy work more, but will likely be more successful in their role.
Leaders can help team members achieve flow by allocating tasks that stretch them according to their skill sets. The right level of challenge with set milestones along the way can guide team members towards higher performance levels. Leaders can adjust goals and milestones based on regular conversations so that team members continue to be intrinsically motivated to improve and learn independently. Help them identify tasks that could be broken down into simpler parts or the training needed to complete the milestones.
Once goals have been set along with agreed timelines, empower team members. Provide them the resources they need, remove potential barriers to success and then get out of the way—except to check-in when agreed and needed. If they need to learn new skills, provide them the training resources. Help them set aside focus time and respect the time blocked out on the calendar. No-Meeting days could work for some organizations, but may not for others where team members have different work schedules.
Journey to Mastery
Ultimately the journey to mastery needs autonomy. One needs to be in control to be intrinsically motivated to achieve flow. Leaders can help teams set goals, but the most important thing leaders can do is relinquish control. Rather than telling team members what they should be doing or how they should be doing, ask instead, "how can I support you?" Provide candid feedback where it is helpful and then step aside to let them find their way.
So how can we as individuals find our flow? Think back to the times you experienced flow. What were the circumstances, goals, and tasks involved? How were you challenged intellectually or physically? How might you replicate these experiences?
To get in the writing zone, I put away my devices so that there are no pings and dings to distract my attention. I brew a cup of black coffee and sit quietly at my office with no one around me. Some people turn on certain music to help them concentrate or energize themselves. Others go for a walk before sitting down to the task. For some, mornings work best and for others, late at night is when they achieve peak performance. Pick and set the environment that helps you get in the zone.
You are in control of getting in the flow.