Cultivate Flow for Optimal Performance and Happiness

who is you Sep 15, 2020

Eight peaks over eight hours. The Glencoaghan Horseshoe, part of the Twelve Bens mountain range in Connemara was my most challenging hike yet. Characterised by quartzite peaks, deep scree descents, ridges of varying widths and formidable cliffs, this hike demanded all of my concentration, skill, energy and mindset. I was rewarded with the most spectacular views in every direction and the euphoria that comes with meeting your edge pushing past it. Today I am tired, sore and happy. For me hiking is a flow experience.

What is Flow?

Flow is a peak psychological state where you get completely immersed in a task, you lose track of time and your focus is heightened. It happens when you pitch your skills against the sweet spot of a challenge that is just enough to stretch you (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Research in neuroscience also reveals that flow produces a potent cocktail of feel good chemicals that fuel our motivation, creativity and learning efficiency (Kotler, 2014).

I’ve been reflecting on when I experience that same flow state at work. As a trainer, I am definitely in that zone when I’m in the training room working with leaders. I love the energy of it, the sharing of experiences and the working through real life challenges. It is where I pitch my skills against the right balance of challenge. The feedback in the room is immediate and the mind remains focused on the task at hand. I miss this work. However, the current pandemic has provided a new challenge for my skillset. To build virtual programmes that engage learners through a different medium. I am having to lift my game and suddenly I don’t know where the time has gone, I have been fully immersed in the work with undivided attention and focus.

Can we cultivate more Flow at Work?

Employees who experience more flow at work are by definition more engaged. Given that flow is a state of optimal engagement, enhanced performance, greater creativity, deeper and more efficient learning and happiness it would seem imperative that we deliberately try to cultivate more flow at work. So how do we do this?

Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the godfather of flow research. Here are some of the conditions he identified that cultivate flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

Clear Goals

People function better with clarity. Goals should not only be clear but should also feel meaningful to the individual. Can we do a better job of crafting clear goals that feel meaningful to the individual as well as to the organisation?

1. Clear Goals

People function better with clarity. Goals should not only be clear but should also feel meaningful to the individual. Can we do a better job of crafting clear goals that feel meaningful to the individual as well as to the organisation?

2. Immediate feedback

I have long questioned the value of annual reviews as a feedback mechanism. Instead, can we cultivate a culture of rich conversation where feedback, recognition and coaching is normalised?

3. Matching challenges with adequate skills

The mental state of flow is triggered when we pitch our skills against above average challenge. Too little challenge results in boredom and apathy. Too much challenge results in stress. Can we do more to discover individual strengths and find opportunities for people to engage in challenging activities that stretch them?

4. Merging action and awareness

When in flow we become one with what we are doing provided the task is challenging enough to command our attention. Can we do more to limit or automate repetitive, low skill tasks?

5. Focused attention and concentration on the task at hand. 

Multi-tasking is a myth. Research shows that frequent switching between tasks costs us on average as much as 40% of our productivity (Weinberg, 1992). We live in a culture of constant distraction where slowing down and placing our attention on one thing at a time is seen as unproductive. Our ‘busyness’ satisfies our ego and the perception of being productive. Can we do more to create a culture which values deep focus and attention? Can we provide more uninterrupted blocks of time?

6. Perception of control over the situation

We know from the work of Daniel Pink that autonomy is a key motivator at work. Essentially this means having a say in how the work gets done. With remote working being the new norm, I have found leaders being really challenged by the autonomy that goes with this way of working. Autonomy is directly linked to our intrinsic motivation and engagement at work. In your organisation are your leaders autonomy supportive or controlling?

7. Loss of self-consciousness

Worrying about what other people think of us takes up a lot of mental energy. We sit in this kind of uncertainty that is more immobilizing than flowing. As a coach I encounter this ‘block’ all the time. The truth is if you are not causing others stress, chances are they are not thinking much about you at all. Equally if the work environment does not feel psychologically safe than employees will show up careful and self-conscious. What can you do to create more psychological safety where people can show up as they are?

I am starting to have more and more conversations with my clients around the concept of flow. It aligns with my passion to build human-centered cultures where both individuals and organisations thrive. How about you? Are you experiencing flow at work? What are the conditions that support that for you?

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

Hi. My name is Mary Ann. I am a leadership development trainer and coach with a passion for building human centred cultures at work. Connect with me here on Linkedin.


Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: HaperCollins.

Kotler, S. (2014). The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance. London, UK: Quercus Publishing.

Weinberg, G.M. (1992). Quality Software Management: Systems Thinking. London, UK: Dorset House.



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