Think back to a time when you were completely immersed in an activity, so absorbed in what you were doing that everything around you disappeared. Time seemed to slip away effortlessly, and you found yourself fully focused, using your strengths to tackle the challenge at hand. That my friends, is the elusive state of flow.

Flow is not just any ordinary experience – it’s the pinnacle of engagement, when we’re at our peak performance and deeply connected to the tasks in front of us. As illustrated in the diagram below (adapted from Csikszentmihalyi, 2008), flow occurs when there is a perfect balance between the challenge of an activity and our skills or strengths.

But flow is more than just being focused and motivated – it’s a key ingredient of wellbeing and performance. In fact, it’s been considered an antidote to languishing, that feeing of emptiness, stagnation, aimlessness or ‘blah’ that many are telling me they’re feeling right now.  Languishing can disrupt your focus and dampen your motivation. Yet flow can prevent us from slipping further and can move us closer towards thriving too. 

Flow (adapted from Csikszentmihalyi, 2008)

Where does flow come from?

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the founders of Positive Psychology, flow occurs when we’re fully engaged in activities that challenge us just enough to stretch our skills without overwhelming us. This could be anything from gardening, playing sports, making art, to cooking up a storm.

But here’s the catch – not all activities lead to flow. Mindlessly scrolling through social media or watching TV may offer a temporary escape, but they’re a passive engagement that don’t truly engage us. Flow-inducing activities on the other hand, demand active participation and a careful balance of challenge and strengths – a sweet spot where we’re we become fully absorbed and enter the zone. Work can be an ideal setting for experiencing flow, which is lucky, considering the amount of time we spend there!

How to prioritise flow

Given the countless disruptions that bombard us throughout the day,  finding flow requires intentional effort. We often need to carve out and guard the time in our schedules to focus on one activity, minimising interruptions and distractions. Multi-tasking is a myth after all, and it only serves to diminish our productivity and hinder our ability to experience flow.

As I write this post, my phone is on ‘do not disturb’, my email notifications remain silenced, and there’s a ‘please don’t ring the bell’ note on my door. Creating a conducive environment for flow isn’t easy, but it’s essential if we want to tap into our full potential and achieve peak performance. And the conditions you need for flow will look different to me.

How can leaders support flow?

Organisations should want to prioritise flow to ensure that their teams are performing at their best. Because flow isn’t just good for employees – it’s good for business too. When employees are deeply engaged and satisfied in their work, they’re more likely to stay with their organisation and contribute to its success. They’re at their best so why would they go anywhere else?!

Leaders play a crucial role in creating an environment where flow can flourish. By recognising and leveraging their team members’ strengths, setting clear (and challenging) goals, and providing timely feedback, leaders can empower their teams to achieve a state of flow and unlock their full potential.

We need to make flow a priority. Without it, you might find life is a bit blah. We need to make time for activities that challenge and inspire us, and be intentional about building the conditions where flow can thrive.

So, what brings on flow for you? And are you getting in the zone enough?