Still feeling ‘blah’? The majority of people are.

Many have resonated with the term languishing over recent months. In the surveys I run with teams, it continues to come out as the dominant emotional state being experienced. And when I ask people how they’re going, they tend to respond with “I’m languishing”. This is normal given what we’re experiencing.

It can be good to have a word to describe how you’re feeling. When we can label our emotions, it can help us identify if there’s an issue, and then encourage us to do something. Because nothing will change without taking action!

If most of the world has been feeling this way over the past year to 18 months, we have to question what the cost of this is? Or what the fallout is going to be over the years to come? I’m predicting it’s going to be a lot.

So what action should be taken?

There’s a lot of advice out there around how to practise self-care. Taking care of ourselves is important. But this isn’t about short-term fixes or band-aid solutions like a candle-lit bath, some delicious food or bingeing a TV show. You might feel better in that moment from doing these things, but chances are shortly after you’ll return to how you were before.

We need to prioritise the activities that can improve the way we’re feeling and functioning over the longer term. Those factors that have been shown to do so in studies (which will be covered in my upcoming webinar). And this is where flow comes in.

What is flow?

Think back to a time when you were fully absorbed in an activity that everything around you disappeared. Your mind would have been focused on nothing but the task at hand. Time would have ticked by without you realising, and you would have had no real experience of feelings or emotions. You weren’t daydreaming but fully concentrating, and you felt confident to meet whatever task was in front of you.

What I have described is a state of flow.

Flow is when we’re at our peak level of engagement, which is why it’s a key ingredient of wellbeing. It has been considered an antidote to languishing.  because it’s about being focused and motivated. But flow can achieve more than that – it can move us closer towards thriving too.

Flow occurs when there is a balance between the challenge at hand and the ability of your strengths or skills to meet that challenge according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the cofounders of Positive Psychology. If the task is too challenging this will lead to anxiety, and if it’s too easy, you’ll be bored.

Activities like playing sports, art, music and cooking can bring on flow. Things like watching a movie, flicking through Instagram and doing housework typically won’t as there’s no real stretch of your skills from these activities. Work is the best place for the state of flow to occur for most people.

Flow can also enable us to feel like we’ve accomplished something (no big or small like completing a Sudoku), which can further boost our wellbeing too.

Csikszentmihalyi’s (1997) Flow Model.

How to prioritise flow

Given the number of disruptions that occur throughout our day (when working from home or otherwise), flow is often something that needs to be planned for. Because interruptions to our attention are what stops us from being fully immersed in what we’re doing.

We need to be dedicating time in our days to allow ourselves to be able to concentrate on one activity with limited distractions, rather than switching between a number of different tasks. Multi-tasking is a myth after all and only lessens our productivity!

As I’m writing this post, my phone is switched to ‘do not disturb’, I’ve shut down my emails, there’s a ‘please don’t ring the bell’ note on my door and I’ve got headphones in to block out the sound of a new fence being built in my backyard…

I appreciate this isn’t easy, and we need to add a routine around flow as our motivation might not be enough to get us there. It’s best to consider a time each day that you’re going to be really productive. This will also give us moments to look forward to in our day, and to feel like we have aim and are making progress.

What can our workplaces do?

There’s only one more quarter left of this year so organsiations that have people who are languishing (or worse), need to be thinking about ensuring their teams are fit to play well. Otherwise the costs associated with lost productivity will continue to grow.

Strengths use and flow improves the performance and engagement of employees so it’s good for them. But it’s good for the organisation too as when employees are more satisfied, they’re less likely to leave (which is a question on several people’s minds right now, see The Great Resignation).

Leaders should be supporting their team members to use their strengths and to be at their best. They also need to ensure that the right amount of challenge (not too demanding or simple) is being provided so they’re not bored or too stressed, but motivated and energised instead.

In addition to the matching of strengths and challenge, employees need goals to be clear and to be given in-the-moment feedback so any stress being felt is alleviated, and they feel competent to complete their tasks. And once what brings on flow is known, workplaces should be supporting employees to reach this state as frequently as possible.

So perhaps flow is the answer to moving away from languishing. Because when we’re using our strengths, we’re deeply engaged and at our best, which moves us closer towards thriving!