Optimising for ‘flow’ to increase happiness and productivity

Flow is a mental state where we are happy and productive, a term first coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1990. Stephen Kotler offered this definition in a recent slideshare deck:

Flow is an optimal state of consciousness, a peak state where we both feel our best and perform our best

If you can visualise your favourite athlete when they were at the top of their game, when the world seemed to be moving slowly for them and they could do no wrong then you are seeing someone in flow state. Developers often achieve flow state too, head down, headphones on, cranking out great code. Or picture a dancer, lost in the music. Or a magical conversation with your other half.

Lots of examples, and the point is that all us can experience flow. It’s important because doing so makes us happier and more productive. One way to a happier life, therefore, is to maximise flow. And one way to build a stronger culture is to optimise for flow in the workplace.

Kotler has identified 17 triggers for flow:

  • intensely focused attention
  • clear goals
  • immediate feedback
  • challenge that stretches us, but not too much
  • high consequences
  • rich environment
  • deep embodiment
  • serious consequences
  • shared goals
  • good communication
  • familiarity
  • equal participation and skill level
  • risk
  • sense of control
  • close listening
  • postive/constructive environment (yes, and…)
  • creativity

Notice that most of the items on this list are features of good company cultures and/or things we try to cultivate in our businesses. Flipping this on its head, the interesting idea for me is whether optimising flow might be a way to think about the goal for a company culture.

Most startups start thinking about their company culture when they get big enough that the founder stops having close contact with everyone in the business. The goal is to make sure the special sauce the founder has discovered doesn’t get lost as the company grows. The business reasons for doing that are usually to maintain productivity and creativity, and to help attract and retain talent.

What I like about Kotler’s 17 triggers for flow is that they provide the link between culture and productivity.

This is an emerging area I will watch with interest.

  • Bardo Media

    I love it when ideas I’m following in one place come up in another, and this is one of those times.

    Though was wondering, as you say: Most startups start thinking about their company culture when they get big enough that the founder stops having close contact with everyone in the business… to make sure the special sauce the founder has discovered doesn’t get lost as the company grows.

    The implication of the above seems to be that the culture of the company has been established well before the company starts to think about it. The “secret sauce” is in place and the company has reached some scale (of employees at least) by the time it reaches the place you describe. If the culture is not already one that supports flow, then there is actually a dilemma between keeping that secret sauce and adapting into something different to try support more flow in its growing number of employees.

    With that said, should there be more focus early in a company’s life in helping the founder(s) to think about culture (and flow) while it is still in its formative stages? And if so, as a VC that is very actively involved with its founders at those early stages, how are you incorporating this into your work at Forward Partners?

  • Michael Haynes

    Incidentally I think that the new open plan office craze is a complete flow/productivity killer.. especially as a developer it can be near impossible to keep sustained periods of focus with so much distraction. This is why you’ll often hear people say “Oh I come in early/stay late as that’s when I get most of my work done”.