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.