Flow has been defined as a mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus. The term was first coined by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975 and is often referred to as as ‘the zone’, however few people truly appreciate that ‘the zone’ is actually a physiological state.
Why did I choose to write about a topic that may at first glance seem to have more to do with psychology and physiological science than business innovation?
The answer is simple.
A 10-year McKinsey and Co. study on flow and productivity found top executives 500% more productive when in flow. Interested in finding out more?
So I thought…
Before I go on, it’s worth knowing what the flow state looks like from a physiological perspective. The human brain possesses five different types of electric patterns, also called “brain waves” across the cortex.
According to C Wilson Meloncelli, the five brain waves can best be summarised as:
The flow state is activated when the alpha and theta brain waves coalesce — this is essentially the border between the conscious and subconscious mind.
Picture for a second a lone surfer about to hurl himself onto a 20 foot wave on a treacherous, shallow coral reef — in that moment, the mind is processing information above and beyond normal consciousness and intuition takes the driver’s seat (theta) whilst rest of the world simply slips away (alpha) to allow the lone surfer to focus only on one thing — riding that wave (well, maybe two things…staying alive).
According to Steven Kotler, best selling author of The Rise of Superman and founder of the Flow Genome Project, “if we are hunting the highest version of ourselves, then we need to turn work into play and not the other way round. Unless we invert this equation, much of our capacity for intrinsic motivation starts to shut down. We lose touch with our passion and become less than what we could be and that feeling never really goes away.”
How I interpret this is that in order to be our best at anything, we need to be pursuing our passions which activates a sense of play otherwise we will only ever perceive work as just that and will struggle to tap into the flow state that sees free solo rock climbers (that’s climbing on your own without a rope) scale and survive 600 metre high walls. When it comes to pushing human limits, it’s a case of flow or die.
So you’ve never caught a wave, climbed a wall or jumped out of a plane? Have you ever been so immersed in an activity that time just seemed to slow down, you effortlessly and blissfully put in hours of work and the rest of the world seemed to just slip away?
Did you find that state productive? Do you want to find that state more often?
Sure you do…
According to Kotler, there are a number of ways to activate flow states across psychological, environmental and social lines. Yes, you can engineer tapping into your flow state. How?
So I’ve given you more than enough flow state inducers to work with, but what about flow state busters. Well, apart from the inverse of the triggers above, there’s no shortage of things that get in the way of flow each and every day.
Some of the more common busters might include:
It’s worth mentioning the cognitive switching penalty here — the time it takes to get back into flow after being interrupted might be as short as a few minutes, but can often be more than 30 minutes. If your day is littered with the above interruptions then do the math and the numbers look pretty ugly, pretty quickly.
So you’ve heard of business model innovation.
McKinsey’s award winning article Reinventing Your Business Modelsuggests that a business model has four key elements — value proposition, key resources, processes and profit formula. Key resources refers to people, technology, products, information, partnerships, facilities, equipment and brand of an organisation. Classic cases of business model innovation leveraging the ‘people’ component of business models might include automating procedures usually performed by humans such as helpdesk functions or mundane transactional tasks.
But we rarely, if ever, look at radically improving the productivity of existing employees by triggering flow states. What if organisations invested some budget into improving the physiological state of human beings?
Forbes included ‘flow state percentage’, the amount of time an employee spends in flow state, as one of the five new management metrics that today’s managers and leaders need to know.
As Peter Drucker famously said, “if you can measure it, you can manage it” — and today, with EEG, we can measure flow state percentage.
An EEG (or electroencephalography for those of you that want to be technical) records brain waves and today there are multiple variations of this on the consumer market such as Museand Melon. Now, we’re not advocating that employees stroll around with headbands on at all times but understanding what kind of work gets employees into a flow state, even if they self monitor at their own leisure, will provide valuable insights to help engineer the more frequent achievement of flow states.
The best selling author of the mindfulness bestseller The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle, says of modern art that “because we live in such a mind-dominated culture, most modern art, architecture, music, and literature are devoid of beauty, of inner essence, with very few exceptions. The mind left to itself creates monstrosities, and not only in art galleries. Look at our urban landscapes and industrial wastelands. No civilization has ever produced so much ugliness.”
What he is referring to is the fact that the modern mind is often a messy mind, clouded with work, social, monetary, emotional, psychological and physical pressures, and rarely focused on one task at a time. As such, most people spend little time in flow, resulting in sub-par performance and creative endeavours.
When it comes to innovation, we can run all the hackathons, idea contests and corporate incubators we want, but unless people’s contributions are coming from a place of unperturbed flow, then chances are that those contributions may be average at best.
Most people say that they have their best ideas while in the shower, after a gym workout, whilst going for a run — this is because these activities tend to calm the mind and free it from the noise of the world, allowing us to see things clearer. It is also the very reason why time-boxed brainstorming, while generating ideas, may not serve to generate very good ones.
Clearly, getting employees into a flow state is a powerful way to not only increase productivity, but also increase creativity and innovation in an organisation and just might be the secret weapon for organisations looking to differentiate themselves from competitors.
Steve Glaveski is on a mission to unlock your potential to do your best work and live your best life. He is the founder of innovation accelerator, Collective Campus, author of several books, including Employee to Entrepreneur and Time Rich, and productivity contributor for Harvard Business Review. He’s a chronic autodidact and is into everything from 80s metal and high-intensity workouts to attempting to surf and hold a warrior three pose.