3 Steps to Mastering Flow - the Secret to High Engagement and Performance

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By Cara Bradley, Host of Embodiment @ Work Summit 2019

“The holy grail of today’s workplace is high employee engagement.” - Harvard Business Review, February 16, 2017

Top leaders know that high engagement leads to high performance. Engaged employees are happier and work harder on the job. Low engagement, on the other hand, cost US companies a cool $550 billion in lost revenue per year.

So how do you make your people more engaged? Well we all know telling them to be more engaged doesn’t work and good luck trying to make someone be engaged, has that ever worked on you?

I believe the answer lies in Flow. In this article I’ll share with you: what is flow?, what does flow looks like at work?, and three steps to get on the path of mastering flow.    

What is Flow?

Flow is an optimal state where we feel and perform our best. It’s commonly referred to as a heightened state of body and mind where action and awareness merge, time flies, and self vanishes. Creativity, productivity, and performance all go through the roof.

Flow is not just about being more focused or “paying attention on purpose” with your mind. It’s a sense of full participation in the moment from your head, heart, and gut. Think of it as mindfulness in action—a full-body, full-sensory experience where you see, hear, taste, smell, and feel more, not only in yourself but also in others—on the court, onstage, or in the boardroom.

Sometimes called being in the zone or the deep now, flow feels like a period of full awareness and aliveness when the inner critic goes quiet and you are left with a deep sense of being in your body and in the moment.

As explained in Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, one of the reasons for this sense of complete presence and embodiment is “transient hypofrontality,” also known as a powering down of your prefrontal cortex. This state shift tends to silence your inner critic freeing you from your default mode of battling chronic doubts and fears. With the mind quiet, you are primed to perform.

Flow At Work

Ask any master musician or athlete, and they’ll tell you that flow can feel like being “at one” with the mountain, the wave, the guitar. In flow, we run faster, jump higher, ride the wave, and feel the notes more deeply. And you don’t have to be an athlete or musician to reap the benefits of flow. In fact, in a 10-year McKinsey study, top executives reported being five times more productive in flow.

Think about it for a second. We are five times more productive when we are focused and not distracted.

Ann Marsh wrote in Fast Company, “Being able to control and harness this feeling is the holy grail for any manager—or even any individual—seeking a more productive and satisfying work experience.” And Sir Richard Branson once said, “In 2 hours in flow, I can accomplish tremendous things!”

Do you want to live in flow? Do you want to spark a flow culture at work? Of course you do! Who doesn’t want to feel better and perform better?

Mastering Flow

Step 1: Get to know Flow

Flow isn’t like a light switch that turns on or off. Think of this optimal experience as a spectrum of states from macro to micro. Macro-flow moments are big, really big when our systems are flooded with neurochemicals heightening attention and arousal to the point that makes us superhuman so we can do impossible things like climb a 900-metre vertical rock without a rope ( Alex Honnold in Free Solo).

Then there are micro-flow moments, when a lesser degree of superhuman happens but you feel alert and engaged nonetheless. Micro-flow may appear as quick hits of clarity, glimpses of focus, or flashes of feeling fully alive. Since most of us mere mortals experience flow in the mild to medium version, let’s, for now, call it all flow.

You are already experiencing flow every day—you simply need to start noticing. If you’re like most of us, you may be missing high-definition moments right and left. You may be speeding by moments of flow.

The first step to living in flow more often is to get to know what it feels like to be in flow.  Start by recognizing moments when you feel engaged and even happy.  Ask yourself the following prompts and see what you discover.

  • What moments during the day do you feel engaged?
  • What can you do for hours and hours without stopping for a break?
  • What makes your mind focus like a laser beam on a target?

Is it music, nature, or playing sports? Work? Being with your kids?  Go ahead and get specific. Write down some people and places. Make a long list. It’s worth your time. Get to know what makes you feel engaged, and you’ll start recognizing flow moments all day long. It’s like when you decide to buy a new car and start seeing your favorite model everywhere you look.

Step 2: Return to Flow

Once you know what it feels like to be in flow, you’ll start noticing when you’re not in flow. Most often, when you’re not in flow, it’s because you’re stuck in the chatter of your busy mind.

Just like with a mindfulness practice, recognizing you’re not in flow is your reminder to return to flow. It’s like riding a bike—you know when you’re off-balance and you know how to swiftly regain balance without much thought.

For the most part, returning to flow is about getting out of your head and into your body. Try these quick state-shifters when you’re feeling dull or distracted.

  • Go outside
  • Take five deep breaths
  • Take a brisk walk
  • Drink some water
  • Do ten squats
  • Wash your face
  • Jump up and down
  • Eat a healthy snack
  • Do “Breath of Fire
  • Turn on some high energy tunes

You’ll have to find what works for you and the environment you’re in.  Play with these state-shifters and come up with your own.

Step 3: Training to Flow

If you want to maintain full engagement during a project or meeting, you’ll need to build your capacity to sustain flow for longer periods of time. To do this, it’s helpful to understand the situations and environments that likely trigger flow. Let’s look at three triggers that make working in flow more predictable studied by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Trigger 1 -  Increase Concentration

Flow demands a single action at a time. In other words, to get the job done well and on time, there is no room for distraction or multitasking. When I work with elite athletes, I call this training “Fierce Focus.” On the court, Fierce Focus could mean taking 100 free throws without stopping. At your laptop, it may mean using the Pomodoro Technique by setting your phone timer for 25 minutes and cranking up a playlist of binaural beats.

The only “rule” of Fierce Focus is that you contain the task and remain engaged in the project at hand no matter what. Give it a try and you’ll quickly notice when your mind gets itchy to get some water, hop on ESPN, or pick up your phone. Nope. Nada. Don’t do it! Stay with your project; doing so will make you stronger.

Trigger 2 -  Set Clear Goals

It’s much easier to stay focused when you have a clear understanding of a task and how you’re going to accomplish it, e.g., “Complete the forecast by entering the Q2 numbers,” or, “Send team my summary of the meeting.”

Having clear goals drives focus onto the task at hand and reduces the “time drain” of our wondering and wandering mind. If your goals aren’t clear, break them down into smaller goals that can be accomplished in shorter time periods. For example, “Finish the second and third paragraph of chapter 3,” instead of, “Finish my book.”

Trigger 3 -  Match Skills to Challenge

The Challenge-Skills Ratio promotes balance and can keep you out of the office refrigerator at 3:00 pm in the afternoon. It explains why when a task is too hard for our skill set, we are more likely to get frustrated and give up—and why if a task is too easy and repetitive, we will get bored and easily distracted.

In The Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler writes, "If the challenge is too great, fear swamps the system. If the challenge is too easy, we stop paying attention." He goes on to say, "Flow appears near the emotional midpoint between boredom and anxiety, in what scientists call the 'flow channel'—the spot where the task is hard enough to make us stretch, not hard enough to make us snap." 

Ready to Flow?

Most leaders know what flow is regardless of whether they are not familiar with all research. To be a master of flow means more than being an exemplar of flow.  The true masters of flow are able to create the conditions and environments to spark flow in other people, on their teams, their organizations, and in the world around them.

But you have to start with the basics.   Try these steps out, and I warn you--the side effects of Flow include: more engagement, more productivity, and more joy.  

Cara Bradley works with leaders who want to reboot motivation on their team and boost engagement and performance. She trains individuals and teams how to work and play in flow. Cara is the author of On The Verge: Wake Up, Show Up, and Shine and the founder of Verge Body-Mind in Philadelphia. She has shared her expertise in mental strength training and embodied leadership with Fortune 500 companies, start-ups, trade organizations and premiere college teams including the Villanova Men’s Basketball Team. Learn more about Cara Bradley at www.carabradley.net

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