Get in flow for the long haul

You know the feeling: you’re working on a project you fully enjoy, the rest of the world fades away, time slows, and you’re in that zone where everything you do feels… just right. If you’re a work practices geek like me, you’ve probably read a whole book on that experience: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

But you don’t have to have read the book to get the feeling; flow happens to all of us. Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Cheek-Sent-Mee-High) and his colleagues found that people in cultures around the world experienced the elusive feeling of flow at all ages during a wide variety of activities. Assembly line workers and retirees, shepherds and teenagers all described a very similar phenomenon. Csikszentmihalyi’s research showed that while it can’t be forced, flow is possible when your attention is focused on achieving realistic but challenging goals – conditions that happen at work, but also in sports and art. And when it is achieved, the rewards are nothing short of joy, transformation, and a sense of completeness.

No wonder people strive for flow. In our office at, we do our best to attain flow as often as we can. We’ve even carved out two Flow Mornings every week when we set up the conditions that we’ve found make flow more likely to emerge. Try to schedule a meeting with us during a Flow Morning and you’ll get a sense of how much we crave flow.

But there is a downside. One of the characteristics of flow is that your sense of time is altered; minutes turn into hours, or hours feel like minutes. And that means that while you’re brain is humming along, out here in the physical world your body may miss lunch and be sitting still for much longer than is healthy. Too much flow can leave you depleted, and it can also mean that you’re working for the sake of working, headed toward a goal that may have shifted while you had your head down, powering through.

Flow is great, but it needs to be balanced by rest and reflection. Regular breaks give our bodies and minds the time they need to stretch, move, refuel and recover. Reflection gives us a chance to make sure we’re still on the right track. This is particularly important because flow gives us the opportunity to really affect the world around us, and in affecting it, we change it. Smart adjustments can only be made if we build in pauses to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going.

So, how do we keep the benefits of flow without being swept away by it? It’s not easy, but I’ll give you two hints.

Actually, it’s 6pm. I’ll give you two hints when I get back tomorrow.

. . .

There. Much better. As it happens, writing is one of the activities that I find conducive to flow. A few sentences in a row that fit snugly together feel like heaven to me. And while I’m not James Joyce and this isn’t Ulysses, the room around me has faded away a few times while I was writing this post, and I’d want to write it even if no one ever read it.

As I was saying yesterday: there are a couple of things you can do to avoid avoid the kind of burnout that can result from too much flow. And, paradoxically, these practices can help you get into flow more often.

First: set a schedule and stick with it. Having regular, recurring activities scheduled throughout the day (and week) will help you get into a rhythm. Notice when your energy ebbs and flows and try to plan activities that fit. Maybe you dive in and write first thing in the morning and use your post-lunch trough to check email. You don’t have to schedule every minute, but having a few regularly scheduled activities will help your body and mind know when to prepare to push on the gas and when to expect some recovery time. Regular, scheduled rest (including sleep) has helped me slip into flow a lot more often.

This is what Flow Mornings are all about: we don’t get into flow every time, but we know when they’re coming, so we can set ourselves up so flow will be more likely.

Second: stop when it feels really, really good. This one takes a whole lot of self-awareness. When you’re really cruising along, use the enjoyment you’re getting as a signal that you’re reaching a peak and that it’s time to ease out of the flow. Don’t wait for your body to tell you to move – be proactive and stand up and walk around. Make a commitment that you’re going to let what you were doing go for a while, even overnight or for a few days.

At first, you will probably find this quite painful. Giving up the feeling of flow feels like letting go of the thing that makes you you. But the more you practice letting go of flow, the easier it will get (though it will probably never get very easy). Take a page from mindfulness meditation: notice that you’re eager to get back into the flow, but just notice it, and let it go.

With practice, you’ll find that you get to have more flow by holding on to it less. Flow is easy. Getting into flow is hard. In fact, you can’t do it directly. You have to do it obliquely, by setting up the right conditions, having the discipline to stick to a rhythm, and forgiving yourself for craving it.

Step away, don’t skip your breaks, and go easy on yourself; a well rested mind gets into flow much more readily, and with some practice (and a whole lot of willpower) you’ll slide into flow more often.

Find out more about Flow Mornings and other workplace experiments in our Workplace Lab.

Nick Jehlen's picture
Nick Jehlen is a partner at The Action Mill