In my coaching practice and training we often talk a lot about stress and flow. One thing that I discovered is that many people mistake being in ‘flow’ for actually over-stressing themselves. This isn’t too surprising since flow is a bit of a subjective and vague word. However, there is a different way of looking at flow that can help you understand what is and isn’t a true flow state. To clear up myths about flow we have to take a neurobiological perspective.
The neurobiological basis of flow
Although the underlying neurobiology of flow states is quite a complex subject, there are simplified models that help us understand it. The model that I find most useful is called the ‘Window of Tolerance’ model (others have also called the same model ‘Range of Resiliency’ or ‘River of Integration’).
What this model shows is a simple ‘window’ that resembles your optimal zone of functioning. Inside this zone we use a part of our (autonomic) nervous system that produces feelings safety, clear mindedness and social engagement. In this state our nervous system integrates the many subsystems of our body and brain so that they work optimally together. We then have more-or-less full access to our mental capacities and abilities.
When we move outside of this window, crossing the upper threshold, we enter the infamous zone of ‘fight/flight’. Here we literally dis-integrate parts of our nervous system and we start to lose access to our higher-order mental capacities (including long-term planning, empathy and the inhibition of more primitive emotions and behavior). This results in feelings of alertness, reactivity, irritation, frustration, anxiousness, worry, etc. In this state, our mental experience is one of chaos (see figure above).
An important aspect of entering the fight/flight zone is that we start to feel a sense of threat and urgency: after all, our biology perceives we are in a dangerous situation that requires an urgent resolution! And this is where it can become easy to mistake the state of flow for the experience of fight/flight. We may have the impression that feeling this urgency and drive towards resolving whatever is in front of us, as an experience of flow. However, this is not what a true flow state is supposed to feel like.
What, then, would be a true experience of flow? Well, it turns out that there is a specific zone in our window of tolerance that relates to the true flow experience: the so-called edge of chaos.
The edge of chaos refers to moving and balancing along the upper edge of your window of tolerance (see figure above). This is where a true flow experience will arise for the reason that your current capacity gets challenged just to the right amount by the current activity. Only then it is possible to get the flow experience of being fully immersed in the activity, feeling energized, involved and having a sense of enjoyment in the process. This is a different subjective feeling than the experience of fight/flight stress and the accompanying urgency, irritability, worrying, etc. In contrast to the flow state, spending a lot of time in fight/flight will not help you grow, since the growth of new neurons and synapses in your brain literally gets inhibited.
Finding flow at work
Although finding your edge of chaos is very important, there are more preconditions for experiencing flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihályi, the researcher that ‘discovered’ flow, mentions three important factors that contribute to flow in the workplace:
- A balance between skill and task (challenge)
- Clear goals
- Immediate and clear feedback
The first point is what we discussed previously, but the other two points are also a challenge to get right for many people. Clear goals require some goal setting skills – specifically the ability to break down large goals into smaller sub-goals. Once you can break down complex tasks into the right ‘chunks’ and sub-goals, you will not only improve your chances of flow, but also reduce procrastination.
The third point, immediate feedback, is an even trickier one. The best example of feedback done right can be found in video games. Many of them have immediate feedback on progress towards goals and achievements. The feedback in games often is nearly instantaneous, clear and accurate. Compared to the workplace, this is much harder to reproduce, although many different (agile) working methods aim to improve feedback systems. Another development are so-called ‘serious games’ which can help improve interpersonal feedback in teams.
It can also be very interesting to brainstorm with your co-workers and/or manager on ways to improve feedback responsiveness both between team members and within your specific role. If you want to have more guidelines on analyzing and shaping your work for flow, you can use the work of Owen Schaffer, a Usability Analyst from the world’s largest UX company, who has studied directly with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He proposes seven factors that contribute to the experience of flow:
- Knowing what to do
- Knowing how to do it
- Knowing how well you are doing
- Knowing where to go (if navigation is involved)
- High perceived challenges
- High perceived skills
- Freedom from distractions
As a last note, some researchers have argued that the balance between skill and challenge already includes clear goals and feedback. This goes back to the window of tolerance model suggesting that this is the most important precondition for experiencing flow.
Therefore I recommend checking in with yourself during your workday to explore whether you are functioning within your window of tolerance, in the zone of chaos or right at the edge of chaos. Don’t fall for the myth that being over-stressed is the same as flow, it won’t do you any favors!
That’s it for now, let me know if and how you get into flow at work! And if you want to get more tools on finding flow, you can check out my ebook on resilience. In it I share 10 powerful tools to help you balance around the edge of chaos and moving out of fight/flight when needed!