IN BLACK & WHITE | Mark Holtshousen
Flow: Your Genius State
I have written previously about the state of flow, or some may call it being in ‘the zone’. I have referred to it as your genius state. Regardless of how one references this optimal state of engagement, its relevance to business today is more acute than ever. In larger organisations especially, where levels of entropy increase as individuals struggle to see how their contribution makes a difference, the tendency is to resign oneself to disenchantment. The price that is paid for not being in flow extends well beyond the business being deprived of valuable resource, and is more immediately felt at a personal level.
Mihaly Cziksentmihalyi identified challenge and skill as the two critical components between which flow is experienced. Athletes have long been familiar with the concept, and put huge effort into identifying,
ensuring, optimising, and managing their state of flow. They do this by ensuring that the tenuous tension between the challenges they take on and their skill level is maintained. Distance runners understand this well. If the challenge exceeds their skill level, they will lower their expectations to prevent worry and anxiety. Conversely, if their skill level exceeds the challenge, they will increase their expectations to prevent boredom and relaxation. It is strange to me how businesspeople do not seem to take their engagement in their profession with the seriousness athletes do in theirs, this especially in the light of the hours businesspeople put in.
Understandably, the complexity and diversity of function within organisations may seem to exceed those of an athlete, but a professional would argue otherwise. The fact is that there seems to be little cognisant awareness of how we engage, though performance demands that it be front-of-mind. Interestingly, anxiety and boredom are both symptoms that clients frequently indicate that they experience at work, which helps explain current levels of entropy or disengagement in the workplace. It is important for businesspeople, at whatever level, to ask themselves a few important questions: To what extent do I currently experience flow at work? In other words, how fully engaged and present am I at work in a meaningful and purposeful way? Do I know when I am in flow? Am I able to track this? It is far too easy to let days, weeks, months, and even years slip by without really living. ‘Doing time’ has become the status quo in organisations, with the result that we are not being fully present in our own lives. If we think that we can get away with this, we are mistaken – at least at a personal level.
While most large organisations will tick over regardless, our personal lives are not so forgiving. Not being present will show up in your health, your relationships, and your family, something that is attested to by research in the applied field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI). It is impossible to be disengaged during your extended working hours, and then experience a high quality of engagement in your shorter personal time. To get a handle on flow, it is critical that one starts by reflecting on what contributes to and what infringes on optimal engagement. This is best done through reflection and journaling. Taking time to review and evaluate daily work activities can produce startling results. I recently spent time with a managing director within a large organisation, who, on reflection, realised that the requirement to attend to governance issues was resulting in his increasing anxiety and disengagement at work. His new-found ability to identify flow inhibitors will allow him to minimise and delegate some of these responsibilities, which may completely transform his experience at work. It amazes me how we take on the role of a martyr at work, and end up feeling used rather than well utilised – and this is often of our own doing. Athletes are acutely aware of even the smallest interruption in their optimal performance, and quickly put in place measures to re-access flow. This can largely be attributed to their attention to how they are experiencing their engagement in activity and all that surrounds it, or to what state they are in. In other words, they reflect.
Businesspeople, on the other hand, seem to just soldier on, attending endless meetings, taking on unqualified responsibility, and being bored, tired, and irritable. They rarely stop to reflect on how they are experiencing the multiplicity of tasks they give themselves to, and all that surrounds these activities. The concept of flow has at its core the notion of being fully present. It stands in contrast to ‘going through the motions’. It involves developing a second stream of consciousness through which you continually evaluate the relationship between yourself and that in which you are engaging. It measures the degree to which you are passionate and intentional about your skill being applied to a challenge that you deem to be meaningful and purposeful, and which you experience as gratifying. Flow evidences itself in a sense of being lost to the activity, where complete focus causes time to stand still and distraction to dissipate.
It is a complete resonance, congruence, alignment and oneness with the activity, a state where your skill and the challenge come together to produce something seemingly more than the sum of the parts – something almost magical. It is you at your heroic, genius self. In an increasingly fast-paced world, where endless distractions vie for our attention and in-between time is stolen by the need to make another call, update another status, and respond to another instant message, we would do well to heed the athletes who lose themselves in the moment. To them flow is sacred, and touches all they do.