From Stress to FLOW

I was well out of my depth. I’d moved into an operations management role and was struggling to take the step up. I was responsible for some processes that were critical to the success of the business. But, the challenge was beyond my skill level. The stress lasted for a few months and my performance wasn’t great. I had tunnel vision and had lost sight of the big picture.

Why does this happen? I didn’t have a useful way to think about my performance. And how I could reduce my stress by changing the way I worked.

I needed the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to introduce me to the concept of FLOW. Those moments of optimal experience. Where we’re so engrossed in what we’re doing that we lose track of time. We’re caught up in the task and it’s satisfying. Sports people talk about being “in the zone”.

The following three equations explain the concept:

  • Size of challenge matches level of skill = FLOW

  • Size of challenge too great for level of skill = Stress
  • Level of skill too great for the size of challenge = Boredom

Stress occurs when ongoing tasks are too challenging. So how do we get into FLOW? We reduce the challenge or increase our skill level.

To reduce the challenge, free up space. The size of the challenge can relate to both volume and technicality of work.

We reduce volume through delegation (pass it on), elimination (cut it) or automation (systemise it). A simple form of automation could be to use templates or checklists. This ensures that you don’t have rethink the process each time you do it. I recently helped a client consider email response templates as email signatures to save time on saying “no” and delegating work.

To match the technical challenge it’s best to focus on increasing skill. Yet, the skills we need to consider are relational and strategic (big picture) as well as technical.

A lack of relational capability or inability to see where work fits in the big picture can cause anxiety.  So for example, building capability in having tough delegation and prioritisation conversations could unlock great performance.

And what about the other side of the FLOW zone? Boredom. How do we deal with boring work? We all have aspects of our job that are boring. We try to remove these but sometimes there is just stuff that we must do.

If we consider the FLOW construct we need to think of ways to increase the challenge. Compress the time to complete the task. I often use the Tomato Timer. A simple tool that creates an artificial deadline and helps me knock those boring tasks on the head. Other options include making a competition of it. Make it fun.

To get into FLOW we aim for tasks with a balance of the size of challenge and level of skill.

But what about the conditions in which we perform the task? There is nothing like an interruption to break our FLOW when working on an individual task.

Consider these three factors to create the right environment.

Preparation. Do we prepare well for meetings to ensure that we perform at our best during the meeting?

Aesthetics.  For challenging tasks can people have an environment free from distraction? Can they have music to add a bit of energy to boring tasks?

Psychological safety. Do members of the team feel like they can be vulnerable to contribute in a group setting? Nothing like fear in an interpersonal context to keep you from performing at your best.

So when we find ourselves (like my situation) or see someone else in a state of stress, what are some useful questions to ask to move towards the FLOW zone?

  • What technical, relational or strategic skills do we need to develop?
  • How might we change the environment to better enable FLOW?
  • In what ways could we delegate, automate or cut out tasks to free up space?

This requires us to take a step back from the work itself for a moment. Take five minutes. Ask yourself these questions. Then move forward into greater levels of performance and work satisfaction.

Could your team benefit from learning about FLOW? Contact me here to find out more about the sessions I run on getting into FLOW.

Doug Maarschalk is a trainer, facilitator and coach who uses the principles of intrinsic motivation as the foundation for his work. He has worked with New Zealand businesses in the horticulture, legal, accounting, financial services, real estate and healthcare sectors.
Read more about the Services Doug provides and the Clients he has worked with.