I love the new Lucozade ad, where librarians, hairdressers and window cleaners demonstrate effortless skill in the tasks they’re performing. It grabs your attention, tapping that ‘on my game’ feeling most of us are familiar with, and skilfully aligning it with the ‘magical’ effects of Lucozade.
And while it’s humorously exaggerated for effect (not many of us are up to the task of changing a wheel on a car whilst driving!), it illustrates a psychological principle that’s central to getting the most out of work, and life.
Top class sportspeople call this being ‘in the zone’: a mental state where their game becomes easy, filling them with confidence and the feeling they can achieve almost anything.
But Lucozade use the term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow.
In his classic book, Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced chic-sent-me-hi) describes flow as the feeling of enjoyment that comes when you are engaged in a task or activity that has clear goals, provides immediate feedback, and balances skill with challenge.
This immersion we get from being in flow can release us from our self-consciousness, worries and anxieties and allow us to lose track of time. We’re rewarded by the activity itself, not by external rewards like power, wealth or status.
Yet, Csikszentmihalyi argues, many of us pursue simple pleasures over the more rewarding – yet more difficult to attain – sense of enjoyment that comes from being in flow.
Enjoyment involves us stretching ourselves, using our skills and concentration to accomplish the goals we set ourselves. If we find the right balance in a task we enjoy between our level of skill and the challenge it provides, we can become totally immersed. And Csikszentmihalyi found that we are three times more likely to find the conditions for flow at work than in the rest of our lives.
We’re also more likely to get into flow when we’re not distracted. In The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin illustrates how artists like Sting, Stevie Wonder and Neil Young maximise their chances of getting and staying in flow by reducing the environmental distractions around them.
So what gets you in a state of flow, either at work or at home? When do you feel so immersed in what you’re doing that you lose all track of time?
If the answer isn’t obvious, one solution is to self-monitor. When you notice you’ve been so totally absorbed in an activity that you’ve ignored all distractions and time has simply flown by, make a note of exactly what you were doing.
You may not find yourself changing the wheel on your car while it’s still moving, but over time you’ll start to build a better idea of the activities that get you into flow.