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Day 04/06/2014

Rethinking Work/Flow

Screenshot 2014-06-04 13.57.13

It’s not news that engagement at work — or the lack of it — is a problem for many. But with all the bad news about work that’s been coming across my screen, I’m having an even harder time doing the work that’s on my screen.

First I read Sunday’s New York Times op-ed by the Energy Project‘s Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath:

Just 30 percent of employees in America feel engaged at work, according to a 2013 report by Gallup. Around the world, across 142 countries, the proportion of employees who feel engaged at work is just 13 percent. For most of us, in short, work is a depleting, dispiriting experience, and in some obvious ways, it’s getting worse.

Then yesterday it was David Brooks on his loss of focus at work:

Like everyone else, I am losing the attention war. I toggle over to my emails when I should be working. I text when I should be paying attention to the people in front of me. I spend hours looking at mildly diverting stuff on YouTube.

And then I watched some highly diverting “stuff on Youtube”: “Humpback Whale Shows AMAZING Appreciation After Being Freed From Nets!

(You know you want to click.)

Then yesterday, TED’s “Work Smarter” playlist beckoned from my Facebook feed. Of 12 videos in the playlist, I chose — naturally — Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work,” a talk by basecamp co-founder Jason Fried.

The front door of the office is like a Cuisinart, and you walk in and your day is shredded to bits, because you have 15 minutes here and 30 minutes there, and then something else happens and you’re pulled off your work, and you’ve got to do something else. Then you have 20 minutes, then it’s lunch. Then you have something else to do. Then you’ve got 15 minutes, and someone pulls you aside and asks you this question, and before you know it, it’s 5 p.m., and you look back on the day, and you realize that you didn’t get anything done. 

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When I was in grad school, I spent many, many hours at my desk, usually in front of a computer. The work was always challenging. When I didn’t like or understand the expectations of the assignment, the work became stressful. But when I felt equal to the challenges of the work and I could express myself in my work (not unusual in design school), the work became fun.

This feeling of flow was deliciously addictive — and I experienced first-hand its power in an educational context. I became so interested in the role of flow in creativity and learning that that intersection — the psychology of creativity and learning — became a major component of my master’s thesis.

To me, the holy grail of all work is flow.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a major figure in the creativity-research wing of cognitive psychology, first coined the term flow as “an effortless yet highly focused state of consciousness.” 

The key to flow lies in the many essential conditions that make flow possible:

  • intrinsic motivation (the task is appealing in and of itself) 
  • clear goals and immediate feedback
  • a sense of challenge balanced with a sense of skill
  • action merged with awareness
  • freedom from distractions, self-consciousness, and worry of failure

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Interestingly Csikszentmihalyi was not studying creativity when he first identified these factors. He was researching human enjoyment.

Given what he believed to be the “vague, unfocused, constantly distracted condition of the normal mind,” he wanted to understand the circumstances that allow people to achieve intense, sustained focus over a prolonged time. In those who achieved it, this focus seemed to inoculate them against fatigue, doubt, and other factors that would typically undermine motivation and decrease effort. 

Years later, when he studied creative people, Csikszentmihalyi realized that the characteristics of flow were nearly identical to the characteristics of deep enjoyment.

Csikszentmihalyi’s research echoes the work of Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, whose research reveals the role that motivation plays in human achievement of all kinds. (I’ve previously suggested one particular Ryan-Deci study as excellent reading for teachers.) 

Humans naturally thrive when working toward meaningful goals. That is, intrinsically motivating activities (which are meaningful by definition) give us a desire — and stomach — for work, including the hard work of learning and creativity. Humans are wired to be learn and be creative, but we only reach our full learning potential and creative potential when we experience strong motivation. And experiencing that motivation requires freedom from self-consciousness and worry of failure, as Csikszentmihalyi found:

In flow, we feel that our abilities are well matched to the opportunities for action. In everyday life we sometimes feel that the challenges are too high in relation to our skills, and then we feel frustrated and anxious. Or we feel that our potential is greater than the opportunities to express it, and then we feel bored. Playing tennis or chess against a much better opponent leads to frustration; against a much weaker opponent, to boredom. In a really enjoyable game, the players are balanced on the fine line between boredom and anxiety. When the challenges become too great for the person to cope with, a sense of frustration rather than joy creeps in — at least for a while.

Between anxiety and bordeom lies flow: Csikszentmihalyi

Between anxiety (too-high stakes) and boredom (no stakes) lies flow. And learning.


This notion that flow lies between anxiety and boredom is, I would argue, easier to grasp when expressed in terms of high- and low-stakes endeavors. High-stakes endeavors tend to sharpen one’s mind and energies, but the scale and import of such endeavors can overwhelming, even paralyzing. A low-stakes endeavor tends to be approachable and nonthreatening, but its relative unimportance makes motivation hard to come by.

However, there are two “sweet spots,” i.e., tasks that are neither anxiety-producing nor boring: lower-stakes tasks that are fun, and high-stakes tasks that one consistently feels competent enough to achieve.

Whether it’s proving the Pythagorean theorem, creating a video for a class, or writing a master’s thesis, any endeavor flourishes when in flow. Flow exists only in the absence of anxieties that often surround significant challenges, be they learning challenges or creative challenges.

Therefore, as educators, our efforts to banish boredom, anxiety and fear from our classrooms must be continuous and vigilant.

One strategy to do that? Make more room in the curriculum for learning through creative self-expression, for making — and be sure to integrate creativity into both learning objectives and assessments.

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Source: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial, 1997.

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