Tag Tony Schwartz

Rethinking Work/Flow

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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.

Friday Link Fest…*


Relax! You’ll Be More Productive ~ via The New York Times, published February 9, 2013.

In praise of failure: The key ingredient to children’s success, experts say, is not success ~ On grit as a key component of success. via National Post, published February 2, 2013.

Social Emotional Learning Core Competencies ~ Rethinking…* the definition of academic success. via Q.E.D. Foundation, published February 11, 2013.

How to Save Science: Education, the Gender Gap, and the Next Generation of Creative Thinkers ~ via Brainpickings, published February 12, 2013

Arbonauts: of trees, data, and teens ~ The challenges & rewards of rapid prototyping as pedagogy. via Harvard’s MetaLab, published February 6, 2013.

Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper: A Low-Cost, High-Impact Approach ~ Rethinking…* the way that we do development. via Project for Public Spaces.

How Malawi is improving a terrible maternal mortality rate through good design ~ via TED News, published January 30, 2013

Tina Seelig On Unleashing Your Creative Potential ~ via 99u.

Why Even Radiologists Can Miss A Gorilla Hiding In Plain Sight ~ Rethinking…* the instructions we give to professionals to account for the fact that what we’re thinking about — what we’re focused on — filters the world around us so aggressively that it literally shapes what we see. via NPR, published February 11, 2013


Artist Can Only Draw in his Sleep ~ via PSFK, published February 13, 2013.

Landscape artworks at Hogpen Hill Farms open house ~ photographs by Fredrick K.Orkin of Edward Tufte’s Hogpen Hill Farms LLC, his 242-acre tree and sculpture farm in northwest Connecticut. via EdwardTufte.com.

Four Amazing Mini Libraries That Will Inspire You to Read ~ More accessible to a larger population than a classic library, the Pop-Up Library preserves the intimacy and experience of the book. via GOOD, published February 13, 2013.

In Photo Series, When Math Meets Art ~ Nikki Graziano’s photo series, ‘Found Functions’, defies the commonly-thought notion of the boring and geeky subject. via Design Taxi, published February 9, 2013.

A Floating School That Won’t Flood ~ On cultivating a new type of urbanism on water in African cities. via FastCo.Exist, published February 8, 2013.

Pixar Artist Designs New Facebook Emoticons ~ Matt Jones is creating a set of digital images that reflect more complex or subtle emotions. via PSFK, published February 11, 2013.


David Kelley on Making ~ via General Assembly, published February 2012.

The Scared Is Scared: A Child’s Wisdom for Starting New Chapters (Creative or Otherwise) in Life ~ Delightful meditation on embracing uncertainty. via Openculture, published February 11, 2013

Michael Jordan on Failure ~ via Nike, published August 25, 2006.

Color Me____ by Andy J. Miller & Andrew Neyer ~ via joustwebdesign, published October 23, 2012. (h/t Swissmiss.)

Tiny Sugar-Covered Bandaid Could Replace Needles For Vaccinations ~ Rethinking…* vaccines ~Scientists at King’s College London have developed a new way to administer vaccines, using a pain-free microneedle array. via PSFK, published February 12, 2013.


25 Mini-Adventures in the Library ~ via Project for Public Spaces, published 

Want to Start a Makerspace at School? Tips to Get Started ~ via MindShiftKQED, published February 12, 2013

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