Smart Living

How ‘flow’ could transform your working life

Achieving it is more like a happy accident – but flow could do wonders for your productivity

With work, and life in general, we’re always looking for an edge. To be, in the roboticised words of that old Radiohead song, ‘fitter, happier… more productive.’

Recent attempts to do this have often centred around ‘wellness’ trends: first, there was fitness and ‘clean eating’ (is it even possible to be a modern CEO if you haven’t completed an Ironman?). Then ‘mindfulness’ entered the boardroom. In 2018, the hot topic was sleep, as the book Why We Sleep made itself comfy in the bestseller charts. Now tidiness has taken off, as Marie Kondo promises to de-clutter our homes, offices and – more importantly – our minds.

So, what’s next? In my opinion, you’ll be hearing a lot more about ‘flow’.

‘One experiences intense focus, enjoyment and a loss of the sense of time’

The idea is most simply explained as being ‘in the zone’, but the modern Western concept, which took root in 1975 with the work of the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is a little more specific. Csikszentmihalyi described flow as the state of being so immersed in an activity that one experiences intense focus, enjoyment and a loss of the sense of time. You probably know that elusive feeling but, to understand it another way, it’s the exact opposite of the distracted, technology-addled state that for many of us has become the default setting of modern life.

Sometimes I experience flow at work, although not nearly as often as I’d like. For me, it’s more frequently brought on by doing some kind of sport. That tallies with the findings of one of the modern standard bearers of flow, Steven Kotler, who wrote about the way in which extreme sports stars, such as big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton, were able to cultivate ‘flow-states’ in his book, The Rise of Superman. More pertinent, however, might be the way his research (which is supported by modern neuroscience) can be applied to the lives of people who don’t spend their day inside the barrel of a 50ft wave, but sitting at a desk.

According to consultancy firm McKinsey, being in a state of flow increases productivity by up to 500 per cent. A University of Sydney study found that it could boost ‘creative problem-solving’ by 430 per cent. James Slavet of venture capital firm Greylock Partners reckons that the amount of time executives spend in a state of flow ‘is the No 1 management metric for the 21st century’.

Along with his business partner, Jamie Wheal, Kotler began to run programmes and courses designed to ‘help individuals and organisations experience more flow and the significant boost in performance it provides’, an endeavour that’s also been described as ‘consciousness-hacking’.

Initially, the only way to directly access the duo’s expertise was to shell out $5,000 to attend one of their retreats, or to hire them as consultants for considerably more. But the pair now offer a six-week online course (cost: $697) that, in theory, makes flow more accessible to those of us who are yet to ascend to the C-suite of a multinational corporation.

‘It will never be possible to turn flow on and off like a tap’

After being introduced to Wheal by a tech entrepreneur I met while skiing in Japan, I was persuaded to give it a try and began the pre-course preparation in January of this year. It includes getting into a few healthy routines (sleep well, stay hydrated, floss your teeth) but focused largely on limiting screen time and digital distractions. Already, I’ve noticed a difference, but when the course proper begins in a couple of weeks, things will ramp up, with various challenges and tests.

The bad news, Wheal warns, is that it will never be possible to turn flow on and off like a tap. Achieving the state is more like having a happy accident, so the purpose of the course is to ‘make us more accident-prone.’ But, if it’s the kind of accident that boosts our productivity by even a fraction of the percentages bandied about in those studies and allows us to get that feeling of enjoyment and focus at both work and play, then it’s one that most people would like as often as possible.