True happiness at work pretty much boils down to one word: flow.
Flow is the name of the book by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (mee-hy cheek-sent-mə-hy-ee), wherein he describes “a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” (source)
Furthermore, Csíkszentmihályi contends that being in this state of flow is the key to happiness, and that a state of flow is often associated with the best moments of our life. Imagine the time you raced down the mountain on your snowboard, feeling in tune with every movement of your body, weaving your way through the rocks and pines, completely present in the moment. Or that time you were composing a story and were completely engrossed in the process, fingers flying across the keyboard barely able keep up with your firing synapses.
Can You Achieve Flow At Work?
Ideally, we’d like to experience these feelings of flow at work. Unfortunately, not all of us are professional snowboarders or authors, doing what we love day in and day out.
However, there are keys to achieving a state of flow.
In a nutshell, states of flow are achieved when we match a high level of challenge with a high level of skill. When things are out of balance, we fall out of flow. If the level of challenge greatly exceeds our skill level, then we start to feel worried and anxious. Should our level of skill be much greater than the level of challenge, then we start to feel relaxed or even bored. You can see an illustration of these relationships in the chart above.
Addressing Work Challenges to Create Flow and Become Happier
So how do we apply this at work?
Begin by asking yourself some questions about your current projects. Do you have some projects that make you anxious and stressed out? If so, then think about how you can increase your skill level to help you complete these projects more effectively.
At my last job I worked with front-end developers in the Philippines and sometimes we’d get work back with small code issues that affected the aesthetics of the site. This would require us to wait another 24 hours for fixes — very stressful. As a result, I started taking online classes in HTML and CSS to be able to perform the minor fixes myself, making my challenge easier by increasing my skill set.
Do you find that many of your tasks are boring? Then perhaps it’s time to creatively amplify the challenge. Maybe there is a way that you can systematize your work to make it faster and more efficient.
When I worked customer support for a software company, we would often get similar questions from customers, and writing the same replies can become boring very quickly. So we decided to catalog responses and create ‘canned messages’ that could be used with a click of a button. We’d turned a boring, time-staking task into a challenge — something to systematize and make easier.
Also, we can seek more challenge by asking for more responsibility from our bosses. Perhaps you’ve acquired such a skill set that you’re now ready for management, and your new challenge becomes bringing other employees up to your level.
Time: the Hidden Challenge
Time restrictions are another aspect of our challenges that can bring us into an anxiety state and out of flow, regardless of our skill level. This is where spending time to create systems is a great way to address the challenge.
Also, investigate technology as a way to amplify the impact of your current skills. As a marketer, something that comes to mind is automation software, like email marketing tools that can send out semi-customized emails to thousands of prospective leads at a time. Likewise, we use social media tools that allow us to post to multiple social media profiles at once.
Seek Flow Regularly for the Most Fulfilling Work Experience
Through vigilant awareness of our mental state, we can make sure that we’re constantly working toward the state of flow. While it’s not something that we can maintain permanently, the pursuit of flow and subsequent tweaks to our work-life will ensure more satisfaction and happiness.
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