Flow: What is it, and how can we achieve it?

Front-end developer, Carl Wood, looks at the science behind flow in the workplace.

Flow is a state of being; a zone of total immersion in an activity. If you’re in flow, you’re likely to experience enjoyment and pure focus. Think of the days when you only check the clock twice: at 9am and 5:30pm. The old adage, ‘Time flies when you’re having fun’ most likely refers to flow. When we find it, flow distorts time, and delivers pleasure and lasting satisfaction.

At White October, we’ve been looking into how we can achieve flow. We’ve organised workshops where colleagues identify what blocks their flow, with the aim to minimise these issues; we all want a happy and creative workforce. I’m currently reading ‘Emotional Intelligence’ by Daniel Goleman, and the neuroscience behind the concept of flow piqued my interest. I knew of it as a fluffy idea but wanted to discover the science behind it.


Former University of Chicago psychologist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, is the man who put a name to the phenomenon. He argues that achieving a state of flow is about striking a fine balance between the difficulty of a task and the skill of the performer. As the diagram suggests, a mismatch of these may cause boredom or anxiety. During flow, an activity is neither too easy nor too difficult – rather, it feels like an effortless process, and delivers a sense of ecstasy and clarity. Csíkszentmihályi believes that flow is a cornerstone to happiness.

“People seem to concentrate best when the demands on them are a bit greater than usual”
– Mihály Csíkszentmihályi

Daniel Goleman, in ‘Emotional Intelligence: How it can matter more than IQ’, suggests that flow leaves no room for, nor cannot exist alongside, negativity, rumination or worry: ‘People are so absorbed in the task that they lose all self-consciousness, dropping the small preoccupations – health, bills…’. During flow, thoughts of success or failure do not feature; pleasure of the act is the main motivation.

It’s surprising that during challenging tasks – when you’d expect the brain to be heavily taxed – it remains in a ‘cool’, efficient state. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, in charge of self-monitoring and impulse control, quietens down, silences our inner critic and allows creativity to blossom.

So how do we achieve flow in the workplace, I hear you cry. Here are a few tips:

  • Start by encouraging yourself, or workmates, to be challenged. If you’re a web developer, push yourself to incorporate a new tool with a language you’re comfortable with, or write a blog post about something that captures your imagination.
  • Have a shared group vision. It will be easier to achieve flow if you work in a team that shares a common goal and main focus.
  • Find work you love. We’re lucky, as designers and developers, that we’re passionate about our jobs. Don’t be afraid to specialise and immerse yourself in an area you love.
  • Avoid distractions and multi-tasking. Stronger concentration on a task increases our chances of entering flow state. ‘Do not disturb’ flags on your desk could help.
  • Embrace a positive and healthy lifestyle. Ennui, dissatisfaction or ruminating on negative thoughts, Goleman argues, blocks the processes required to reach a state of flow.

How do you get into flow in your work? What captures your imagination? When have you experienced it? And when did you last look at the clock?

I’d love to hear from you.

Carl – @carljwood

Useful links


‘Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ’ by Daniel Goleman


One Comment

  1. Posted 2 July 2015 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    A really interesting post Carl and some interesting hints and tips on how to achieve your points.

    However I fear the reality in the workplace is that you have little control over what you actually work on and it’s difficulty. Which means that project managers and flow managers need to be better aware of who they are working with, their skills, needs and ultimately what they finds stimulating.

    On this production line of work we need to remember we’re not robots. Know your colleagues.

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