This blog is not just about Stoicism, even thought I kicked off with that. I will also be blogging about modern psychological and neuroscience studies into happiness. Happiness is a serious topic for scientific research today and we can learn a lot from such studies. So here goes …
One of the things that makes us happy is ” Flow”. Flow is defined as a state of non self-conscious absorption in an activity which matches our skills and which produces a feeling of joy. The concept was developed by the positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The matching of the skill set to the task is important; an experienced rock climber will experience flow as he/she navigates a challenge they are prepared for; a novice attempting to scale the North face of the Eiger will experience a different emotion! So tasks which are too challenging evoke anxiety while those which are too easy will induce boredom.
If we have a creative job and are free most of the time from interruption we may experience flow on a regular basis. However the modern office is not conducive generally to flow with its constant emails, meetings, conversations, texts, interruptions and deadlines. But it does happen. Most of us can recall times when were intensely engaged in something challenging and enjoyable so that time flew past quickly. One can imagine that Apple’s Jony Ive will experience a greater percentage of his time in flow now that he has moved to Chief Design Officer and handed over managerial responsibilities to two other executives. Of course, flow is possible in a group setting also as in team sports but most business meetings unfortunately are not of this type.
So what can the rest of us, who are not working on the creative side of the Watch 2 or Apple Car, do to promote flow at work? Well one key thing we can do is to stop multitasking and control interruptions. Obviously we cannot experience flow if we multitask since absorption and attention to one matter at a time is lacking. Recent research at Stanford University and also in the UK has shown that multitasking reduces our productivity considerably. Multitaskers are convinced they get more done but the scientific evidence says otherwise. Even more extraordinary was the finding that multitasking may even be damaging to the brain. Studies have shown that IQ measured after multitasking is reduced while there may even be physical changes also to the brain!
So one of the key things we can do to promote our productivity and increase happiness is to stop multitasking. Stop checking the smartphone during meetings or surfing the internet while watching a presentation. It would be a very good idea to switch off internet access and use of a smartphone during the week-end or at least if we do not have to spend that week-end working.
Of course there is also the opportunity to focus on more flow generating activities outside of the office. Playing a sport is an excellent example or for instance a video game or learning a new language. Interestingly, the concept of flow also has an important significance for the design of video games where the players need to be challenged, but not so challenged as to give up in frustration. Game mechanics are designed to keep players in the zone of flow. Playing such game, like many other rewarding activities, causes the release of dopamine in the brain and hence the feelings of enjoyment from these activities. The potential to turn work into a game and to use such games for training and education i.e. gamification is an exciting area and one I will return to in future blogs.
But for now, here are some practical take home messages on what you can do to maximise flow at work. Firstly, limit interruptions from others to the extent you can; stop multitasking and do one thing well at a time; make sure not to have several widows open at the same time on your computer unless they relate to the same tasks; don’t interrupt yourself by checking email, mobile devices and social media; finally don’t neglect the opportunities for playful activities, sports and relationships outside of work. If you cannot achieve flow at work, at least get it outside of work.