Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Flow Where Flow Shouldn't Exist

I'm making my way through Finding Flow, a book by the psychologist who came up with the term Flow. Flow is that amazing mental state where you are totally in the zone. Time passes and you don't notice. You don't get hungry. You're just 100% focused on a task. Life is good.

The book, to put it kindly, hasn't been all that easy of a read. I think Csíkszentmihályi is being especially thorough, which can come off as being long winded.

But, having said that, there's an insight I read from him just the other day that knocked my socks off.

First, let's assume that ideally at work and at play you're in a state of flow. If that's the case, then an 8 hour work day, will just whiz right by. That's considerably better than 8 long hours. Of course, not every moment can be spent in Flow, as there are specific conditions that need to be met. For example, you need to have specific goals at a balanced level of difficulty (if the task is too easy, you'll find it boring, if it's too hard, you'll get frustrated - just right, and you're a candidate for Flow).

Now suppose you have a job where you never get into Flow. In other words, you're job sucks. What can you do. Of course, Csíkszentmihályi acknowledges you can quit. And if your job always sucked, then you probably should. But, what if you just have a few parts of your job that suck. You could delegate/outsource what you don't want to do. Again, this is a fine approach, but what if you can't.

What knocked my socks off is how Csíkszentmihályi demonstrated that you can in fact tweak the tasks you don't like, and turn them into ones you can find Flow in. This is probably best explained with an example:

George Klein, a tumor biologist who heads a renowned research department at Karolinksa Institute in Stockholm, illustrates how such people approach their work.
...
Klein likes what he does enormously, yet there are two aspects of his job he hates. One is waiting at airport terminals, which he has to do often because of his very busy schedule of international meetings. The other aspect he detests is writing the inevitable grant proposals to government agencies that provide the funding for his research team. These two boring tasks were depleting his psychic energy, and building up dissatisfaction with his work. Yet, they could not be avoided. Then Klein had a flash of inspiration: What if he combined these two tasks? If he could write grant applications while waiting for planes, he would save half the time previously devoted to boring tasks. To implement this strategy he bought the best pocket tape recorder he could find, and stated to dictate grant proposals while waiting or inching forward at airport custom lines. These aspects of his job are still objectively what they were before, but because he took control Klein transformed them almost into a game. It is now a challenge to dictate as much as possible while waiting, and instead of feeling that he is wasting time at a boring task, he feels energized.

I just love this approach. Instead of assuming that tasks are fundamentally boring or exciting, Csíkszentmihályi shows that it's the approach you take that controls this. It's certainly not a new concept - in fact, "boring" was a word not ever to be used growing up - but it's one that can't be said enough.

I've been on the lookout for tasks that I'm not finding Flow in, and taking Klein and Csíkszentmihályi's lessons to heart.

Just recently I had to copy and paste around a whole bunch of SQL - a task that was definitely not going to be fun, and probably quite error prone. Instead, I learned about a new code generation technique, that made the task an exciting and Flow induced one. As a programmer, I guess I'm especially lucky, as I can frequently exchange one task (copying and pasting code) for a variation of the that task (generating the code instead). However, as Csíkszentmihályi shows, this concept isn't limited to one field.

When it comes down to it, you're in control, By tweaking the approach you take to the work you do, you can vastly control your level of enjoyment with it. Remember that next time you're having a crappy day.

Update: So it occurs to me, nearly all of the above words can be boiled down to:

Happiness is controlled by both what you do and how you do it. Not happy and can't change the what? Then change the how. Either way, you can find happiness (aka Flow).

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