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The art of turning work into flow: how businesses could benefit

Splash! The first few strokes are slippery smooth as I glide under the water. Sometimes I try to swim the first length without surfacing, but this can make the next stage feel worse: the dreaded second and third lengths. These are the stiff ones. The change of state from land to water literally drags on my limbs, and I feel out of place, a fish out of water in the water. more But there is nothing else to do than keep swimming, and by the time the third or fourth lengths are complete, I am starting to feel at home. By the tenth length, I am fully immersed. I concentrate on cycling my awareness, alternately focussing on breathing, kicking, my hand breaking the water’s surface, the tumble turn. I am so submerged that a kind of primal brain takes hold and I am not swimming anymore – I am the swim.
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How we could create a sense of flow in what we do at work more often? If we could do this, businesses would release untold quantities of energy towards their purposes.

Splash! The first few strokes are slippery smooth as I glide under the water. Sometimes I try to swim the first length without surfacing, but this can make the next stage feel worse: the dreaded second and third lengths. These are the stiff ones. The change of state from land to water literally drags on my limbs, and I feel out of place, a fish out of water in the water. But there is nothing else to do than keep swimming, and by the time the third or fourth lengths are complete, I am starting to feel at home.

By the tenth length, I am fully immersed. I concentrate on cycling my awareness, alternately focussing on breathing, kicking, my hand breaking the water’s surface, the tumble turn. I am so submerged that a kind of primal brain takes hold and I am not swimming anymore – I am the swim. This is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow.

What is Flow?

Flow is a combination of dedicated perseverance in a task, existing within the persistent practice of something we love to do and then the losing of ourselves in the effort of it, so that we attain a kind of meditative mastery.

I usually swim a plodding crawl like this for half an hour at least, without noticing where the time went. In this state, if I am lucky and dedicated enough, I can experience an almost out of body oblivion. My mind can wander across any number of matters, from the most mundane to pondering current dilemmas or making connections between previously disparate things. What is interesting is that in this state, I can’t make my thoughts go a particular way. I am not able to go to the pool thinking to myself ‘Today I will sort out such and such’, at least not yet anyway. I must go through a systematic progression, from first length glide, through intermediate stiffness, to perseverance and ultimate obliviousness and then let my mind go whither it will.

Developing the practice of Flow

This last bit can’t be planned. Like all practices, it takes some discipline. If I lose the flow, I need to go back to basics, concentrate again on first principles. Starting with how I am breathing, then get my stroke right, bring myself back to the precision of the kick. And then start to drop down into myself again, following the white rabbit of my thoughts. You have to chase it, and not expect that he will take you straight back to the same old tea–party. You could end up anywhere in Wonderland.

What could this mean for business?

I wonder how we could create this sense of flow in what we do at work more often? Why would this be worthwhile? Because it seems to turn something of effort into something much more of a joy. How would it be if work were like this for more of us, more often? Businesses would release untold quantities of energy towards their purposes.

In our work in 21st Century Leadership Development, we talk about the balance of energy and containment that successful organisations create. The art of turning work into flow must be part of this balance. How we go about this isn’t simple. It’ll take care, collaboration, thoughtfulness. Anyone fancy a swim?

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