Actualized Leadership: Flow (Part 2 of 2)

Actualized Leadership: Flow (Part 2 of 2)

Peak experiences can make life worthwhile by their occasional occurrence.  
They give meaning to life itself.
Abraham Maslow

Writing is the only thing that when I do it, I don’t feel like I should be doing something else.
Gloria Steinem

In our last BLOG we examined and defined Flow, the modern term used to describe what Maslow referred to as “peak experiences.”  In this entry I would like to explore strategies for helping you create the conditions to experience Flow and, in doing so, rediscover your meaning and purpose in life.

As a reminder, Flow is defined as follows:

An optimal state of consciousness where we perform at our highest level, often achieving more than we thought possible and with seemingly less effort.

In order to experience Flow there are some necessary steps you must take.  First, you should throw your iPhone out of the nearest window.  Next, cancel your Facebook account.  Now, throw your television out the same window.  Congratulations.  If the police don’t find and arrest you for littering, Flow might just find and sweep you up in an ecstatic moment of creativity and peak performance.

Okay, you don’t have to actually throw away your television and phone, but you absolutely must disconnect.  That is a precondition for experiencing Flow, and it is non-negotiable.  So, if you can’t bring yourself to part with your new iPhone or recently reconnected friends on Facebook, at least turn them off and disconnect so that you can begin reconnecting with your purpose and passion.

After you’ve created the space or “runway” for experiencing Flow, you must engage in a task or activity that you care about and find intrinsically satisfying and rewarding.  If you don’t care about what you’re doing, it won’t care about you.

Once you’ve disconnected, created the space, and identified something you enjoy doing, you must then stretch the challenge of the task to gently exceed your current skill level.  Researcher Steven Kotler (“The Rise of Superman”) suggests that the “gap” between your current skill level and the challenge of the activity should be approximately 4%.  If the challenge is less than 4%, you are likely to become bored or apathetic.  If the challenge is greater than 4%, then you may feel overwhelmed or anxious.  Thus, the “sweet spot” for experiencing Flow appears to be just out of our current reach, but certainly attainable with a focused and dedicated effort.

There are certain arenas in our life that heighten our focus and concentration.  Some extreme athletes risk their lives to experience this sensation, such as individuals who skydive or who dive off Mont Blanc (which I have personally witnessed).  Assuming you’re like me and don’t particularly care to jump out of a plane, or off a mountain for that matter, there are other ways we can replicate this heightened sense of awareness.  One is to take social or emotional risks.  For example, at work you can choose to speak up in disagreement in a meeting, when you would normally nod in agreement.  Or, you may choose to let your guard down and be vulnerable with a colleague or teammate.  If you’re an Achiever, you may choose to delegate an important task to someone else, or even ask for help.  If you’re an Affirmer, you may choose to say “no” to express your true feelings to your spouse, significant other or boss.  If you’re an Asserter, you may choose to trust your co-workers, or your spouse or partner.  When we have the courage to get outside of our comfort zones, we experience the thrill and exhilaration of heightened awareness, and set the conditions for Flow.

Another way to experience Flow is to add complexity and novelty to your work environment.  You may take on another project, volunteer to participate in a cross-functional assignment, or mentor a junior colleague.  And, there are simple, almost mundane, ways to immediately add novelty to your job.  For example, eat lunch with a different group of people or commute a new way to work.  Even brushing your teeth in the morning with your “wrong” hand breaks habitual patterns and creates a focused mindset for the day.

Another general trick is to engage all of your senses.  Often in the workplace, our sense of smell is forgotten about as we are so focused on seeing, talking (and occasionally listening), and doing.  To reactivate this vital sense, get into the habit of using a certain diffuser or burning a candle when you’re engaged in an important and challenging activity.  For example, author and researcher Dr. Pierce Howard lights a candle in his office when he is engaged in writing, both to stimulate his creativity and to create a tranquil environment.  Moreover, the smell of the candle serves as a “Do Not Disturb – I’m Writing” signal to his colleagues.

So, to recap, here are the specific steps you can take to increase the likelihood that Flow will find you and, in doing so, provide meaning and purpose to your life:

  1. Disconnect from others and from social media
  2. Choose a task, project or activity that you truly care about
  3. Gradually increase the complexity or difficulty to surpass your current skill level
  4. Increase your sense of awareness and focus
  5. Heighten all of your senses, including smell and hearing

Maslow stated that individuals who are more self-actualized experience Flow more often.  In fact, he stated that this experience was so awesome and inspiring that it was the payoff or dividend for being more self-actualized.  We all have access to Flow, and it is my hope that the suggested strategies and steps outlined in this blog will help you create the conditions for it to find you.  And once Flow knows where to find you, it will very likely come calling again.  Will you be home, ready and willing, or watching TV?

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