If Your Work Sucks, Learn About Flow: Flow, Part 1.

by Alexander Heyne · 11 comments

Collectively we are wasting each year the equivalent of millions of years of human consciousness.  The energy that could be used to focus on complex goals, to provide for enjoyable growth, is squandered on patterns of stimulation that only mimic reality.  Mass leisure, mass culture, and even high culture when only attended to passively, and for extrinsic reasons… are parasites of the mind.”

-Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

How Did “Work” Get Equated with “Sucks” and “Miserable” and “Torturous?”

Evidence suggests that back in the day (as well as in modern times), hunter gatherers lived relatively carefree lives. Estimates regarding the amount of work done in a day range from two to five hours daily – and the rest of the time was spent in leisure, socializing, or resting.

Over time, work became increasingly disconnected from subsistence, and things got hairy from there.  An interesting caveat here is that hunter gatherers and large populations of people pre-industrial times didn’t separate work and leisure – there simply was no difference and enjoyment was present at all times. (This, however, was not the case with all cultures pre-modern times.)

Cultural Taglines

Work in modern times is so often associated with pain and misery that we automatically assume in our minds that this is the way it is.

For example, I’ve heard this dialogue a hundred times at least:

Bill: “Hey John, how was work?”

John: “Ehh, work is work.”   Unstated assumption: Smacking a bear on the ass and running away as it devoured my viscera would have been more fun.

I bet you’ve heard the same dialogue a thousand times, or maybe you’ve participated in it.  I think we all have at some point.

The Point? We have deep-seated cultural assumptions about what work is and how it should be.

Enter Dr. Csikszentmihalyi (Dr. C)

“Blessed is he who has found his work; let him ask no other blessedness.”

-Thomas Carlyle

If we take some rough estimates of how the average westerner spends his time we could very roughly say that she/he sleeps 8 hours, works 8 hours, and has a “misc” period of 8 hours which includes commutes, eating and leisure.

Thus, work will take up at least one third of your life. Don’t you think you should consciously invest time and energy into figuring out how to improve your work situation?

The Flow Intro

Dr. C spent decades studying human enjoyment, happiness and fulfillment.  His research all comes together in a principle called Flow which is universal and is described literally word-for-word by cultures all over the world.  It is the state of optimal experience.  He describes flow as that state when:

“…instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate.  On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like. This is what we mean by optimal experience.  It is what the sailor holding a tight course feels when the wind whips through her hair, when the boat lunges through the waves like a colt — sails, hull, wind, and sea humming a harmony that vibrates in the sailor’s veins.  It is what a painter feels when the colors on the canvas begin to set up a magnetic tension with each other, and a new thing, a living form, takes shape in front of the astonished creator.  Or it is the feeling of a father has when his child for the first time responds to his smile.”

-Flow, p.3

Accessing Flow at Work

In later posts we’ll go into more detail as to how to apply Flow in daily life.  But I think that most people have a hard time finding enjoyment at work, so that’ll be the focus of this particular post.

Dr. C begins with talking about two aspects of flow at work:

Autotelic Workers

Autotelic workers have an inherent (read: can be learned) ability to find enjoyment and focus not only in work but in leisurely pursuits as well. They tend to:

  1. Rarely differentiate work from free time
  2. Find enjoyment in everything they do
  3. Possess the ability to create flow experiences even in surprisingly inhumane environments

Autotelic Jobs

Some jobs naturally possess the qualities inherent  and conducive to the flow state.

  1. Surgery
  2. Hunting

Surgeons have reported extremely high levels of satisfaction and involvement with their jobs. There are exceptions of course (the example he gives is when a surgeon specializes in 1 or 2 surgeries and does them over and over).

However, the criteria for flow inherently exist in surgery: clear goals, clear immediate feedback, a task that is slightly above the skill level and is challenging, and clear indicators of when the task is done.

Additionally, hunting has been found so enjoyable that people have continued to hunt despite the fact that the need has entirely disappeared.  Hunting has been putting people in the zone since the dawn of time — you have a clear goal (kill the animal and eat it), clear feedback (have I killed it yet, or did I miss my shot?) and the task is always that — a task.  It is never easy, and it inherently stretches you beyond your skill level.  These are all critical to enter the flow state.

So How do I do it?

From Dr. C himself:

“To improve the quality of life through work, two complementary strategies are necessary.  On the one hand jobs should be redesigned so that they resemble as closely as possible flow activities — as do hunting, cottage weaving, and surgery.  But it will also be necessary to help people develop autotelic personalities… by training them to recognize opportunities for action, to hone their skills, to set reachable goals.  Neither one of these strategies is likely to make work much more enjoyable by itself; in combination, they should contribute enormously to optimal experience.”

Flow, p. 157

Suggestions for Making Work Flow-Conducive

Based on Dr. C’s recommendations for how to make anything closer to a flow experience, here are some suggested alterations and questions to consider:

  • Does any and every job you do have clear goals that make use of and push your skills?
  • Are all activities sufficiently challenging that you become involved in the activity and seem like you are running on automatic?
  • Is there feedback for each and every task you do? Sports are notoriously enter to easy flow because there is immediate and accurate feedback: you missed the goal, you made the goal, that player took the ball away from you, you need to get the ball back.  If you engage in a work task, what information provides you with the answer to the question: How do I know I am doing this correctly?  Are there any guidelines for this task?  If not, you are simply floating in space and will have a very difficult time efficiently using your time and finding enjoyment in it.
  • Does the task obtain total control over your attention? Do you feel like you’ve lost all perception of yourself, totally engrossed in the task?
  1. Do you feel totally in control of what’s going on?

These are all criteria that can help produce “autotelic experiences” — which Dr. C describes through his research as inherently enjoyable in itself.

The Next Step

My suggestion is this: try some of the proposed alterations at work and see how it goes.  Remember to spend time consciously thinking about how to improve your work situation based on specifics — and remember that work does NOT necessarily = tedium, pain and suffering.  We have been culturally inoculated to believe that work = painful and thus leisure = freedom and enjoyment.  It’s time to change the status quo.

Flow goes on to state that the prime complaints in the workplace are (first and foremost) a lack of variety and challenge.

It is fully within your power to change any and all aspects of your work environment.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

David Delp March 3, 2013 at 7:47 pm

I live by this shit. Nicely encapsulated, brother. Amen!


mo December 8, 2014 at 2:30 am

Interesting that you list surgeons as people with “flow” jobs, considering they have some of the highest rates of suicides.


Alexander Heyne December 31, 2014 at 12:44 pm

Hah! Surgeons tend to also be serious overachievers, ambitious, work ridiculous hours, and tend to have a type A personality.


Chris June 8, 2016 at 2:36 pm

Alex you’ll laugh at this. Firstly your posts are brilliant. The realisation of process being the most important factor in enjoyment has turned my life around (and other’s coz I’ve passed them on!) I’m a retired military man; nearly 61, have a pension, no debts or mortgage and self employed handyman. But something was missing. I felt lost with no direction. So when you asked the question what do I enjoy the immediate thing was animals, little kids and making and fixing things. So a week ago I got a kitten. That little fur ball has so lifted my spirit it’s unbelievable. He’s turned life around for my daughter and new wife. Everyone is suddenly happy. That’s what I call success! Thank you.


Alexander Heyne June 8, 2016 at 10:18 pm

That’s awesome Chris – so glad to hear this! And for sure I’ve noticed the little things make a huge difference too.


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