Tag Archives: flow

Inspiration is the Fuel, Mindfulness is the Tool

(Image credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to)

I always thought mindfulness was some sort of Zen-like state of nirvana and bliss. (Great for improving the quality of my life in general, but maybe a little too fluffy and spiritual to have any practical value at work.) But, like a lot of others, I tried really hard to develop mindfulness and become more mindful. Even if it wouldn’t help me get more done at work, I was still on board to get that blissful feeling. So I read lots of books! I tried to meditate. I found out I am really, really bad at meditating because I get distracted far too easily. But then I kind of found a way to back-in to a mindful state by just getting happy about stuff. But still, no real useful value for work. Until yesterday, when I realized what mindfulness really is! And this revealed to me just how useful mindfulness can be at the office.

Mindfulness is being able to focus on whatever you want to, or need to, at your command. 

(For example… having problems getting that report done for your boss? If you had trained yourself – practiced your mindfulness – you might not be procrastinating so much. You’d just be able to hop into your mindful state at will, and start being productive without a struggle, or a wandering mind.)

Mindfulness also means being able to shut out any distractions that keep you from your focus – eliminate them from your reality, so that they are just not there. Mindfulness means that you’ve developed the ability to propel yourself into flow, which is your groove of optimal productivity.

If inspiration is the fuel that catalyzes productivity, mindfulness is the tool that will help you pick up those items on your to-do list and start making progress on them without resistance.

So practicing mindfulness… you know, all that breathing and paying attention to the flow of your thoughts… they are just exercises to help you develop your “focus easily and on command” muscles. 

Flow for Organizational Effectiveness & Increasing Innovation

Finding “work-life balance” has become a theme in modern life. According to WebMD, there are five steps to achieve work-life balance: 1) set good priorities (this requires knowing what you value), 2) eliminate unnecessary distractions, 3) set boundaries, 4) accept help, and 5) plan times for fun and reflection. The Mayo Clinic provides even more ideas for how to achieve the balance. Some people have even observed that perhaps work-life balance is the wrong problem – and achieving a sense of inner peace and purpose boils down to prioritizing effectively.

But finding joy in work can be equally important, and sometime even more important. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the “unsung heroes of quality” in my opinion, has spent his career researching the psychological characteristics and impacts of this feeling. In a September 1996 interview with Wired, he defined flow as “Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Flow has three defining characteristics:

  • Merging of action and awareness – “You’re so involved in what you’re doing you aren’t thinking about yourself as separate from the immediate activity. You’re no longer a participant observer, only a participant. You’re moving in harmony with something else you’re part of.”
  • A sense of control – You’re comfortable with the level of ambiguity of the problem you’re solving, it has been sufficiently constrained so that you’re empowered to make progress, and you’re not worried about your ability to perform – you know you can do it.
  • An altered sense of time – You’re so immersed in your task that there is no room for boredom, and time flies by.

Flow emerges from a intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is the feeling of wanting to do something. Extrinsic motivation describes the situation of having to do something. Csikzentmihalyi says we need both – we need the personal stimulus that comes from wanting to perform a task, and the environmental stimulus that comes from other people caring about what we contribute. Many obstacles prevent can people from feeling flow: job burnout, having too many tasks (when you are “stretched too thin” and feel like you’re on autopilot), having too many competing priorities, and lack of boundaries (either work and life blend into one another, or there are “too many chiefs and not enough Indians” working on a problem).

“Understanding how flow works is essential for social scientists interested in improving the quality of life at either the subjective or objective level. Transforming this knowledge into effective action is not easy.”

Finding flow – even occasionally – is one key to achieving organizational effectiveness. Flow is also critical for increasing innovation. No flow, no grow.


Csikszentmihalyi, M., Abuhamdeh, S., & Nakamura, J. (2005). Flow. In Elliot, A.J. & Dweck, C.S. (Eds.), Handbook of Competence and Motivation, Guilford Press.