Flow and remembering what we did

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Blue Sky Factory New England

I was listening with interest to an interview with Tom Webster and Jason Falls in which they both noted that after speaking, they struggle to remember what it was that they said. This is not a rare phenomenon; in fact, it’s startlingly common for anyone who is good at what they do. Though it goes by many names such as being in the zone or on a roll, most often it’s called flow. Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi defines flow through six characteristics:

  • intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  • merging of action and awareness
  • a loss of reflective self-consciousness
  • a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  • a distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
  • experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding

We experience flow frequently under the right circumstances. If you’ve ever had a day where you looked at the clock and said, “holy heck, how is it already noon?” or where you were so involved in what you were doing that you had no idea what you did, you’ve experienced flow.

In later work by Owen Schafer, seven conditions are proposed that foster a flow experience:

  • Knowing what to do
  • Knowing how to do it
  • Knowing how well you are doing
  • Knowing where to go (if navigation is involved)
  • High perceived challenges
  • High perceived skills
  • Freedom from distractions

Speaking publicly certainly can encourage us to reach a state of flow where it’s difficult to remember time objectively or the details of what you did. More important, because flow experiences are typically positive, productive experiences, it’s important to try to create the conditions in which you (or the people you manage) reach those states. The more your workplace can create Schafer’s 7 conditions, the more likely it is you’ll experience flow and the enjoyment you get from it while simultaneously increasing your productivity. Of all of the conditions above, #7 may be the most difficult to achieve in the workplace. Do your best to prune away distractions as much as possible in order to avoid cheating yourself of flow experiences!

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