How to get you and your people in the zone

Written by
Changeboard Team

06 Sep 2010

06 Sep 2010 • by Changeboard Team


"I was already on pole position…I just kept going. Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my team mate with the same car. And suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel."

- Ayrton Senna  (Formula One Champion) speaking after qualifying sessions for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix.

Flow as a psychological concept is perhaps best explained in lay mans’ terms as being ‘in the groove’ or ‘in the zone’. is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the positive psychology concept has been widely referenced.

According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task.

So how can you induce this state of ‘flow’ in yourself and create the conditions so that you maximize the state of flow within your organization to ensure greater productivity and motivation?

Barrier to flow

Let’s start by defining the barriers to flow. One of the biggest barriers to achieving a regular state of flow is ‘information uncertainty’: the stress or confusion caused by either unclear tasks or an overload of tasks or information that still need to be defined.

Peter Drucker, many years ago coined the term ‘knowledge work’. Put simply, our jobs in the ‘knowledge work economy’ involve adding value and creating value from information. At the heart of the Drucker definition is the idea that in order to add value or create value out of information, we need to define as well as do.

Put simply, we are simultaneously taking on the role of boss and worker all at the same time, rather than in conventional, old-fashioned functional work roles where there is a clear task for us to do, where the speed at which we must work is determined not by our energy or motivation, but by the speed of the conveyor belt or the course words of an evil supervisor.

Potential meaning overload

The phrase we most often hear is ‘information overload’. Information itself is actually not the problem at all. The problem, as defined so brilliantly by David Allen, author of the best-seller, ‘Getting Things Done’ is ‘potential meaning overload’.

It’s the ‘potential meaning’ of each piece of information as it gets our attention that is so overwhelming. Why? Two reasons.

Firstly, the meaning could potentially be a gold-mine (extra funding, helping the charity achieve its’ mission, new opportunities for exciting partnerships) or a land-mine (‘if I miss this deadline we’ll look bad’, ‘we need to comply with this’, ‘we can’t afford to not be involved’ and so on). As civil society organisations, adding the right value to the right information is arguably more critical than anywhere else: rarely in the private or public sectors is it a matter of life or death to organizations or even our users.

Secondly, our brains are limited in their ability to retain information. If you don’t believe me, think back to that childhood party game, “I went to the shops and I bought…” Very few people can retain more than about ten things in their mind without starting to drop things, yet most people decide their brains are the best place to try to retain all their projects and commitments rather than externalizing this properly into lists, project plans and so on. It’s so much easier to see the wood from the trees - and make intuitive decisions about comparative value - when you can actually see all the trees.

Our CORD model

So if you’re feeling overwhelmed by it all, you’re not alone. Realise that there are actually 4 distinct disciplines in knowledge work. At Think Productive, we have adapted some of the key principles from David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’ into what we call the CORD workflow model:

CAPTURE & COLLECT – the gathering of all information, as it arises. This goes a long way to eliminating the stress created by fearing we’ll miss or forget things, as long as you know you will come back and process this information later.

ORGANISE – systematically analyzing what you’ve collected and making up-front decisions on what the final conclusion and next action will be for each piece of information, or of course, deciding things aren’t worth doing at all. The discipline of keeping action-orientated lists, where you have already defined the next action, the location and what the finish line looks like is one of the most underrated skills in knowledge work.

REGULAR REVIEW – regularly practicing two distinct forms of review: the ‘in the moment’ review of your ‘next action lists’, designed to make the decision about ‘what next?’ and ‘what adds the most value?’, and the ‘weekly review’, where you revisit your list of projects and make sure that you know the next action for each and every project you’re committed to and get a wider perspective on things.

DO – As Seth Godin calls it, ‘Shipping’. There’s nothing more satisfying in your quest to avoid information overload than clearing the decks with some good old fashioned action. But recognizing that there are three other phases we need to complete before a lot of the magic happens can make the ‘doing’ part so much more enjoyable.

Recognizing these four distinct phases on knowledge work can be a great help when we’re faced with information overload – where’s the ‘blockage’? Is it too much information coming in? Is it too much information remaining undefined, with no sense of the potential meaning? Is it because you need to take a step back and revisit priorities? If none of these three areas are blocked, you’re much more likely to start to experience ‘flow’ states.

Create the space by focusing on the bigger picture and once you’re confident you have this under control, you’ll probably find that you start to experience some quite profound states of flow. This is partly about using psychological techniques to help our ‘boss brain’ to manage our ‘worker brain’ and give our ‘worker self’ the permission to perform, rather than be subconsciously worrying about all the alternative actions we could be taking.

I work with organizations across all sectors to confront this very openly, helping to get email inboxes to zero, improve email and information etiquette, implementing the CORD model mentioned here with teams and helping to apply clarity and focus to meetings. Doing this openly helps create a culture where we can reclaim our time and attention, achieve a regular state of ‘flow’, control our information rather than letting it control us and ultimately create more value and meaning on our quest to make the world that little bit better.