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5 Ways To Maintain FLOW When You Work

Have you ever had a time when you just sit back and realize that you are completely enjoying your work? Your emotions are positive, energized, and entirely aligned with the task at hand.

On the other hand, have you ever been completely stuck? Perhaps you were frustrated, anxious, confused, tired, overwhelmed or maybe even completely depressed as you worked?


His book

This first state is something Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls “flow” . And that second state is about as far away from flow as you can get.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to always work with flow, and never work without it?

Few mortals achieve this state of perpetually perfect flow. Everyone drops out of flow sometimes. But what if you could spend more time in flow than not?

It’s a nice thought, but it raises a question. Is flow something we can create? Or do we simply have to enjoy it when it decides to visit us?

Csíkszentmihályi’s 3 Flow Conditions

Csíkszentmihályi thinks we can create the conditions that produce flow. And he thinks three factors are key. If he’s right (or even close to right), this gives us some hope of working in a state of flow more of the time.

Here are his three factors:

  1. Make sure you have a clear outcome in mind as you work.
  2. Make sure you and your work make for a good “skill to challenge match”.
  3. Make sure you get frequent feedback on your work.

Having a clear outcome is almost self-explanatory. To test for this, just ask yourself, “why am I doing this?”. If it’s not clear what goal your work is helping you achieve, you will probably find yourself much more liable to procrastinate, and will benefit greatly from gaining clarity on your outcome.

Having a good skill/challenge match takes a little more explanation. According to Csíkszentmihályi, the state of flow is situated squarely between the states of boredom and anxiety. If the challenge is too easy relative to our skills, we will get bored. If it is too difficult relative to our skills we will feel anxious, and worry that we won’t be able to perform up to expectations. Flow happens when we are neither anxious nor bored. We have little doubt we can accomplish the goal, but we also see that we have an opportunity to stretch, learn, and extend our skills just a bit, too.

Having frequent feedback needs a bit of clarification as well. Consider an example from school. Imagine one class where you are assigned a 30 page paper due at the end of the term, on which your whole grade depends, and no feedback is given along the way. Daunting, right? It would be for most people.

Now imagine another class where, every 2 weeks, you turn in a 5 page paper and get feedback on it. You shoot a little blind on your first paper, not knowing what the teacher expects. But the feedback you get allows you to do a better job on the second paper. And you do even better on the subsequent papers, because you are getting feedback along the way.

Which scheme do you think will result in more procrastination, anxiety, and frustration for most people? For most, it will be much easier to work on a series of 5 page papers with feedback along the way, than to work on a 30 page paper with no feedback.

Similarly, in your work, you should try to set things up so you get feedback from those who have a stake in your work every week or two at the least. This will keep your head in the game.

I think Csíkszentmihályi’s list is brilliant, yet incomplete. Let’s consider two other conditions that I think should be added to the list. Each of these two conditions has shaped the careers of two other productivity Gurus.

The New List of 5 Flow Conditions

David Allen has built a career around teaching others how to create a clear mind. He gives a lot of advice, but, if I had to pick out his greatest contribution, it’s in helping others work with a clear mind. Basically he noticed that many people will try to work with 100 random thoughts buzzing around in their heads, and he worked out an effective procedure for quieting the mind for greater focus.

There are two things to note about this. 1) It’s very difficult to work with a sense of flow when you have a hundred unrelated things competing for mind share. 2) Csíkszentmihályi does not include having a clear mind among his main 3 conditions for flow.

This leads me to think we should add this item to the list of flow conditions.

Tony Schwartz, likewise, has built a career around helping people work with sustainable physical and mental energy. He has helped people do their most difficult work when they have the most energy, and has helped people appreciate the power of performing with alternating rhythms of work and rest.

There are also two things to note about this. 1) It’s very difficult to work with a sense of flow when you’re not physically or mentally fresh. 2) Csíkszentmihályi does not include high physical and mental energy among his main 3 flow conditions.

And this leads me to think that high physical and mental energy should be added to the list of flow conditions.

So, with all due admiration and credit given to Csíkszentmihályi for getting the ball rolling, helping us think along these lines, and identifying 3 very powerful conditions for working with flow, I think the following list of 5 flow conditions is an improvement on his original 3:

  1. Having a clear mind.
  2. Having a clear outcome
  3. Having a good skill/challenge match
  4. Getting frequent feedback
  5. Having high physical/mental energy.

This list feels much closer to being complete. All 5 conditions seem necessary, and jointly they seem like they would be very close to being sufficient conditions for flow — at least most of the time.

Now, I want to contribute a couple thoughts of my own to make the list even more practical.

Those who have read “Clear Mind, Effective Action” know that I don’t like to spend a lot of time creating conditions for success ahead of time. Given the elegant structure of Fractal Planning, it turns out to be much more efficient to just start working toward success, and solve problems as they arise.

For this reason, I’d rather assume that we’re going to work with a state of flow, consider how we can lose that state, and then consider how we can regain it again.

The Ultimate Payoff: The 5 Flow-Killers (and the remedy for each)

So, instead of framing this list as “5 conditions to set up so that you can work with flow”, I’d rather re-work them so they are stated as “5 things that can prevent or kill flow”. Then we can consider a remedy for each, and this will allows us to work in a state of flow more often.

Framed this way, here are the 5 flow killers, and the remedy for each.

1. Too many thoughts going through your mind. When your mind is unclear that can lead you to feel overwhelmed, and unable to focus on the task at hand.

Whenever you have too many thoughts going through your mind, you should use an effective “clear mind” procedure (and preferably one that takes 5 minutes or less). What is a “clear mind procedure?” The short version is this: you must write down every idea that comes to mind. Then put each idea some place that allows your brain to let go of it.

For more detail about this point, I recommend you study the clear mind procedure in CMEA. (Fractal Planning allows us to simplify David Allen’s method considerably).

2. Lack of a Clear Vision. This sometimes manifests as a nagging uncertainty about your project, and frequently leads to procrastination.

Notice that you can be unclear about the “why” of your project, and you can also be unclear about the “how” of it. When unclear about the “why”, you should remind yourself what bigger goals are being served by your project, make sure the bigger plans are coherent, and to see if there’s any potential conflict lurking between your current project and other projects you have on your plate. When unclear about the “how”, you should break down your project further into a more detailed plan.

Again, for a more complete discussion of how to regain clarity, consult CMEA (it’s free).

3. Unexpected complications/interruptions. Unexpected complications make us feel frustrated.

Whenever you encounter unexpected complications you need to 1) admit that the project is going to take longer or require more work than you originally thought. 2) start planning a solution. The faster you do these things, the sooner you can stop brooding and saying “why me?”, and get back to a state of flow.

4. Impatience and uncertainty. This combination of feelings happens when you’re doing big projects (like one David Seah is working on currently) I think it’s mostly a result of having too long to go before getting feedback from the stakeholders in your project.

Whenever you feel that combination of impatience and uncertainty, you should consider slicing off a chunk of your current project, and arrange to get feedback on it after a relatively short time period. I find that having 2 weeks or less to the next point at which I get feedback from the market or other stakeholders keeps my head in the game best.

While this practice is not new for me, it was not yet officially a part of the Fractal Planning Method. I plan to write more about this topic in the future, and consider more fully how to go about slicing off sensible chunks of a big project to create reasonable near-term feedback opportunities.

5. Physical/mental tiredness. This is the only one of the five flow killers for which I endorse a primarily proactive solution. I recommend setting up work/rest rhythms at many different time scales. Good diet/sunshine/sleep/a little exercise, and things like that are good, too.

For more detail on this, see CMEA.

So, let’s pause for a moment, because I don’t want you to miss the power of this.

Don’t Miss the Power of Knowing How To Defeat the 5 Flow Killers

This is not just a radically incomplete list of “5 fun ways to restore flow”. Or “5 nice thoughts about how to work with flow that don’t really work in the real world”. These are THE main 5 ways. I can’t prove there are no others. In fact, there probably are. But I do have good reason to think these cover 95% of the situations in which you will lose your sense of flow.

And that means you now have the power to work with flow more often.

Any time you lose flow, just stop and diagnose the reason.

There are only 5 reasons worth considering for the most part.

Do I have too many thoughts in my head? Do I lack clarity? Is this an unexpected complication? Is my next feedback milestone too far away? Am I physically or mentally tired?

It will almost always boil down to one of those 5 things, and (especially if you’ve read CMEA), you will be armed with an effective way to quickly deal with each flow killer, and get back to working with a sense of flow.

For what it’s worth, I have been diagnosing and remedying 4 of the flow killers for months now, and this practice has easily doubled my own productivity, and reduced my stress by half or more. But, after reflecting on Csíkszentmihályi’s criteria, and, especially his emphasis on frequent feedback, I’m excited about adding in the fifth flow killer and seeing what effect that has.

I’ve already been creating more frequent feedback points for myself, but I think that understanding this factor as a flow killer, and developing a trigger-response rule for it, just like the other flow killers, should improve things even more. Note also that this point is an important theme in Agile Planning.

Any thoughts about this? Your comments are welcome.

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