A recent study describes how linking flow with goal setting can have a positive impact on the prevalence of anxiety levels at work.
In the 1970s psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the idea of ‘Flow’. During initial studies of creative people (e.g. painters and musicians) he observed that they were engaged in their activities without any focus on external rewards and seemed motivated to carry out their activity purely for the sake of it. In the process they described being so absorbed in what they were doing that they lost sense of time passing or the environment around them. This became known as ‘Flow’ as people described the experience as like “being carried along on a stream of water”. In the years since, flow has been extensively studied and experienced by people in a wide range of activities.
Flow is associated with higher job performance, greater job satisfaction, positive mood, increased coping and enhanced job engagement. It is negatively related to burnout and anxiety. For example, being in a flow state has been shown to be associated with reduced cortisol levels (a stress hormone). Facilitating states of flow therefore can be effective in boosting and maintaining resilience and positivity.
Flow occurs when the degree of challenge in a task is slightly higher than the level of skill at hand.
Adding in focused goal setting appears to help us achieve a state of flow. Goals need to be SMART (i.e. specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time bound) and the study's researchers place particular emphasis upon the goals needing to be both achievable and challenging. Adding in nudges throughout the day, can help us to keep focused on them.
Nudges are light touch, timely prompts we can use to encourage us to make beneficial choices which we might otherwise not make. Setting our own goals (self-leadership) sees us taking an active rather than a passive stance and appears to boost our experience of flow at work. Active stances are known to be helpful in maintaining resilience and overcoming anxiety. (As the old saying goes “action is the antidote to despair”)
In the study, the researchers asked the participants to set three SMART goals each day with a daily text prompt each morning. They were then sent nudges by text message through the day to nudge them into setting/working on their goals. At the end of the study they found that this group of participants was significantly more likely to experience a state of flow than those who didn’t use this technique, and that this group self-reported improvements in their daily work performance, daily stress, and work engagement.
There are limitations with this study, as with most: it was a preliminary study with a fairly small group of participants (317) who were self-reporting the results, but it nicely included three distinct areas (flow, goal setting and nudges) for which there is a fair degree of support.
So, might it be something you want to try out for yourself?
They key steps are:
- Apply this to each workday for several weeks (but not non-working days)
- Each morning before getting started with work, identify three SMART goals you will set yourself for that day. They must be challenging but not overwhelming such that you can accomplish each one that day. Write these out as “Today I will… “ for each goal. For example, saying “Today I will make sales calls” is not a SMART goal but “Today I will make 10 sales calls to prospects who attended last Thursday’s webinar” is.
- Using your smart phone (or other smart device) set up 3-4 automated task reminders, to run periodically through each working day, nudging you to check (a) what you are working on now and (b) to set (or focus on) your next SMART goal.
- At the end of the two week period check in with yourself – overall do you feel that you have been more productive, less stressed and more engaged with work?
For the full study see Nudging ﬂow through ‘SMART’ goal setting to decrease stress, increase engagement, and increase performance at work, by Jared Weintraub, David Cassell and Thomas P. DePatie in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, Special Issue Paper, 2021