“‘Creativity’ strikes me as a highfalutin word for the work I have to do between now and Tuesday.”
– David Ogilvy, the Grandfather of Modern Advertising
“Flow” is a newish word for an altered state of consciousness creative people have sought out forever. It’s that ideal frame of mind in which we’re so absorbed in the task at hand that time seems to fly by. The Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow” and describes it this way:
There's this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback. You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears, you forget yourself, you feel part of something larger. And once the conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake.
Scientists have discovered that, during flow, brainwaves slow, the prefrontal cortex (responsible for self-monitoring, impulse control and sense of self) is deactivated, and neurochemical changes occur that enhance pleasure and allow us to link ideas in new ways.
It’s the ideal state for innovating and finding satisfaction in creativity, and it’s not just for artists. Interviews with engineers, scientists and even CEOs report that their most successful innovations have happened during a flow state. So how can companies set up their employees to make flow more accessible?
1. Help employees boost energy. Whether it means a coffee break, an onsite gym or just encouraging a satisfying work/life balance that allows for quality rest, flow needs a high-energy state in order to happen.
2. Provide quiet workspaces. The modern open office is probably not the optimum environment in which to enter flow, since distractions short-circuit that sensation of focusing so intently that the outside world ceases to exist. If your workplace doesn't provide for separate offices, make sure there's some quiet space employees can use when they need to really noodle through a problem.
3. Be sure tasks are challenging, but not overwhelming. People are most likely to feel pleasantly absorbed in work for which they are well suited. If your staff is well trained and their work is both interesting and helps them stretch their abilities, you’ve got a good recipe for flow.