Skip navigation

The Art of Work

What would happen if the best moments of your life happened at the office? That would be "flow," and thanks to a guy with an unpronounceable name, more and more businesses want to know about it.

"It is what the sailor holding a tight course feels when the wind whips through her hair....It is what a painter feels when the colors on the canvas begin to set up a magnetic tension with each other, and a new thing, a living form, takes shape...."

These words, written by American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Mee-high CHICK-sent-me-high-ee), describe the state of "flow." It's a condition of heightened focus, productivity, and happiness that we all intuitively understand and hunger for.

Csikszentmihalyi's groundbreaking book on the subject, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper & Row Publishers Inc., 1990), has been lauded by such heavyweights as Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Jimmy Johnson, who credited it with helping him coach the Dallas Cowboys to a Super Bowl win in 1993. Yet although the quest for flow immediately resonated with the sporting and leisure worlds, the concept never got much traction in business, possibly because ecstasy and the workplace go together about as well as tomatoes and chocolate.

In the past few years, however, many major companies, including Microsoft, Ericsson, Patagonia, and Toyota have realized that being able to control and harness this feeling is the holy grail for any manager -- or even any individual -- seeking a more productive and satisfying work experience.

These companies are now using Csikszentmihalyi's ideas to learn how they can get the best out of their workers or create more compelling connections with their customers. Without flow, there's no creativity, says Csikszentmihalyi, and in today's innovation-centric world, creativity is a requirement, not a frill. "To stay competitive, we have to lead the world in per-person creativity," says Jim Clifton, CEO of the Gallup Organization, which provides management consulting for 300-odd companies. "People with high flow never miss a day. They never get sick. They never wreck their cars. Their lives just work better." Clifton says flow is one ideal outcome of Gallup's consulting work.

No one is more surprised about the corporate world's increasing interest in his research than Csikszentmihalyi, 71, the former head of the psychology department at the University of Chicago. Now director of the Quality of Life Research Center at the Drucker School of Management in Claremont, California, he has been studying flow for more than four decades. Csikszentmihalyi was born in Italy; his father, the Hungarian consul there, was sentenced to death in absentia for not returning to Hungary after the Soviet takeover in 1948. In 1956, at the age of 22, Csikszentmihalyi came to the United States with $1.25 in his pocket.

An avid rock climber, Csikszentmihalyi took note of the special feeling he got while inching his way up a challenging rock face, and began thinking about it in terms of his psychology studies. Why, he wondered, was the entire field of psychology focused exclusively on the study of human pathology and dysfunction? What about the positive states, the moments when human beings are at their absolute best?

Csikszentmihalyi spent hours interviewing and observing exceptionally creative people, including leading chess players, rock climbers, composers, and writers, and normal folks as well, as they did their work. He also developed a unique research tool called Experience Sampling Method, in which his study subjects carried pagers for a week at a time. Beeped randomly eight times throughout the day, they wrote down what they were doing and feeling right at that moment.

Csikszentmihalyi, who with his white hair and beard resembles a tall and reticent Santa Claus, discovered that the times when people were most happy and often most productive were not necessarily when they expected they would be. Passive leisure activities such as TV-watching consistently ranked low on participants' scales of satisfaction -- even though they often sought out these experiences. Instead, people reported the greatest sense of well-being while pursuing challenging activities, sometimes even at work, and often while immersed in a hobby.

In the flow state, Csikszentmihalyi found, people engage so completely in what they are doing that they lose track of time. Hours pass in minutes. All sense of self recedes. At the same time, they are pushing beyond their limits and developing new abilities. Indeed, the best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to capacity. People emerge from each flow experience more complex, Csikszentmihalyi found. They become more self-confident, capable, and sensitive. The experience becomes "autotelic," meaning that the activity actually becomes its own reward. "To improve life, one must improve the quality of experience," he says. One of the chief advantages of flow is that it enables people to escape the state of "psychic entropy," the distraction, depression, and dispiritedness that constantly threaten them.

Csikszentmihalyi, a classic academic, has resisted many overt attempts to commercialize flow, particularly in the business world. "I'm not claiming that flow is like a magic pill," he says. "I'm always a little worried that if you ramp it up to a large company without knowing the culture and the context, it might not work." Don't bother looking for "7 Habits of Flow at Work" here: Csikszentmihalyi is the anti-Stephen Covey.

Yet plenty of others see the flow of dollar signs, either in their own company's performance or in bringing the concept to the corporate masses. Back in 2002, Stefan Falk, then the vice president of strategic business innovation at Ericsson, was given the task of integrating the merger of two huge business units worth $16 billion. Layoffs were coming, and Ericsson hoped Falk could find a way to make the remaining workers more productive. A former McKinsey & Co. consultant, Falk and a colleague had stumbled across Flow and another Csikszentmihalyi book, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (HarperCollins, 1996), while conducting a multiyear study at McKinsey on human development and motivation. "I was mesmerized when I read it," Falk says. "I had a vital piece of the puzzle. I said to my friend, 'I think we should contact this guy whose name I cannot pronounce.' "

So he did (like many others, Falk calls Csikszentmihalyi "Mike" for the sake of simplicity). The two discussed Mike's belief that flow has several necessary preconditions. These include having clear goals and a reasonable expectation of completing the task at hand. People must also have the ability to concentrate, receive regular feedback on their progress, and actually possess the skills needed for that type of work.

Falk concluded that the best way to get to flow was to have Ericsson managers spend a nearly unheard-of amount of quality time with each one of their employees. Managers were asked to work with employees to draw up separate "performance contracts" that included an assessment of each worker's strengths and weaknesses and set out a very specific action plan to help improve their skills. It all sounds pretty standard, but there was a kicker: To monitor progress, managers would meet with each employee six times a year for intensive one-on-one sessions lasting as long as an hour and a half each.

At first, the managers groused at the extra work. Falk's response: "What are you managing? The only thing you really manage here is your employees. End of story." This fall, Ericsson will export the new management system to all of its offices around the world.

Falk moved on to Green Cargo, one of Scandinavia's largest transport and logistics companies, in mid-2003, and instituted an even more comprehensive flow-based management overhaul. Every single month, he required meetings between employees and managers, 150 of whom were sent Flow to read as part of a six-day training process. Performance-review contracts were drawn up to cover three-month periods, and then renegotiated. Before each meeting, workers were asked to spend at least an hour reflecting on what had transpired since the previous one and determining the content of the upcoming one.

It seems most ironic that more meetings would lead to better flow, but these aren't your normal stultifying interdepartmental snorefests. Instead, they are one-on-one intensives akin to an executive coaching session. So far so good: Last year, government-owned Green Cargo turned a profit for the first time in its 120-year history, and Falk's work gets much of the credit, says Johan Saarm, Green Cargo's deputy CEO.

In a world teeming with authors lusting for the speaking circuit, Csikszentmihalyi is a refreshing oddity. Although business is clamoring for more and more of him, his relationship with the private sector remains ambivalent; he even recently organized a conference called "Alternatives to Materialism." Csikszentmihalyi says he never really thought about business until five years ago, when he was offered the post at Drucker. He accepted it in part because he liked his potential colleagues, and also because it was a quiet place with good weather for his wife's tortured sinuses. "I lived my life in an ivory tower, and business was to be held at an arm's length," he says, Birkenstocks poking out below his slacks and blazer. That may be because none of his research has established any link between happiness and the possession of lucre.

It may also be because there is a dark side to flow, says Csikszentmihalyi. It can come while pursuing destructive activities, such as addictions or crimes. He offers the contrasting examples of Mother Teresa and Napoleon Bonaparte to show how differently the flow state can affect the world. The same is true of business; it's easy to imagine Enron's Andrew Fastow in a rapturous flow state as he plotted his next scheme.

Yet if Csikszentmihalyi feels he can make a difference, he will speak to companies, and currently takes about 10 corporate speaking engagements a year. A few years ago, he gave a talk at Microsoft, which is studying how to use flow to give Windows users a more engaging experience. If the notoriously buggy and user-unfriendly operating system suddenly becomes a pleasure to use, Csikszentmihalyi deserves some thanks. Elsewhere at Microsoft, a researcher is studying how flow might improve the lives and productivity of software engineers.

At Patagonia, CEO Michael Crooke seized upon the ideas in Flow earlier than most. He read the book 10 years ago and credits it with explaining to him exactly why he thrived as a Navy Seal. "When you get a high-powered team together and you really get into a zone, you'll synchronize," he says. Crooke sought Csikszentmihalyi out, and has been meeting with him weekly for the past four years while working toward a PhD in management. Much of his dissertation focuses on creating a workplace environment conducive to flow.

Crooke's research laboratory is his own company. He believes the flow experience can extend from the Patagonia worker to the customer if they both feel good about what the company stands for. Flow, he says, "is at the center of everything I'm doing." In April, Crooke sent out the first iteration of an annual survey intended to gauge how much meaning and job satisfaction employees find in their work. It is chock-full of probing questions like how free employees feel to use their own judgment, whether they feel management is fully open about financial matters, whether Patagonia adequately reports environmental damage it causes, and whether its corporate values and its workers' personal values are aligned.

Crooke is also examining to what extent Patagonia's famed goal of protecting the environment affects his workers' experiences there. This is because Csikszentmihalyi believes that flow is most powerful when achieved in service of a goal that will better society. After learning how much pesticide was required to make a single cotton shirt, Patagonia began using only organic cotton in its clothes. In a few years, Crooke says, Patagonia will make biodegradable clothing that people can compost in the backyard along with their banana peels.

Some people dispute a direct linkage between earth-friendly underwear and an inspirational workplace, but Crooke isn't one of them. "[Flow] manifests itself in focused, on-time, on-spec products," he says, "that win in the marketplace because they were developed in a system in which the customers and the internal people all know what they want and need." In a world of depressed Dilberts, it's certainly worth a try.

Ann Marsh is an author and freelance writer based in Costa Mesa, California.