Inspiration From Video Games To Get Into A Flow State At Work

Gamers say they experience a state of relaxed focus while playing video games. Note these ideas to replicate this sense of flow at work.

Inspiration From Video Games To Get Into A Flow State At Work
[Photo: Flickr user Marco Arment]

Do you know that feeling you get when you are totally absorbed in an activity you love–even to the point of completely losing track of the time? That sense is amazing, but often hard to replicate.


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist and professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California, describes this condition as “flow” in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Performance.

“The state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it,” he writes.

Video games are often cited as one of the most quickly accessed sources of flow. There’s even a game Flow that pays homage to Csikszentmihalyi. Achieving a state of flow is part of what makes playing video games so enjoyable.


Here are five ways that can help you to get a video-game inspired flow into your work:

1. Minimize Visual Distractions

One contributing factor to flow is the singularity of focus–you can achieve this by shutting out interruptions. The type of work you do may have some built-in limitations, but choose instead to focus on the areas you can control.

Many video games have very elegant information displays that typically do a great job of helping you focus only on the numbers that matter.


Here are some ways I’ve done this working at my desk:

  • Limit your multitasking by shutting down every application you do not need
  • Turn off any notifications that are not absolutely essential
  • Put your cell phone out of sight
  • Clear off your desk space
  • Declutter everything within your field of vision

If you can see it, it should relate directly to what you are doing.

2. Select the Soundtrack

One of my favorite sources of video game nostalgia is the audio that accompanies many top games. The quality of video game music has advanced dramatically since the original bleeps and bloops of arcade games like Donkey Kong and Space Invaders.


Many video game soundtracks are stand-alone works of art in their own right, but I especially recommend soundtracks from role-playing games like the Final Fantasy game series. The ideal works are sweeping orchestral pieces that fit the bill for being both pleasing to listen to and are noninvasive. This is the perfect combination for productivity-inducing background music.

Headsets are a good idea for listening where permitted, but given the quality and general appeal of many RPG soundtracks, a well-selected playlist may even win over the entire office for public listening.

3. Enforce Time Limits

A timer counting down creates a sense of urgency. Many video games have built-in time limits that specific tasks must be completed within. The presence of a time-tracking system also allows for better management of time resources, and can help keep a project on track. The motivation produced is as important as the evasion of procrastination.


A study conducted by social network company Draugiem Group determined the ideal time for productivity is 52 minutes of focused intensity, followed by 17 minutes of break time. This cycle allows for focused and purposeful activity with an anticipated break at the end.

If you–or your boss–are concerned about frequent 17-minute breaks throughout the day, consider the time normally spent on non-work activities like restroom breaks, meals, making coffee, and commuting from meetings. Build those activities into non-work intervals, and then reduce the break down to 10 minutes if time is still an issue.

Tracking the time should be simple. Apps or programs like Marinara Timer will allow you to set a timer for a specific period of your choosing. So, you can take the guesswork out of when to set your next alarm, and provide a visual reminder of the countdown.


4. Create Multiple Stages

Take the concept of breaking work into segments to the next level. Video games like the classic Super Mario World offer players an experience that almost reaches 100 stages. What makes this manageable is the experience is broken up into 96 parts spread across nine worlds–inclusive of bonus worlds–each with their own checkpoints.

Applying the tactics discussed in the timer suggestion, milestones can be given their own time limits which will create an opportunity to experience the joys of a win for each step in the process.

The key here is to carefully plan out your steps:

  • Identify your goal
  • Create a list of key milestones
  • Put them into a calendar
  • Get started

5. Reward Yourself for Success

Another important key to productivity is recognition. Video games are especially good at rewarding and recognizing positive behaviors and results. Part of this lies in the programming.

Many modern games allow for in-game trophies or achievements for completing certain tasks, usually giving very specific details as to how to accomplish the feat. Unlike the typical workplace when the conditions are met, the award is immediately received every time.

Consistency is much easier in a virtual world, where rewards and achievements can be doled out through an automated process, since this minimizes the likelihood good behavior will fail to be recognized, or poor performance will go unnoticed. This is part of the challenge managers face when overseeing groups in the workplace.


When it comes to personal productivity, establish a set of prizes you will award yourself with upon completion of a task or milestone. The best part about managing yourself this way is you know what matters most.

I know I will not reward myself with watching a reality TV show, because that holds no motivation for me to strive toward. However, a cup of coffee, a sushi dinner, or even a few laughs via YouTube will give me something to look forward to.

Implementing these five simple techniques can make your day job a bit more like a game, and will boost your productivity and flow in the process. Try out a few of these suggestions–or even all five–and let the games begin.


Jonathan Harrison, MBA, ODCC is an organizational development practitioner, speaker, blogger, and podcaster on the topic of life and leadership lessons that can be learned from video games. He is currently writing a book and developing training curriculum for business professionals who also enjoy video games. You can connect with him at or on Twitter @CT_Blog.


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