How to get into flow at work - new research briefing

How to get into flow at work

Getting into flow at work

How people get into flow at work.

You know that feeling where you have settled into a nice rhythm and cadence of work, are completely immersed, feeling a sense of progression, enjoyment and motivation? When we achieve a state of flow we tend not to notice the passage of time, as we are wholly focused on the task at hand. Most people enjoy being in flow. They also like the sense of productivity and alignment it gives. 

Flow is in effect an optimal or peak experience when our skills match the challenge of the work and we are performing at an optimal level.

The question is how can you get into flow at work more often?


This research briefing was sent out to members in October 2017



in the flow at work


The three elements of flow


  1. Total immersion or absorption in a task.
  2. Enjoyment in the work without necessarily being aware of this due to the focus involved.
  3. An underlying and intrinsic sense of motivation. Again, because of the level of focus involved in flow, one may not be aware of this motivation.



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Previous studies on flow at work


A number of studies have looked at flow in the workplace and have found that it is associated with elevated levels of focus, confidence, ease and a sense that the task to be performed is occurring automatically or without deliberate effort.


Previous studies have found that flow is positively associated with a number indicators:  job performance, task performance, other people’s perception of an individual’s performance. The elements of flow: total immersion, enjoyment, and intrinsic motivation are all predictors of enhanced job performance.


Other studies have found that people who are habitually involved in knowledge sharing and who contribute most tend to experience flow more often. Additionally, the studies have found that flow is frequently an inherent part of creativity, idea creation, originality and enhanced problem-solving capability.


The current thinking is that the ability to be able to get into flow work has significant and positive outcomes in terms of performance, creativity, decision-making and problem-solving.



A study about flow at work


Usually flow is associated with immersion in a leisure activity and this study wanted to find out how people are able to create flow at work.


The number of likely characteristics include:

  • The level of positive or growth potential challenge involved – it has been found that more complex and challenging a task is the more effort and energy is required to master it. This tends to result in learning, goal attainment and a sense of achievement. Conversely, other situations that require high levels of effort and energy such as interpersonal conflict tend not to result in learning goal attainment and a sense of achievement.
  • The level of skills and resourcesthe individual has to deal with the challenges – this includes the physical, psychological, social and organisational skills required to meet the challenge inherent in the work faced. Previous studies have found that, where this collection of skills matches the challenge and enables progress to be made smoothly, it is significantly more likely that the individual will get into flow.
  • Task significance– how important the task at hand appears to be to the individual in the context of the organisation is another predictor of flow. People tend not to get into flow with low value tasks.
  • Level of autonomy– the level of autonomy or ability to determine one’s own work, decisions and activities has been found to be a significant predictor of flow. Where an individual does not have control over their own activities and decisions, it is very unlikely that the individual will achieve a sense of flow.


In effect, when an individual’s skills and resources match the level of the challenge facing them, it is much more likely that an individual will get into flow with that task.


time disappears


Self-determination theory


Self-determination theory is primarily a theory of motivation and it looks at the degree to which people’s behaviour is as a result of their own self-motivation, willpower and consciousness. Self-determination theory is in effect about intrinsic (internal) motivation (motivation that comes from within), as opposed to extrinsic (external) motivation.


Three psychological needs

The theory suggests that our internal motivations come from three psychological needs:


  1. The psychological need for competence
  2. Autonomy
  3. Psychological relatedness, or connection with other human beings.


These three psychological needs are considered to be universal urges which drive our behaviour.

The need for competence comes from our inherent desire to be effective as we are negotiating our environment. Our need for autonomy is based on our basic need to have control and be in charge of our own actions and choices. Lastly, we have an inherent desire to belong, interact with and be connected to other human beings. According to self-determination theory it is these three psychological needs that underpin most of our internal or intrinsic motivation to act in any particular set of circumstances.


The four strategies that help individuals to get into flow at work


There are four strategies in particular which we use in order to get into flow.  These  are based on the idea of self-determinism:


  1. Self-leadership
  2. Job-crafting
  3. Playful work design
  4. Use of strengths.


All four of these strategies play directly into the idea of self-determination and the psychological needs of competence, autonomy and relatedness.


playful work design


HR practices


The researchers conclude that having the ability to do these four sets of behaviour will help people to focus more and make it significantly more likely that they will get into flow in the workplace, with the resultant increase in performance. They recognise that HR practices probably indirectly influence whether these four behaviours can occur and as a result are often the arbiters of whether people can get into flow within the workplace. The organisational climate and context is seen to be critically important in facilitating an environment in which people can get into flow.

Transformational leadership


The researchers propose that effective leadership in the form of transformational leadership is also likely to support the creation of an environment within which flow at work can be achieved.


The role of personal resources


The researchers highlight the role of personal resources such as self-efficacy or confidence, optimism and emotional intelligence/emotion regulation as being significant in the ability of individuals to get into flow. People with low levels of cognitive resources tend to find it difficult to get into a place of focus and flow. Therefore supporting people to enhance their self-consciousness, concentration, sense of control and emotion regulation capabilities would pay dividends in helping to create flow of work.




This study is proposing a model for organisations to help create the right organisational climate, structure and personal resources to help employees focus better and get into flow at work. The advantages of having people in flow go beyond just enhance productivity and include heightened levels of organisational and job commitment, lower levels of intention to leave, greater job satisfaction and better mental health.



Bakker, A. B., & van Woerkom, M. (2017). Flow at work: A self-determination perspective. Occupational Health Science, 1-19.


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David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Review. He is also acknowledged to be one of the world's leading experts in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing emotional resilience. David teaches and conducts research at a number of universities including the University of Oxford, Medical Sciences Division, Cardiff University, Oxford Brookes University School of Business and many more. He has worked with many organisations as a consultant and executive coach including Schroders, where he coaches and runs their leadership and management programmes, Royal Mail, Aimia, Hyundai, The RAF, The Pentagon, the governments of the UK, US, Saudi, Oman and the Yemen for example. In 2010 he developed the world's first and only model and programme for developing emotional resilience across entire populations and organisations which has since become known as the Fear to Flow model which is the subject of his next book. In 2012 he drove a 1973 VW across six countries in Southern Africa whilst collecting money for charity and conducting on the ground charity work including developing emotional literature in children and orphans in Africa and a number of other activities. He is the author of The Ambiguity Advanatage: What great leaders are great at, published by Palgrave Macmillian. See more: About: About David Wikipedia: David's Wikipedia Page