You were “in the zone” or, as psychologists say: you were in flow. Being in flow is connected to having greater job satisfaction and job performance, a win-win scenario for you and your work. Flow is the sweet spot of work between boredom and anxiety (see chart below). The goldilocks zone of not too hard, but not too easy that keep us learning but without frustration.
When you find the perfect balance between these two extremes, flow (and all of the happiness and fulfillment along with it) comes naturally. But finding flow doesn’t happen naturally, it takes a series of mindful adjustments to how we work.
Boredom is the result of having skills that far outweigh the present challenges. You can begin altering boring tasks by finding ways to make them more challenging. By raising the challenge you can bring higher levels of skill to the activity.
If the task is too boring or unchallenging, you can lament the easy task, or you can get it out of the way as soon as possible so you can focus on the good stuff.
Make your hated task a competition, you versus the clock. The goal becomes clearer, you know if you're successfully making progress, and you have something to shoot for. For example, long distance runners fight apathy by always trying to beat their last time. In the office, some pride themselves for getting to “inbox zero” as fast as possible.
You don’t have to time yourself at your desk, but there are probably things you can do to help you master your task, or at least help you get it out of the way. Learn the keyboard shortcuts. Find tools that streamline the task. Find inefficiencies in your workflow and stomp them out. Now, it becomes something you're using to challenge yourself with the task itself as well as your problem solving skills — and you’re finding flow where before there was only tedium. Remember productivity is about living purposefully and getting to the things you enjoy most.
Instead of staying at the surface level of understanding, challenge yourself to become an expert in some component of the task. Hate filling out redundant paperwork? Maybe you can propose a more streamlined system to save yourself time and your company money. Or better yet, you can learn to build it yourself. You can learn the ins and outs of the software you use to complete unchallenging tasks and improve the way you complete your work more quickly or with less effort. Not only are you more likely to experience flow, but you may just develop some skills that make you truly indispensable for your organization. Also, many entrepreneurs start businesses after becoming frustrated with a process that should be smooth and fast, but isn’t. Suddenly, your lack of a challenge can become an education in the nuances of your craft.
On the other hand, anxiety is the result of too much challenge and not enough skill. A certain amount of tension between skill and challenge is necessary to find flow and to continue pushing your skills to improve. When the gap between challenge and skill is too great you can’t experience flow.
In a work environment, the two quickest ways to reduce the challenge are getting a deadline extension or accepting help from someone with greater skills in the specific domain you're dealing with. A quick email to a mentor, buying a coffee for a senior member of the team, or flat out asking someone for advice about how to proceed; your options for reducing the challenge of a task are numerous if you’re willing to simply ask.
The benefits are two fold: you get some outside perspective to help you and you build your network, one of the most important things you can do for your career.
Tip the skill/challenge ratio away from anxiety by elevating your skills in the domain that’s causing you problems. Identifying where you are falling short requires a bit of self-reflection and honesty, and may even require the help of an honest friend. Take the task holding you back and commit to focusing on it for thirty days. Creating a habit of deliberate practice will help you break through the skill barrier that’s causing anxiety. You aren’t going to be an expert after a month of focused skill attainment but you’ll certainly be headed in the right direction. It’s easy getting into a habit of helplessness, one where we feel like we’ll just never be good enough. But in a world of free online courses, meetups, and other free resources, you have a ton of control over finding and learning the skills you need.
Experiencing flow at work is probably one of the best signs that you enjoy your job. Elevating your awareness of the skill/challenge ratio of your daily responsibilities allows you to begin taking control over how much flow you experience on a daily basis. Your job satisfaction is not the responsibility of others and it's not something that happens if you're “lucky enough” to have the right kind of job — it's up to you.
What activities help you find flow?
Sam is a PhD student studying positive organizational psychology. His research focuses on how creative and independent professionals can systematically improve their individual work process. He writes and coaches at TheWorkologist.com.