Find Your Flow: Lessons in Organizational Performance and Motivation from Distance Runners

Distance runner running on a bridge

What motivates runners to run mile after mile after mile? Long-distance runners subject themselves to sore muscles, injuries, chafing and exhaustion. The “why” runners run is as varied as the individuals running and the distances they push themselves. Some call it their therapy—a time to reflect and ponder. Others like the exhilarating “runner’s high” they get while logging miles. Or it might be on a person’s bucket-list—a personal goal to see if they can do it.

But long-distance runners will tell you that oftentimes their mind and body are so in tune with the task at hand, that running feels effortless. It’s that feeling of “flow” that motivates them to keep going. Flow happens when you pursue something you love without regard to extrinsic motivators like money or trophies.

Flow is an actual thing. It’s a highly researched psychological phenomenon first described in the 1970’s by Dr. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “ME-high CHEEK-sent-me-high”), and later in his book Optimal Experience: Psychological Studies of Flow in Consciousness. You could say that flow is “being in the zone” in the pursuit of happiness. It’s being so caught up in one’s purpose that the work itself brings fulfillment and satisfaction. And time spent doing it is of little to no consequence. Doing meaningful work that really matters is an essential element of our wellbeing. So why not do more of it?

Hundreds of researchers have studied the phenomenon of flow and recently, it’s being refined in the workplace. You yourself may have experienced a flicker of flow—a little satori, as the Zen monks say. The question is, “how do you make it happen at will?” According to Csikszentmihalyi, there are nine dimensions, of which three precursors must be in place for flow outcomes to happen.

Just as years of training, a good night’s rest and proper hydration set the stage for a good distance race, you must have specific goals, challenges that are balanced out by your skillset and unambiguous feedback in place to experience a state of flow.

1. Set Clear Goals

There’s no downside to setting goals. Clear goals point us in the direction of desired achievement. Goals should be measurable and within certain timeframes. To achieve flow, simple goals such as saving a certain percentage of your paycheck each month for an exotic trip won’t get you there. But if you choose a more challenging goal, such as qualifying to run in the Boston Marathon, you begin setting the stage for flow.

Goal setting takes careful consideration of what you want to achieve, and ends with a lot of hard work to get there. It also takes commitment and a sense of urgency to get it done.

Set your goals in writing. This helps to make the goal feel real while acting as a concrete reminder of what you want to accomplish. Ultimately, to get into flow, your goal needs to be something that’s important to you and appeals to your inner sense of purpose and drive.

2. Balance Challenge with Your Skills

Choose something challenging within your skill set. Your goal needs to challenge and stretch you to new heights. But if the goal is too ambitious and beyond your capabilities, you’ll experience frustration and failure. Strike a balance between a realistic goal and a challenging one. The balancing process is an ongoing activity that should allow you to realign your goals along the way.

The challenge you choose should match your skills while offering new knowledge and new inspiration. In Csikszentmihalyi’s words, “Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.”

3. Get Unambiguous Feedback

Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, believed people should be clear in giving feedback to colleagues. He could be bruising in his uncompromising feedback and didn’t win a lot of friends that way. However, it could be that the discipline instilled at Apple about “leaving your ego at the door” and communicating clearly what needs to be done, is one of the reasons why Apple is so successful.

Look for mentors who will be honest in their feedback about your progress to your stated goal.

People who will tell you when and why you’ve done something well, but also those who will communicate clearly if you fall short of expectations.

Your mentors don’t have to bring you to tears, but they should be forthright.

Flow Outcomes

Flow is an inherently enjoyable, positive experience that almost all of us can say we’ve experienced. When flow happens, many or all of these 6 dimensions occur:

  1. Focused attention
  2. Merging of action and awareness
  3. Sense of control
  4. Loss of self-consciousness
  5. Distortion of time
  6. Intrinsic motivation

Focused attention happens when we’re motivated and engaged in a project for any period of time. And it’s easier to pay attention to an activity when there is little distraction or outside stimuli. Being focused helps us carry out important tasks to achieve an end goal.

When there’s a loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness occurs. Think of running the Boston Marathon after years of training and practice. The race threads through 8 cities and towns, drawing competitors and spectators alike into a unity of purpose. You feel almost lost in time as every pitter-patter of your shoes gliding along the historic route fills your ears. You’re in control, taking every stride perfectly.

It’s exhilarating.

When the balance between challenges and skills are in tune, it’s possible for a person to feel a sense of control. Having this autonomy, along with purpose and mastery are three essential components of intrinsic motivation that allows us to reach elevated levels of achievement and sets the stage for people to attain maximum flow.

It’s Up to You

Flow isn’t something that just happens to us. Studies over the decades have shown how putting the three antecedents in place tees up the ability for anyone to achieve flow. Just like most things in life that are satisfying, you have to train, practice and work for it. The outcomes can be astonishing whether it’s exceeding your personal best time in a marathon, creating extraordinary art or innovating a new product to fill a niche need. When you achieve flow, it can be one of the most satisfying experiences in your life.

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times … The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” —Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi