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Flow Theory: Eliminating Complacency for Maximum Results

Complacency and apathy are the beginning of a downward spiral; for individuals and organizations. In the context of productivity and accomplishment, a forward tension exists between two factors; Skill Level and Challenge Level.

Skill – the ability to do something well; expertise
Challenge – a task or situation that tests someone’s abilities

Both factors are organic, ever-changing and expandable. Therefore individuals and organizations have the ability to maximize the output of ideas, innovations and productivity by identifying and intentionally balancing the Skill and Challenge levels.

Flow theory, coined by Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is the mental state of performance when an individual with a task at hand experiences energized focus, complete involvement, and achievement.

Flow is focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task. (Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman)

According to Mihaly, three condition must be present to achieve Flow:

  1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals. This adds direction and structure to the task.
  2. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her own perceived skills. One must have confidence that he or she is capable to do the task at hand.
  3. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows him or her to adjust his or her performance to maintain the flow state.

If one possesses highly developed and unique skills, and applies the expertise in a non-challenging context – feelings of relaxation, boredom and dissatisfaction will accompany the task, ultimately leading towards apathy and complacency. Similarly, if one places themselves in a highly challenging situation without having the right skill set, feelings of anxiety and worry will arise – also resulting in apathy and complacency.

Therefore, by balancing high levels of Skill and Challenge, an individual and organizations are able to generate high output of ideas, productivity, satisfaction and forward momentum.

Given the organic nature of Skill and Challenge, one must continually strive to develop skills, and apply the skills in highly challenging situations.

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