Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Not Too Hard, Not Too Easy: Finding Flow In Your Work

You sit down to work and you lose yourself in the task at hand. You feel alive and engaged. The concerns of everyday life fall away as you immerse yourself in the work. You experience a sense of progress and with a quick look at the clock you’re flabbergasted to see hours have passed by seemingly unnoticed.

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.flowbox

Flow Issue #1: Too Little Challenge

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.

Optimize and gamify the mundane tasks

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. 

Become an expert in the task

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.

You may just develop some skills that make you truly indispensable for your organization.

Flow Issue #2: Too Much Challenge

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.

Get help from a mentor

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.

Acknowledge where you lack skills and improve

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.

How about you?

What activities help you find flow?

More insights on: Focus

Sam Spurlin

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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
load comments (15)
  • LuaNucci

    Thanks! [=

  • growthguided

    Where do you think is the best resource for finding mentors?

    Thanks for the post

    • Sam Spurlin

      I think it’s entirely dependent on your field. More senior colleagues may be a good place to start. Try to build relationships with people you admire. Ask them questions. I wouldn’t recommend approaching someone you don’t know and asking them to be a mentor. I’m in favor of a more organic approach.

  • Sam Spurlin

    I do the same thing except I think of Crash Team Racing instead of Mario Kart :)

  • Tama Lancaster

    Great article, Sam. Finding the flow for me involves creating an agenda for the day, and then fulfilling it. It also helps me see exactly how much I can do, how I can do my tasks, and improving upon the number of tasks I can do well in a day. Also, you are so right about asking for help. But, so many are too shy or reluctant to ask.

  • Jonathan Buchanan

    For those who are interested, this (unreferenced) post is based on the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who invented the concept of flow, and the diagram pictured above. He has written myriad books on the subject and is also engaged in the study of positive psychology. I’d recommend starting with “Flow”, followed by “Finding Flow” for a more complete guide. I can’t recommend him highly enough.

  • Vitor Bellote

    great post!

  • Natisfinest

    The best task to become a master at is delegation. Delegating your areas of weakness and simple/mindless tasks will free up a lot of mental energy that can be directed towards mastering your true craft.

    Like they say…

    ‘How do you beat Bobby Fisher?’
    – – –
    ‘You play him in anything but chess’

  • It's Finally Done!

    I like the idea of gamifying and optimizing the mundane tasks; another idea is to not go them alone, but to get together with others who are doing their own mundane tasks and work together so that you don’t feel so completely alone.

  • Paul H. Burton

    I’ve long been a huge fan of Csikszentmihalyi, whose name I can never pronounce correctly. The missing link in most conversations around “flow,” is how to get into the flow and, once there, minimize or reduce distractions that interrupt flow.
    Mindfulness activities and exercises are the answer of course, but trying selling that to the Wall Street crowd! My view is that it’s not an on/off switch. Rather, it’s a gradual decline into a quiet state of mind that is focused. Interestingly, interruption causes an abrupt loss of flow. Thus, the graph is a gradually declining line with a near vertical uptick during the interruption.
    Note, the gamifying concept discussed above is very similar. Most all games have a period of introduction and “start” that speeds up as the player engages and the game proceeds.
    As for minimizing interruptions – that’s my space. Check out for more on that. But I remain very intrigued with this idea of how to move people into flow. Let me know what you’re experiences are.

  • It's Finally Done!

    I’m a huge believer in gamification. That said, if your job is perpetually uninspiring, then sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and get out of that place. In my multiple decades of work experience, most of my employers have been wonderful, but there have been two bad apples where getting the hell out of there was the best thing I ever did. Once your happy where you are from an overall standpoint, then you can start applying the concepts in this article.

  • Cayla Buettner

    I’m read

    • Dave Land

      Agreed: Job satisfaction results from a close match between the work itself (which may or may not be the responsibility of the worker) and the worker’s skills and interests. In addition, a recent article in the Harvard Business Review ( suggests that (as the URL says) employees perform better who feel loved. That’s not necessarily in the control of the worker.

  • Arshini Preetish

    If things are going right, a busy person can also lead a healthy lifestyle without working so hard. Developing time management skills will always help us to complete our tasks at right time, so that we can find the flow of our regular schedule.

    Now, Most of the companies have increased the numbers of time-saving devices and tools to make our lives easier. Personally I use Replicon’s Software for time management ( ). After started using this application, things have improved, the different tasks are organized and a good time schedule is being followed.

  • Cena Block

    Check out the new way to find your own flow formula! HEre! –! Try it free!

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