When have you felt the most engaged and satisfied with your work? As a human behavioral scientist, I've often asked people this question. An overwhelming majority of responses are, "When I was learning something new."
Most often people talk about when they started a new job, because it was challenging but exciting at the same time. This doesn't mean that if you want a satisfying career, you should continuously quit your job and start something new. However, to remain engaged with the work that you are doing, you should know about the scientific principle called flow.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied flow, or the state at which a person reaches peak human performance. He and his colleagues interviewed people around the world, from Himalayan climbers and Olympic athletes to accomplished poets and writers and Dominican monks.
Even though the professions and cultures differed, they all excelled at and found joy in their work. They also shared common characteristics that can offer insights into how you can achieve flow and make your own work more fun. To reach flow in anything that you do, it needs to have the following characteristics:
1. It is slightly out of your grasp.
People are most engaged when they were doing something just outside of their skill set. It was just out of the edge of their ability. If it was too easy, it would be boring. If it was too hard, they'd fail and become self-conscious. Challenge yourself often and take on projects that will force you to grow.
2. You lose track of time.
Have you ever been working on a project for hours and it felt like minutes had passed? Have you ever participated in competitive sports, and felt time slow? In his research, Csikszentmihalyi found that athlete described a shift of time. A dancer or skater may complete a turn in seconds, but would feel like it lasted minutes.
For this to happen, you can't be distracted, so shut off your cell phone, mute your computer, hold all calls, close your web browser, and work.
3. You know where you stand.
In flow, you don't have to guess how you're doing. You know. The task at hand should feel like it's doable but you should be familiar enough with it to tell if it's going poorly. If not, there should be a mentor or leader guiding you in the right direction through continuous feedback. At work, continuous feedback is crucial to development, growth and performance.
The research on flow suggests that if we want to be more engaged in our work, we need to continuously push the boundaries of our abilities and comfort zone. Oddly, when we are just barely capable of doing a task, we can be the most engaged with it. This characteristic of flow is similar to another scientific concept, optimal anxiety.
Research by Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson demonstrated that we do our best not when we are in a safe environment but when we are in a state of productive discomfort. It is critical that we take on projects that make us a little bit nervous. Without that, we will be generally unmotivated to take action and will likely procrastinate.
Perks like foosball tables and beer on tap may create a "fun" work environment. However, If you truly want to enjoy your work and gain satisfaction from the process, continuously push yourself to do what you are not sure you'll accomplish.