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The Secret to Creating Better Performance at Work

Is it possible to get more enjoyment from work and still remain productive? You bet it is. Karen Livey, an expert on change leadership practices, looks at the state of ‘flow’ and the ways we can build it into our work lives.

Businesses often tend to focus on productivity levels. The big question is how can you increase your productivity while improving performance and achieving higher levels of enjoyment at work at the same time?

The Secret to Creating Better Performance at Work

The secret is to achieve ‘flow’ – a concept introduced by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi during the 1970s. Flow is to be totally absorbed in your work task and not notice time passing!

Csikszentmihalyi’s research has shown that people are much more likely to reach that flow state at work than in leisure, something generally acknowledged to be one of the most pleasurable states one can achieve.

As odd as this sounds, it’s true. Fortunately, there are things can you do to put the odds in your favour to enable flow at work. After all, so much of your time is spent at work, injecting it with more enjoyment will benefit everyone.

Way back in the 1940s, Henry F Harlow discovered what’s known as the ‘third drive to motivation’. The first drive is all about the basic physiological ones of food, water, sex, and sleep (not necessarily in that order). The second is your typical carrot and stick approach which has shown to have limited effect for complex and cognitive-based tasks.

This third drive of motivation is finding joy in doing the actual task itself – that is, being intrinsically motivated to do the task. This joy is that which has been described as flow by Csikszentmihalyi.

At the time this third drive of motivation was uncovered, it was the equivalent of Galileo declaring the world was not the centre of the universe in the 16th century. Further research since has confirmed Harlow’s observation.

Daniel Pink, the author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, says that there is a “mismatch between what science knows and what business does”. Effectively, it is being able to tap into the third drive of motivation and not rely on the second drive, especially since there is no evidence that reliance on this second drive is a long-term benefit to either the company or the employed.

According to Pink, there are three pillars that need to be in addressed in order to enable flow. These are:

  • Purpose
  • Autonomy
  • Mastery


Too often we don’t realise the purpose of the tasks we are doing. We may get caught up in the minutiae of what it is and how tiresome it may be. If we take time out to consider the bigger picture, we are likely to see the purpose.

The Secret to Creating Better Performance at Work image 2There is a story that in 1969 during one of the press briefings at NASA a reporter asked the janitor what his job was. He replied that he was “… helping to put a man on the moon”. This higher level purpose makes it possible for an employee to be proud of his work, which, in turn, means he is much more likely to enter the state of flow.

For me, as a presenter, my purpose is about possibilities – creating new learning to open doors, inspiring others to try something new and different, not just about assessing competence. As Csikszentmihalyi says: “One cannot lead a life that is truly excellent without feeling that one belongs to something greater and more permanent than oneself”.

Look at what you need to do each day. What is the purpose of your tasks? What are you an integral part of that can give you your purpose?


David Rock, the author of Your Brain at Work has shown that, as human beings, we like to have choices. Research has shown that the perception of having choice changes how the person views that task. For example, you may be able to decide when you do a particular task, which can make all the difference as to whether you enjoy it or dread it. This has a positive and powerful effect on a person’s performance and attitude. It will go a long way to giving you increased levels of job satisfaction.

Pink uses the law profession as an example of no-choice. Many lawyers have to track their time in six-minute intervals and failure to bill enough hours leads to a high possibility of losing their jobs. This ties back to the second drive of motivation, which was born in the days of factory workers supposedly needing to be closely monitored, but certainly does not help current complex problem-solving tasks.

Therefore, reappraising your situation to find an element of choice will promote your chances of finding your flow. What can you “choose” to do in your set of tasks for the day?


Mastery is about finding the ‘Goldilocks tasks’ – those tasks that have enough challenge in them for people to try hard and are not too simple that they become bored. By doing tasks that stretch you, you will be able to The Secret to Creating Better Performance at Work image 4develop your skills further. However, when these tasks are too difficult, it creates anxiety and decreases the chances of people being able to perform at their best.

Csikszentmihalyi (Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life) did some research on an assembly line in an audiovisual equipment factory. One of the workers was not bored; he had perfected his task through self-training to check each camera in 28 seconds instead of the 43 seconds allowed. He really enjoyed being able to use his skill set fully at that time. Eventually, he did move on, but he had found a way to thoroughly enjoy his job and find his flow.

The above diagram is a pictorial representation from Csikszentmihalyi. Where do you sit on the scale between skill and challenge levels?

To encourage flow at work, you need to consider your mastery of your tasks and how you are being stretched to achieve.

Your Flow

It is now time to enable flow in your work life – a path to great enjoyment, higher productivity levels, along with better performance. All it needs from you is to look at your work tasks and to develop a framework to immerse yourself in flow as often as possible!

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