There’s something magical about getting engaged in a task. It absorbs your attention and focus. Time becomes elastic and less important. The work is is still work, but it feels enjoyable. You get immersed in it, enjoying the challenge of making something new, and digging deep into your skill set to produce an amazing result. In a perfect world, you step back when you are done, rewarded and gratified with the result, and appreciative of the opportunity to produce something unique.
It’s an enjoyable experience when it happens, to be certain. Perhaps more frustratingly, it is not necessarily a frequent occurrence. It might be prolonged if we are involved in a more extensive project, one that we find gratifying. But in the normal unwinding of daily events, we might go days, perhaps weeks or months, and sometimes even years in between feeling that level of engagement.
The question that we have to ask is, “Why?” What’s getting in the way of our being able to relish that level of immersion and focus? Is there something that we can do about it?
The phenomenon of engagement and immersion is related to an idea called “flow,” pioneered by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book of the same name. Studying high performers such as athletes, artists and musicians who are able to get absorbed in their work to extreme levels, the theory of flow offers insight into what makes work engrossing and allows people to fully focus on the task at hand. In particular, Csokszentmihalyi found that there is a balance that needs to be struck between skill and challenge. There must be clear goals being worked towards, and the goal needs to be challenging enough that a person has to strive to complete it, but can not be so difficult that they see it as beyond their abilities.
Speaking personally, I have been fortunate to experience this kind of immersion a number of times. Sometimes at work, and often in pursuing my own personal interests. Work examples have included designing particularly challenging facilitation sessions, wrestling with how to effectively communicate difficult and complicated ideas, or working to analyze and synthesize the results of a research exercise into a narrative that could be broadly understood.
One memorable piece of work was a strategic planning session I was facilitating with an executive team. The team wasn’t massively experienced in strategic planning, so integrating guidance and education was required—in a manner that wasn’t obviously teaching, but nonetheless informative. There were a number of specific challenges the team needed to work through. There were also a number of divergent views on the best approach to move forward in responding to those challenges.
The design of this session was a uniquely complicated. It quite literally involved juggling numerous moving parts—in this case, about a hundred and fifty post-it notes on my wall—to figure out a flow and structure that could work, but provide enough flexibility to adapt and shift gears when needed. The actual sessions were intense, but rewarding. Tangents were indeed taken, but the preparatory work I had done allowed them to be addressed relatively seamlessly. The result was more than the client had hoped for, and one that I was extremely pleased with as well.
Here’s the interesting by-product of this experience, however. Having landed on a really effective approach for that particular session (responding to the unique challenges that were present), it has become pretty much my default go-to structure for facilitating strategic planning sessions. I started with, “How do we design a valuable and effective session for this client?” I then allowed my approach to evolve to, “That worked well last time; let’s do it again.”
I have mentioned before that we as a species tend to be cognitively lazy. This is an evolutionary strategy, in that it theoretically allows us to focus on what matters and go with gut intuition and ingrained biases the rest of the time. It’s the basis of what Daniel Kahneman refers to as System 1 and System 2. And it shows up again here. One of the barriers of us finding and engaging in a flow state is ourselves, and our temptation to take shortcuts.
It is ironic that even when we have deeply engaged in something—and found reward and satisfaction in doing so—we manage to try to avoid experiencing it again. We short circuit the experience the next time around. Our brains know we have done the work already. We have wrestled with the challenge. The next time we find ourselves in a similar situation, our grey matter offers up the observation that our current situation is a lot like the last one; because last time worked out so well, we should do the same thing this time.
This is the perfect illustration of substitution at work. We take a difficult problem—how to design an approach to respond to a unique and particular set of circumstances—and replace it with an easier problem—doing the same thing as what worked for us last time. What we are doing is valuing outcome over process, without fully acknowledging that what produced the outcome last time was doing the hard work of design and adaptation.
The further we get in our careers, the easier this situation becomes to perpetuate. The cumulative experience of years and decades of work means that we have a variety of tools, approaches and solutions that we have employed. It becomes all too tempting to keep applying the same strategy over and over again. Doing so is simple, though, if we don’t challenge the superficial similarities of situations and look for the meaningful differences.
As rewarding as immersion and absorption in our work can be, we can also find ourselves avoiding full engagement. We can be on the verge of starting something, and know it is going to consume us and require emotional effort to accomplish. We might already be tired, or busy, or stressed. As satisfying and enriching as the experience can be, it also feels like drudgery. It can feel awfully tempting to stay with the comfort of the familiar and unchallenging, rather than embarking on a journey into the difficult and complex.
Impostor syndrome can also be a powerful influence at this juncture. The reason why goes back to the definition of flow. Flow occurs when our capabilities are up to the challenge, when we are stretched but still within our capacity to perform. At the outset, it can be easy to view the task as more challenging than it is, and downplay our own capabilities as insufficient. Rather than embracing the challenge, we can shy away from the risk of potential failure. The temptation is to play it safe, avoid the possibility of failing and the risk of being judged by others.
The consequence is that resisting flow means staying at a superficial level. Opportunities for detailed engagement instead get replaced with repetitive situations as we stick with simplistic routines and habits. We aren’t learning and growing, so we get bored and stagnant. The more that becomes our default mode, the more challenging it can be to break out of it.
It does not have to be this way, and there are strategies to shift out of default modes and inspire flow and engagement. This requires a level of conscious effort and thought. It also involves overcoming a certain amount of inertia. Newton’s first law says that, “A body at rest tends to stay at rest.” And this is perhaps the first and most difficult hurdle in attaining immersive experience: getting started. The best way through is simply to start working. While that might sound onerous, it is manageable in small increments. Commit to doing 15 focussed minutes. If you manage that, there is an excellent chance you will keep on going. The hurdle is in the getting started more than it is sustaining forward energy.
Even once underway, however, the allure is to take shortcuts and look for straightforward answers. The reward of ticking off yet another action item on our to-do list can entice us to short-circuit expectations in pursuit of another hit of dopamine. This is particularly true when we are confronted with a situation or assignment that feels similar to ones we have taken on in the past. Giving in to what we have done in the past—especially where what we have done has been successful—can be incredibly appealing.
Moving past the quick-and-easy solution requires a willingness to look past the similarities of a situation, many of which may only be present on the surface. Engagement starts when we really begin to wrestle with the substance of a problem. That means looking for the factors that are unique to the problem we are trying to solve right now. In virtually all instances, they will be there. Often, they are more profound than we expect from initial appearances. Our bias is to look for what is similar, not what is different. Engaging with the differences—and figuring out how to address and tackle them—is our gateway to finding inspiration.
Even where circumstances are genuinely similar, there are strategies that can allow us to find flow and get more deeply absorbed in the task at hand. Trying out new approaches or exploring different tools or ways of working can create opportunities to stretch and challenge ourselves. Even routine situations can become engaging and interesting when we frame them as an opportunity to grow or simply shift gears in how we approach them. This can be grounded in learning and evolution, or it can be a game or challenge that we set for ourselves.
For a number of years, I routinely delivered training workshops. The vast majority of them were based on the same course and the same curriculum. It would have been easy to get stuck in a rut, to drop into a formulaic approach where every delivery was the same as the last. Arguably, this did occur from time to time, particularly when I was delivering the program frequently. One memorable calendar month, I was actually in the classroom for a total of 27 days out of 31. Disengagement and rote delivery would have been all too easy; it would have also been entirely unfair for those participating.
The similarities of delivery was in the content. It was very often the same curriculum, the same topics and the same slides. It was in the participants, though, that the differences were to be found. In each workshop, attendees worked for different organizations. They experienced different challenges and were seeking different opportunities to apply and be able to use the material being delivered. Engaging with the participants where they were—and helping to address their specific needs and challenges—not only allowed me to stay engaged, but also provided a far superior learning experience for those in the room.
There is one final approach that can create unique situations in which to break out of routine and engage your creativity: the use of constraints. Sometimes, constraints are seen as confining. In this instance, that is actually the point. Creativity is a boundary phenomenon that is most present when we have to work past restrictions and limitations. While circumstances can offer constraints that provide challenge, we can also establish them for ourselves.
As an example, I deliver webinars and presentations on a regular basis. My slides are typically highly visual, but usually rely on stock photography available from online web sites. I have an ambition that I expect to satisfy in the coming year of delivering a presentation using solely photographs that I have taken myself. That will require conceiving opportunities and finding situations that can appropriately illustrate the ideas that I’m trying to convey. It’s not something that I would undertaken on a regular basis, but it represents an interesting challenge that I look forward to one day addressing.
It is easy to fall into patterns and routines. Even where we value situations where we have the opportunity to engage, stretch and grow, it can be tempting to fall back on what is familiar and known. Routines are where complacency lies. Finding what is unique and what is challenging is what allows us to go deep and find inspiration and absorption. Even in the most repetitive of situations, creativity is possible. We just have to want it, define it and seek it out for ourselves.