Creating the time and space to get fully “in the zone” can benefit our professional lives and help make us happier, writes Louise Rodgers

Louise Rodgers crop 2

In my last column I talked about ways in which we can tune into our somatic – or felt – selves, and use the intelligence we gain from doing so to guide our actions.

I was reminded of this last weekend which I was lucky enough to spend in fine company in a beautiful studio barn in Wales, attempting to sculpt a head in clay. It’s a wonderful thing to do, and I have done it several times, and although I am fully aware that I should definitely stick to the day job, the teacher is skilled enough to make us all feel as though we have done something to be proud of.

What surprises people when I talk about it is that most of us leave our work there. The “heads” aren’t fired and the result of almost three days of work remains in Wales to an uncertain fate (I don’t really like to ask – although I did see one of my previous efforts in a dusty, separated-off part of the studio).

Why spend all that time, intensely working on something, when at the end of the weekend you have nothing to show for it?

It’s not an easy thing to explain but sculpting, for me, is all about the process. It’s about the surroundings, the people, the stillness and the collective creative mood, but most of all it is about the opportunity to get lost in the flow.

Hours can pass when you are trying to capture the exact curve of someone’s nose (we work from a live model) and for those hours you are completely focused on the connection between your eyes and the hand that wields the sculpting tool. If too much “mind” gets involved, self-consciousness and the striving for a perfection that can never be truly attained risks ruining the enjoyment of just being, seeing and doing.

This week I coached a newly-promoted architect and we fell into a conversation about his fears that his new role, which includes more line-management responsibilities, will leave him less time for actually designing – the love of which is why he became an architect in the first place. I got me thinking about what “being in the flow” really means; how it can benefit us; and how we create time and space for it, for ourselves and for others.

We need to know where the activity we have been tasked with fits into the bigger picture

Being in the flow, also known as “in the zone”, is a different kind of somatic experience. It means attaining a deep level of concentration or absorption in a task, so that we are fully present and time passes almost without us noticing. It was first described by a psychologist called Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi in his 1990 book .

Csikzentmihalyi’s research found that for many people, especially those doing creative work, a state of flow not only benefits productivity but also boosts wellbeing and mood. Flow engages not only the brain but the heart. Simply put, being in the flow makes us happier.

But certain conditions need to be present. One of these is that the task needs to match the person’s capabilities. It is dependent on getting the balance right between being stretched and challenged, and our current level of knowledge or skillset. If we are too stretched, we become anxious and frustrated; if the task is too easy, we get bored and inattentive.

It also requires us to have clear goals. We need to know where the activity we have been tasked with fits into the bigger picture. For a full flow experience, although the outcome needs to be subordinate to the immediacy of the moment (perfectionism is the enemy of flow), we also need to have a clear sense that what we are doing continues to meet the challenge.

This means that regular feedback is important. In that studio barn in Wales, Simon, the sculpturer who teaches us, appears quietly beside us with a gentle word or suggestion (he once said to me “Louise, remember how you said that coaching is all about listening? Sculpting is all about looking”).

Leaders are tasked with creating opportunities for flow not only for themselves but for others. To do so requires a curiosity about their development and an understanding of where their strengths and abilities lie. They can use their one-to-one conversations to explore how team members’ work best, and to match the tasks they have with the right level of challenge for the individual.

They can create clear goals and give transparent and immediate feedback to support the person to adjust and expand their performance. Finally they can exercise empathy and be mindful of when someone is bored or anxious so that this can be addressed.

Of course all this can be hard to achieve in a busy studio. But flow can be facilitated by giving ourselves and others permission to work without distraction even if only for brief periods.

One client I work with uses a time management method called the Pomodoro Technique to break focused work into practical chunks. She turns her notifications off and explains to colleagues that she will signal when she is breaking the flow and receptive to interruption.

Understanding the conditions that encourage flow in ourselves and others will not only boost the overall performance of everyone, but help you and those you lead to enjoy work more. And who doesn’t want that.