Why Work Should Get a Little Harder Every Day

by Ron Friedman, Ph.D.

If you’re lucky, at some point in your life you’ll discover an activity that captures your attention in ways you never thought possible. One in which you’re fully immersed, losing track of time and place.

Psychologists have a term to describe these experiences: flow.

When people enter a state of flow, they are entirely absorbed in an activity, concentrating fully on the present moment. Action feels effortless. The world disappears. All that matters is the task. Gamers experience flow often, but they’re not the only ones. Surgeons, athletes, and artists all report a similar psychological state.

Pioneering researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has studied these experiences and identified a number of factors that promote a state of flow. They include having a clear understanding of the goal we’re trying to achieve, and immediate feedback on our performance. Chess, golf, and painting all fit this criteria and represent prototypical flow experiences.

But there’s one more element to flow that is just as vital. One that, ironically, most workplaces try to minimize instead of promote: progressive difficulty.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, in order to experience flow, we need to face challenges that either match or slightly exceed our current ability. If the tasks we’re engaged in are too simple, we get bored. And if we find ourselves in situations that are too far beyond our skill level, we get overwhelmed.

In both cases the impact on our engagement is the same: We lose interest.

One of the reasons video games are so good at sustaining our attention is that they get harder with every level. At work our experiences tend to take the opposite trajectory. Jobs tend to get easier the longer we do them, making flow experiences all the more difficult to achieve.

Compounding the problem is the fact that in most organizations, the goal is to minimize the complexity of work. Efficiency is about simplifying projects, creating replicable practices, and making output more scalable. From a profit standpoint, it makes a lot of sense. But from an engagement perspective, it’s a path to ruin.

To create opportunities for flow in the workplace, we need to find the sweet spot that lies just beyond our current abilities. It’s when we’re stretching our skills and building our expertise that we are at our most engaged.

One way for managers to apply the lessons of flow is by deliberately looking for ways to challenge employees and by assigning them projects that are just beyond their current skill level. Sure, doing the same tasks over and over might make your employee more efficient. But that’s not the same thing as keeping them engaged. Flow comes through growth, not stagnation.

Another flow-promoting approach: asking employees to set a stretch goal every quarter and to develop a specific plan for achieving it. It’s one thing for a manager to task employees with a difficult assignment. It’s quite another for an employee to self-identify a challenge they want to master. The more autonomous employees feel directing the course of their development, the more likely they are to show sustained engagement.

Finally, if you really want to promote flow experiences and intellectual curiosity in your company, consider making on-the-job learning a requirement. Offering a reading budget, encouraging employees to scan industry blogs during the day, and inviting employees to take courses that can help them build their skills are all ways of creating the experience of growth at work. Our minds thrive on finding and integrating new information. When learning becomes part of our routine, we train ourselves to see new patterns and recognize important connections. Expanding our mental horizon primes us to think more creatively.

A labor force that’s consistently acquiring new skills is also likely to be happier, more invested, and smarter about their work. Neurologically, learning is inherently rewarding. Acquiring new information increases our production of dopamine, which improves our mood and heightens our interest in related activities. It makes everything we do more interesting.

The moment employees stop growing, their enthusiasm sinks, undermining their engagement and productivity. It’s when our work becomes predictable that intellectual gridlock sets in and critical thinking stops.

By making it explicit that employees are expected to master new skills and by providing them with the time and resources to do so, organizations can prevent boredom, improve intellectual firepower, and enhance their competitive advantage. That may not guarantee that everyone at your company will experience flow. But it vastly improves the chances of that happening.

To see the original article at HBR, click here.

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