Posted in: Edward Webster

Father Christmas was good to me in 2023. I was given an electronic tablet that was designed to be written on with a stylus. It is, in many ways, little more than a notebook, with some limited additional functions.  

I love it. Take it everywhere. It lets me write on articles and make notes. It even does a passable job of turning my rather eccentric handwriting into text that I can send to my computer. But most of all, it does not distract me from what I want to think about or work on. It feels good to work with and it does not allow distractions to interrupt me. I am effectively off-line whilst being 100% at work. 

The reason for this is not to advertise the device… you’ll note it is not mentioned, and there won’t be a click through at the bottom of the article where you might be able to purchase one for yourself… but rather it got me thinking about when we are at our most effective in what we do, which in turn caused me to go back to an idea coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and that first I encountered via various podcasts, TED talks, and finally his book “Flow”. 

[By the way, those of you who have seen pictures of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his latter years might be forgiven for thinking that he resembles a Hungarian Father Christmas. Just saying.] 

He described “flow” as a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.  

Just to emphasise that last bit. Working in a state of flow made people happy. 

Sounds great. There is a catch, though. According to Csikszentmihalyi achieving flow in an area takes practice… quite a lot of practice. But if we set the conditions for that practice well, then we stand a better chance of being able to develop the ability of working in a flow state more often, and I think that this is where my little electronic notebook has contributed in small measure. 

So how do we set the conditions to work in this way? Here are some practical pointers. 

Have clear and specific goals for each task or project. This helps you direct your attention and feedback on your progress.  

This is often the work before the work. Getting real clarity on what needs to be done can be challenging. There might be a good deal of talking, testing and iterating of thoughts. But when it becomes clear 

Balance the skill and challenge level of your tasks. Choose tasks that are neither too easy nor too hard for your current abilities, so you can avoid boredom and anxiety. 

For those people who like their Science Fiction, or visually impressive films, may recall the mantra in Dune that “fear is the mind killer”. Very true. Anxiety, a manifestation of fear, is just that. Similarly, if there is no challenge, boredom will send you to sleep. I come across people all the time who are impacted by under stretch or overstretch. It makes work a slog. Just the opposite of flow. 

Minimize distractions and interruptions in your work environment. Turn off notifications, close unnecessary tabs, and use headphones or music to block out noise. 

This is where my new electronic notebook comes in… 

Set aside blocks of time for focused work. Schedule uninterrupted sessions of at least 25 minutes, and take short breaks in between to recharge your energy and attention. 

I like to get up early when the rest of the house is quiet and focus on my main pieces of work then. I know that once normal office hours start then there will be people and meetings and conversations that are all very welcome in themselves, and should improve the performance of the team as a whole, but don’t allow me to produce high quality outcomes myself. What would be your equivalent? 

Do what you enjoy and find meaningful. Pick tasks that align with your values, interests, and strengths, and that give you a sense of autonomy and mastery. 

We can’t always do the things that we want to. That said, I have noticed that people who have a clear idea of their values and the impact that they want to have, independent of their particular job role, find it easier to get enjoyment and meaning from the tasks that they do, regardless. For those who want to explore that side of their development, coaching is a great place to start. 

Finally, don’t force it. Flow state is not something you can achieve on demand, but rather a natural outcome of the right conditions. Be flexible, patient, and kind to yourself… and even if you don’t recognise some kind of “mystical altered reality” [I have met very few who do]… you may be surprised at how productive and personally rewarding setting the conditions to work in this way is. 

Ed Webster, Deputy Director of Workforce Development, Department of Human Resources.

Posted in: Edward Webster


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