Theory of Flow: Cszíkszentmihályi's 9 dimensions to achieve true work engagement

The "Flow" mental state in the workplace has been one of the main topics of study developed by the Hungarian psychologist Mihàly Csíkszentmihályi.

His work searched for the intersection of optimal being and optimal doing, bringing personal happiness, fulfillment with the tasks ahead on the office and general growth of the organization coming directly from employees.

Sigmund Freud's definition of happiness was very simple: Work and love.

To love one's work means basically one thing: To be engaged.

What does this mean? Csíkszentmihályi multiple interviews with outstanding achievers in multiple professions (including some Nobel Prize winners), showed a pattern in the mental stage of engagement.

Participants recognized an ability to enter the state of flow not only frequently, but deliberately.

They felt on a sense of complete control, a loss of self-consciousness and a loss of the track of time, directing all of their focus to the task they were elaborating.

Soon, Csíkszentmihályi identified a tie of this mental state to biological facts.

Performance-enhancing neurochemicals became involved in the brain's activity. Norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, serotonin, and endorphins amplify the Theta and Gama brain waves, fueling intrinsic motivation and incredible focus.

How does the Flow State feel?

When we enter a Flow State at work, this is what happens:

  • Some highly-addictive, feel-good chemicals fuel our concentration, giving us the desire of working more efficiently.
  • We become more intuitive, in a superior way than our normal awareness.
  • The pre-frontal cortex turns off and our perception of time becomes distorted (like when you're reading a really good book and, before you know it, it's already night time).
  • We hear no inner voice; our normal externally focused and slow cognitive functions are replaced with a lot faster subconscious processing.

Hands on computer white table

Malcolm Gladwell's made a bold statement on his book Outliers (2008): To master any skill, a human needs a total of 10,000 hours. But, if we managed to enter deliberately into Flow State, it would take us half the time (Steven Kotler, "Flow Genome Project", 2014).

How does it work on the brain?

There are four stages that resume the Flow State on a neurological level.

Logically, you can't be flowing all the time (it would be exhausting, or even dangerous).

It is a mental state that we come in and out from, and it all starts with stepping out of our comfort zone:

  1. Struggle Phase: Before flowing, we'll probably find ourselves in a challenging situation. The first feelings will probably be of tension, frustration or even stress. These feelings are triggered by the Beta brain waves, cortisol, and norepinephrine
  2. Release Phase: The challenge is accepted and, once we reach a good confidence level to approach it, our parasympathetic nervous system turns on, which is linked to the Alfa brain waves.
  3. Flow Phase: Welcome! The Theta and Gama waves, plus the delicious dopamine, endorphins, and anandamide shifts our conscious processing into subconscious work.
  4. Recovery Phase: After all this activity, our brain needs a moment to rewire and store all this new information, especially when you flow while developing a new skill. In this final phase, our memory gets consolidated.

Brain neuron

9 Dimensions: Conditions and keys to Go with the Flow

Challenge is at the center of entering a flowing state of mind. Setting challenges that find a balance between too demanding and too simple, is the secret that organizations should apply.

1. Clear goals

Having to perform a task that hasn't a clear objective can be really demotivating.

When we want to start a hobby that we're really passionate about, a Flow State during our hours of practice will come more easily than in our daily work routine.

2. Immediate Feedback

Results aren't only numbers, we also want to know if we did ok!

Having a gratification to look forward -or an opportunity to grow and become better -will make us feel a deeper commitment to whatever we are doing.

3. The math of challenges with adequate personal skills

Learning takes time, and the pressure of facing a task that is far from our current abilities can be horribly stressful.

Our "inner voice", the one that keeps our conscious awareness going, will distract us with its fears.

4. Merging of actions and awareness

When we are on Flow State, all of our senses will be focused on our work, and our actions will be processed subconsciously.

5. Focused attention and concentration

Our notion of the process goes up to another level. We are able to let go from our minds the steps we already worked through, and most importantly, we're not thinking of what is left to do.

We become invested in the absolut current activity.

6. Perception of control over the situation

When the challenge has the proper amount of difficulty and prudence, we are motivated and confident.

This is one of the key aspects of the Flow State: We know what we are doing... And we're thrilled about it!

7. Loss of self-consciousness

While we are working, it's usual to be thinking of something else -our plans for the evening, a fight we had in the morning, the holidays... We go back and forward on the timeline of our lives and find ourselves anywhere but at the office.

Pay attention to the different paths your thoughts take on working hours! You'll be surprised by how disconnected you can get.

8. Absorption so intense that it alters your sense of time

The idea isn't to stop sleeping, eating or going to the bathroom while working. But, on a Flow State, you just might forget some of your usual thoughts.

Time is relative! This is not a trip to outer space at the speed of light, but being on an absolute focus state could be the closest thing available to that sort of experience.

9. Intrinsic motivation and autonomous initiative

We will never flow if we feel obligated instead of motivated. And this motivation can't be imposed by our superiors, it must come from ourselves!

When you master the art of entering into flow mode, you'll find the way to stay motivated regardless of the task.

The Flow greatest enemy: Stop multitasking!


Did you know that switching between tasks can reduce your productivity by 40%? (Quality Software Management, Gerald Weinberg, 1991).


The multitasking trend made of the action of slowing an undesirable feature. Companies started looking for people who can do a lot in less time -when the truth is that attending many problems at once will make you arrive later to the solution.

It could also make you more susceptible to rumination. Even having a cellphone close by can kill your concentration!

It's impossible to become fully invested there's a voice in your head constantly reminding you of the other things you have to attend.

So, there you have it: Go one by one, find the motivation and ask for feedback. Enjoy your flow!

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