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Commentary: Why is it harder to focus at work and get things done these days?

We perform at our best in a focused state of concentration — called "flow" — but it takes hard work to get there, says the Financial Times’ Andrew Hill.

Commentary: Why is it harder to focus at work and get things done these days?

Office worker working late at night. (Photo: iStock/Cecilie_Arcurs)

LONDON: “The universe was not designed with the comfort of human beings in mind. It is almost immeasurably huge, and most of it is hostilely empty and cold.”

This is an unlikely prelude to a book about happiness. But against this unpromising background, the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi developed the theory and practice of “flow”.

Flow is “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter”, Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “chick-sent-me-high”) wrote in his 1990 book of the same name.

Examples might include Emma Raducanu acing the US Open tennis, Simone Biles in peak gymnastic form, or great painters, writers, and musicians, lost in creative endeavour.


Csikszentmihalyi, who died last month, also found ordinary workers experienced flow in their day-to-day activities.

(Photo: iStock)

To study this, he pinged individuals eight times a day via a pager and invited them to describe how they felt.

More than half were “in flow” while at work; fewer than 20 per cent reported a flow state when relaxing at home. Managers reported higher levels of flow than front-line workers.

Yet when asked whether they wished they were doing something else, those at work said yes more often than those at leisure. Csikszentmihalyi called this “the paradox of work”.

The apathy that is the enemy of flow, the “languishing” that Adam Grant has named as the “dominant emotion of 2021”, or the power of “CBA”, as my children used to call it, is strong for many people emerging from prolonged lockdown.


In a paper in the recently published book, Positive Organizational Psychology Interventions, Matt Dubin, who studied under Csikszentmihalyi, identifies factors that may stem flow among knowledge-workers, including interruptions, “boss priorities” (as against setting your own schedule), lack of clarity and control, and a “suboptimal personal state”.

They sound like a description of the work-life of many harassed homeworkers, particularly parents of school-age children, or young people in shared flats, during the pandemic.

Others, though, flowed more smoothly through the crisis. If you were lucky enough to have a quiet space in which to work remotely, a clear mandate, and a strong virtual link to colleagues, you may have experienced the optimum combination of regular feedback and stretching work that made the most of your skills.

Now, particularly if you are a manager, you have the power to help restore flow for the CBA crowd.

Plenty of companies have concentrated on restructuring offices, but the bigger challenge involves restructuring teams and the jobs that they do.

When does work cross the line? And do office workers have a "right to disconnect"? HR experts discuss on CNA's Heart of Matter podcast:


Csikszentmihalyi spotted this. In Flow, he wrote: “To improve the quality of life through work  … [jobs] should be redesigned so that they resemble as closely as possible flow activities”, such as surgery or weaving, whose practitioners often reported entering a flow state.

Stewart Donaldson, who created a positive psychology programme at Claremont Graduate University with “Mike C”, as Csikszentmihalyi was known on campus, calls this “job-crafting”.

Some of this rethinking is up to individuals, who should concentrate on the more challenging parts of their roles. It is up to leaders, though, to create and cultivate teams that can achieve the energy of group flow.

“You want to make sure they have the [necessary] talents, but don’t diminish others’ skills and abilities,” Donaldson told me.

That is easier said than done, of course, particularly if the person with the necessary expertise to complete the project is an energy-depleting curmudgeon.


The power of flow is not universally recognised. I am sceptical that it can be sustained for long. Raducanu and Biles have both faltered recently.

I’m also fully aware of the pitfalls of seeking happiness mainly through work. Flow’s vast delta includes, at one extreme, macho efforts to trigger flow artificially through microdosing of psychedelic drugs, which Csikszentmihalyi dismissed as “junk flow”, and at the other, self-helpy how-to guides.

Working in the office (Photo: iStock)

Barbara Gail Montero, a philosophy professor who has also endured the trials of training to become a ballet dancer, has warned against the assumption that flow is effortless.

“Perhaps flow draws us in because we generally dislike hard work,” she wrote in a critical article for Aeon in 2017.

The founder of flow might have agreed with her warning. “Going with the flow” is a synonym for complacency and lack of challenge.

But Donaldson says Csikszentmihalyi recognised that an individual or a team leader had to strive to improve: “The best moments are not passive, they aren’t relaxing at all: [but] when you’re stretching your body and mind to their limits, it makes life worth living.”

Source: Financial Times/sl