3 Ways to Flow to Your Goals

by Scott Crabtree

If you ‘flow’ to your goals, you will do better work and enjoy it more. In this article, I’ll share several ways you can “Flow to goals”. But first, what does “Flow to goals” mean? That’s the title of a section in my workshop and online course The Science of Being Happy and Productive at Work. This section emphasizes flow, the productive zone where everything is clicking for you.

Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the founding father of research on flow. He wanted to better understand optimal experience in life. He found flow.

We tend to get into flow when we are working on something challenging but possible. The task should be right at the edge of our ability. This will not be as comfortable as easier tasks.

If you focus on the task completely, and are getting some kind of feedback about your progress, typically you will be in the zone within twenty minutes.

Activities like yoga, sports, and playing a musical instrument are great for getting into flow. At work, anything that tests your ability–without being overwhelmingly difficult–can help you get into flow.

When you are in flow, time tends to disappear for you. Self-consciousness goes away. Your mind is completely absorbed in the work.  It’s a very happy, very productive state of mind.

Here are several ways to apply the science and flow to your goals:

#1 Find your flow

If you are in flow, you are making great progress:

It takes discipline, but you can apply the science to reach a state of flow. Find a task that’s challenging but possible. Focus completely on that task for 20 minutes or more; you could even set a timer for 30 minutes. Get feedback on how you are doing. You are very likely to achieve flow.

Research on progress led by Harvard researcher Teresa Amabile illustrates the power of progress toward clear and meaningful goals. Her team analyzed over 10,000 daily entries in work journals. They asked participants to describe what was going on, and how they felt.

Amabile and her team found several factors affecting happiness and engagement at work, but the strongest by far was progress toward clear and meaningful goals.

In addition to flow, help facilitate progress however you can: remove roadblocks, provide resources or information, talk about progress, reward progress, and make progress visible. You might check out this video about visualizing progress on our Facebook page about how a movie company visualizes progress at work.

Again, let me emphasize: It’s not just any progress that best fuels engagement and happiness at work; it’s progress toward clear and meaningful goals. The meaning behind a goal was the part most often missing from goals at large companies where I’ve worked. We were very good at describing a very specific goal, but not very good at capturing why we should care.

How then do we make our goals more meaningful for us? We convert our SMART goals into SMARTEST ones.

#2 Create SMARTEST goals


We’ve developed the SMARTEST goals framework to include the meaning and more. SMARTEST goals are:

Specific–describe exactly what you want to achieve.
Measurable–be able to say definitively whether you’ve hit the goal or not.
Attainable–it must be possible to achieve the goal
Relevant–it should be aligned with our mission and larger goals.
Time-bound–when is this goal due?
Educational–what will you learn working on this goal?
Significant–why do you care? Why is this goal important?
Toward–describe what you want (not what you want to avoid).

So I encourage you to craft–or revise–an important goal so it is SMARTEST. If you want more help doing so, check out this blog post, Go Beyond SMART to SMARTEST Goals or this video on our Facebook page, also about SMARTEST goals.

SMART goals may be good, but adding the ‘EST’ makes a world of a difference in setting the best goals possible; goals that you care about and will contribute to learning moments for you.  

Getting into flow while working on clear, meaningful goals sounds pretty good, right? So what’s the problem? The problem is the cultural disease we have called multi-tasking.

#3 Minimize Multi-tasking

The Myth of Multi-Tasking:

Many in our culture reward and celebrate multi-tasking. Science suggests those people are making mistakes.

First, let me be perfectly clear what I mean by “multi-tasking”. I mean switching your attention every few minutes or faster, not switching projects every few hours or days.

Science is clear that, with very few exceptions (perhaps 3% of the population), we simply cannot pay attention to two things at the same time. All we can do is rapidly switch attention. And when we switch attention, we pay a heavy cognitive price.

Studies suggest that multi-tasking:

  • Slows us down
  • Leads to more mistakes
  • Exhausts our prefrontal cortex
  • Makes us easily distracted

If you doubt this–or want to convince someone else–please do this short exercise.

Give yourself a better chance of getting into flow by doing any or all of the following:
  • Turn off notifications for email, social media, and more. Those notifications are designed to be compelling. Even if you don’t respond to them, they likely increase the work your brain is doing. Notifications increase cognitive load in a way that’s unhelpful.
  • When your phone rings, notice who’s calling, pause, and think: is taking this call right now more important than the work I’m doing and any flow state I’ve achieved. If you are in flow and it can wait, let it wait.
  • Try to keep interruptions under two minutes. Research suggests we have a much better chance of getting back into flow quickly if interrupts are under 120 seconds.
  • Set a timer and try to get into flow–see “Find your flow” for more details.

If you choose to minimize multi-tasking, maximize flow, and work toward clear and meaningful goals, you will be engaged and happy at work. If you lead others to do the same, they will enjoy the same benefits and you will enjoy boosted creativity, productivity, resilience, and results.