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Understanding ‘flow state’ and energy for productivity breakthroughs


Understanding ‘flow state’ and energy for productivity breakthroughs


In the third in Ken Murray’s series on workplace energy levels, he sets out a model for understanding how an individual’s energy and ‘flow state’ works in order to better manage it and be more productive.


Part One examines the source of employee disengagement and asks, whose responsibility is it anyway?

Part Two shares the secret to motivation.


The world around us is getting harder and faster. We have more to do, in less time, with more distractions. In order to keep up we have been putting in more time and downloading more apps to help with productivity – but time is a finite resource, and apps and productivity templates often feel like more tasks to add to your other tasks.

If you add in the need to sleep, eventually no amount of perseverance or technology will save you from the inevitable burnout.

On the other hand…

I’m sure you can recall a time when everything went just right for you. Knocking tasks over like Godzilla knocks over Tokyo skyscrapers. Full-on ‘crushing it’.

Imagine if you could switch this state on at will. Your productivity would go through the roof. This is a skill I’d like to help you progress on today, plus some of the concepts will help fill in the gaps in my last article (that I only touched on).

As a nod to the point about being super busy: I’ll even save you the trouble of having to take in all the theory and psychology by pointing out the sections that are theory heavy. (A little caveat though: awareness is the beginning of change.)

— Theory section begins —

Colloquially we have referred to ‘crushing it’, or being ‘in the zone’. The psychologists, studying athletes in particular, refer to this phenomenon as ‘flow state’, a complete immersion in an activity.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes ‘flow’ like this:

“Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one.“

Isn’t that an interesting choice of words? Particularly “ego falls away”. Let us cross reference this use of the word ‘ego’ with the psychological concept of ‘ego-depletion’. From Psychwiki:

“Ego depletion refers to the idea that self-control and other mental processes that require focused conscious effort rely on energy that can be used up”

In the famous ‘radishes and chocolate’ experiment by Roy Baumeister, the group of people who had to simply resist the temptation of eating chocolates and force themselves to eat radishes instead subsequently quit faster on unsolvable puzzles than people who had not had to exert self-control over eating.

They had used up more of their energy.

So what is ‘energy’ anyway?

The physics definition is ‘the capacity of a physical system to perform work.’

Consider the implications of this. Exerting self-control over what the test subjects could eat limited their ability to perform difficult cognitive problem solving. These are completely different areas of the brain yet the same source is being worn out!

This seemingly simple experiment transformed the way the world perceived self-control and our capacity for thought and willpower. What was previously considered a skill or state of mind actually had more in common with a muscle. Once fatigued it becomes ineffective until it is allowed to rest and replenish.

Furthermore, not only is our will-power or energy a finite and depletable resource, it is also at the centre of a more diverse range of activities than we realised.

Consider the brain/limbic system model introduced by Paul D Maclean, who suggested the brain is made up of three tiers:

  1. The reptilian brain for survival functions,
  2. the limbic brain for emotions, and
  3. the neocortex in charge of rational, abstract or intellectual thought.

Between these two concepts I have come to the realisation that, although our energy is a singular source, it is made up of different levels on top of the base ‘physical’ level:

  1. Intellectual,
  2. emotional, and
  3. existential/spiritual/meaning.

I don’t know about you, but in cognitive problem-solving activities, in the drudgery state when I’m not making progress, my energy is depleted in this order:

  1. Intellectual – testing different ideas to come up with a solution, once the frustration and headaches kick in I feel my emotional energy source start to fuel me,
  2. emotional – annoyed, angry at myself, begin to push faster and harder until it’s Godzilla versus Tokyo, because as Les Brown said: “It’s not over ’til I win”
  3. existential – now of course your professional life shouldn’t push you to your mental breaking point so I haven’t seen this play out in the professional world first hand, my experience with cancer in 2008 however gave me some insight into how linear this depletion of energy really is.

It looks like this:

Ken Murray chart 1 emotional physical energy 540w


Have you ever wondered why, you feel physically exhausted after sitting at your desk all day?


— Theory section ends —


Let’s link this all up.

Our energy behaves like a muscle, it pulses and flexes  –>  It fatigues and needs to recover  –>  Our mental fitness refers to how quickly we can train our mind to recover  –>  Recovery refers to how we rest and replenish, and how quickly we can switch our focus after an interruption (not multi-tasking).

Managing our energy is more important than managing our time  –>  Peak energy levels increase our chance of flow-state  –>  We are most productive in our flow-state  –>  Flow-state kicks in when we are focused and engaged on all four levels: intellectually, emotionally, existentially and physically.

There are hundreds of articles on productivity tips: 60-60-30, working in focused blocks of time and doing deliberate rest, prioritising with numbers or stars, small chunking big goals into actionable steps, cutting multi-tasking, getting an extra screen, getting rid of your extra screens.

You don’t need me to spell them out for you. I’m sure you’ve seen them all and I bet any are yet to transform your life, because as you know lessons learned best are best learned the hard way. Consider this as building the base for your own productivity breakthroughs.

My hope is that you will take this awareness of how your energy works, and arrive to your own conclusions on how to better manage it.

All that rises, will converge.

You will most likely be doing what all the pros have been saying already, but you own that change in yourself, as a result it’ll work much better for you in the long term, or you’ll discover the next productivity breakthrough. Please send it to me when you do!

Think about it.


Ken Murray

Ken Murray is the director of marketing for MEI Group, having now clocked over seven years of senior marketing experience specialising in the industrial sectors and B2B.  Ken's background stems from a keen interest in pattern recognition and problem solving, which would eventually lead to an academic background in sociology (the 'why' question) to strategic marketing and business (the 'how' question). He believes success in business and marketing is about connecting the individual customer's 'why' to the business' 'how'. Next step is to operate efficiently and then you've got results, which is all he's interested in. Follow him @Kengetsitdone.

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