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Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Psychology of Optimal Experiences

It is sometimes hard to understand why one task or activity is highly motivating and rewarding for a person and another isn’t. Why does your employee find it boring to do that project you really need her to do? Why doesn’t it turn her on, no matter how hard you try to get her excited and motivated? Until we get good at understanding why certain activities are intrinsically appealing, it is hard to match people with the right opportunities to keep them motivated.
And one very good answer to this question comes from the work of psychologists who study what is termed optimal experiences, or experiences where people are totally caught up in what they are doing, wholly focused on it, and able to perform at a very high level with ease. The condition is also termed flow, and you want your people to experience flow because it is an excellent indicator that they are properly prepared for and aligned with the right activities to make them highly motivated.

The easiest way for me to explain flow is to describe my own experience of it. When I write, it’s a flow experience. When you do, it probably isn’t, since writing for most people is a difficult chore. But when I sit down to write, my mind clears itself of extraneous thoughts and worries. (I’m writing right now with a huge pile of unopened bills next to me, and it doesn’t bother me in the least!) My thoughts bubble up eagerly, and my hands fly over the paper or the keyboard. I feel a sense of exhilaration and pleasure when the writing goes well. It’s hard work, sure, but I can sustain it for many hours without a break because it just flows and carries me along with it. As a result, I am a very productive writer—people are often surprised by the amount of work I do. But I don’t feel worn out by my writing. In fact, it gives me energy. And I sometimes experience flow in other situations, too. When I’m giving a presentation or when I’m doing my favorite sports, for example.

Your optimal experiences are probably different ones from mine, but they nonetheless feel the same. Golf is torture for me and I’m terrible at it. But when I watch Tiger Woods play I can tell it just flows for him, as writing does for me. I know how he must feel when he plays, and I know that he couldn’t have achieved such mastery without first learning how to make golf into a flow experience.
Interestingly, psychologists have discovered that the pleasures of these optimal experiences are sufficiently great that most people describe themselves as more happy when in the flow state than when relaxing or hanging out. When we look back on our lives, the times we remember most fondly are by and large these optimal performances in which we were experiencing flow. In other words, life’s peaks coincide with periods of peak motivation as well. Please read the quote in the margin to see how a leading researcher explains it.
Children instinctively understand this point, without the need for a psychologist to tell them. They constantly badger their parents with the complaint, “I’m bored. I don’t have anything to do.” Of course, they do have many things they could do, but they need a little help getting involved in the right activity so that they can “get in the groove” of another flow experience. Csikzentmihalyi points out that optimal experience is “something that we make happen,” and observes that, “For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built.”
Parents rarely appreciate the need to help children make these optimal experiences happen. They take the “I’m bored” comment too literally, and simply offer any old alternative instead of creating the next optimal experience. The truly great teachers, on the other hand, are keenly aware of the distinction between a generic activity and a truly engaging, optimal one, and they are able to transform a rowdy classroom into a productive one just by offering the right activities.
The motivational manager would do well to make a study of optimal experiences. What things catch people up and keep them engaged and alert? What things don’t? Do you need to increase or reduce the level of challenge to make something more optimal? Or is it that the activity doesn’t seem important? Or is it that the feedback about personal performances is too unclear to make it engaging?

These helpful questions are actually formalized in a method for leading people to high motivation called commitment-based leadership. But a general sensitivity to the flow issue will stand you in good stead whether you adopt that specific methodology or not.
And it is vital to remember that, when people move up the motivation curve, it is generally by becoming highly engaged in their work. High motivation produces, and is produced by, flow experiences.

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