Are you in the zone?

Last time I wrote about how one should not only set performance goals but also learning goals in line with Tim Galleway’s formula to maximize the return on investment of your work time:

ROI = Performance + Learning + Enjoyment

As his formula indicates, the third component for getting the best out of your work is also to consider enjoyment goals. Even though some people might view enjoyment as a side-benefit positive psychology studies document it is definitely more than that.

Enjoyment at work is closely related to being “vitally engaged” in what one is doing. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who has been studying the capacity to be a full participant in life for decades describes optimal living as “being fully involved with every detail of our lives, whether good or bad”. The “flow” concept he has developed – also know as “being in the zone” is described as an experience when one is able to be completely caught up in what he is doing and time flies. Flow state, which is familiar to top athletes, not only fosters enjoyment from the task at hand, it is also an important catalyst for moving toward peak performance.

Now consider to what extent you feel engaged in your work. Reflect on and evaluate your state at work on a scale of 1 (misery)  – 10 (pure enjoyment) and what percent of your work you spend in this state.

A Gallup survey from 2006 shows that only 31%, 20%, and 17% of employees report feeling engaged in their work in the U.S., France and Britain, respectively. Although a gloomy picture, the bright side is that there’s plenty of room for improvement. And thanks to positive psychology research there are a number of tools one can use to increase enjoyment at work.

1. Leverage strengths. Applying your strengths is one important pathway to fulfilling enjoyment goals at work. This starts with identifying your strengths.

One of the important assessment tools of positive psychology, “Values in Actions (VIA)” Survey, provides a carefully developed classification of character strengths based on data from thousands of individuals from numerous cultures. The VIA classification identifies 24 strengths of character  (e.g., critical thinking, curiosity, persistence, kindness, leadership, self-regulation, gratitude, etc.). The survey is available free of charge online and provides a list of top strengths.

Once you’ve identified your strengths, next step is finding ways in which you can apply them to tasks, responsibilities and relationships at work.

2. Minimize distraction. Focusing on the task at hand by minimizing distractions – especially temptation to multi-task – is one important condition for flow experience.

3. Increase sense of control. Work is almost always a combination of elements that one can control and elements one cannot. Deliberately directing attention and focus on elements on has control over increases one’s sense of control which contributes to engagement.

4. Balance skills and challenge. The optimal balance between having a  high level of skill and a challenging task is key to flow. When this balance is tipped of in the direction of high skill, low challenge, boredom results. When the skills are not high enough to match the challenge one experiences anxiety. Carefully monitoring this balance and making the necessary adjustments either by increasing the skill or decreasing/increasing the challenge level will increase chances of flow.

So, define your work more than just in terms of performance – see how you see returns in your learning and enjoyment. Further good news is: This will inevitably feed back into performance!

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