Why Work Sometimes Seems To Do Itself and Other Times Not

This article is part of the series The Power of Work by Allihoopa. You can find the other ones for free if you follow the link and improve your skills to work hard and become successful. Trust me, it’s much better than any wishing board or motivational course. Cause if you work hard, you can achieve absolutely everything. In this article, we’ll have a look at flow and find out why work sometimes seems to do itself and other times not.

And while some of what we talk about here might come across as somewhat obvious, it is actually quite eye-opening, once we become aware of the simple fact that emotions influence our ability to work. We just need to look very intensely at people to see in which emotional state they are. And this allows us to make certain conclusions. A happy and energized person will very likely be better able to work hard and achieve her goals, than a depressed, sad one. The best scientific model I found to provide us with a workable approach, is the flow-model of psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. 

Csíkszentmihályi observed that there is a state of work where people forget that they are working. They are positively consumed in their work, don’t realise how time passes, and often even forget about their basic needs such as the consumption of food. Those who have hobbies can likely recall this state of flow. Personally, I encounter flow when I am composing music, or write. Time flies, the work is almost “doing itself”, it is a vitalising, trance-like state of mind in which I can achieve outstanding results. But let’s go into the flow itself a bit later in this chapter and dedicate ourselves first to the different emotions and their influence on our ability to work.

On the right side you can see a nice image showing the different state of minds in relation to skill- and challenge level based on the flow-model of Csíkszentmihályi. 

How to Use The Flow Model

It is quite easy to navigate through it and makes a lot of sense, as we can probably identify our own state of mind when it comes to particular tasks and will very likely be able to recognize that we really do have problems on either the challenge- or the skill level. 

As an example, let’s say you have just started your business, but have no idea how the whole tax things work. You carry on with building up your business, but all of a sudden, letters from the revenue service come in, asking you to submit your tax declarations.

Your skill level is low, the challenge level is middle as it’s not yet a final reminder. You will likely experience worry about the situation in which you are. If it would in fact be a final reminder and therefore the challenge level would be high, you would feel anxiety about the whole situation. 

Let’s take the same situation, but this time, you hold a degree in accounting and know very well what you need to do. Your books are all in order, and everything that needs to be done, is done. Your skill level is high, the challenge level is low. You will feel relaxed. But what if you have missed sending in your balance sheet?

Again, the revenue service sends you a  reminder, which would worry you, if your skill level would be low. But as you know how to deal with that situation, you feel that you are in control of the situation. If they sent you the final reminder, it wouldn’t induce anxiety, but you would start getting the balance sheet ready to meet their requirement and hence enter the flow.

Task Based State of Mind vs General State of Mind

These are just a few examples on the emotional state of mind. It is important to consider that the state of mind can be differentiated into a task-based state of mind and a general state of mind. Still being true to the above mentioned model, the state of mind always reflects the task at hand. But let me explain:

Let’s say a person who comes to be interviewed for a job-role might be worried and anxious –  a sign of a low skill level. This doesn’t tell us anything about their skills in the role they are applying for, though. It is just an indicator that they possess a low skill level in the task of being interviewed. 

Let’s stay with this example and consider a highly skilled worker to apply for a new job after having been with the same company for five years and having quit there for one reason or another. He will very likely not be familiar with the interview process anymore and if he hasn’t educated himself on how to thrive in interview-situations, his skill level will be low. He won’t know what questions will come, or that he is supposed to know about the history of the company he is applying for.

Naturally, he will be worried about the interview and will very likely perform bad at it. Let’s, on the other hand, consider a person who is less skilled in the actual role, but fully aware about how an interview process looks like. She will be highly skilled in her interview-skills and know which questions might arise and how they can best be answered.

Apart from a natural nervousness in the beginning, she will appear as very relaxed, in control, or even in the flow and therefore outperform her competitor in the interview. If the company therefore decides to take her instead of him, they are getting the worse employee, but the one with better interview-skills.

So it has to be clear to us that the state of mind that we see in a person always reflects the current situation in which they find themselves in any given situation and cannot allow for a generalization of their state of mind when it comes to life itself.

Why is There a Generalized State of Mind?

But how can we arrive at the consideration that there is also a state of mind which can be generalized as being adopted by an individual for their life itself? Well, for this, we just need to consider that life itself is also a task. It consists of many sub-tasks, like

  • paying the bills,
  • getting and keeping an employment,
  • dressing appropriately,
  • taking care of personal finances,
  • keeping the house clean and habitable,
  • pursuing education,
  • sticking to resolutions,
  • and exerting a socially acceptable way of communication and behavior.

The sum of the skill-level in these sub-skills and the challenges they face can be considered as creating the overall “skill in life”.  Someone who is not able to “get their own life” and hence stays to live in their parent’s basement, will face a rather low level of “life-challenge”.

Depending on the life-skills they have, they will likely be either bored or apathetic in their approach to life. If you took them out of this environment and put them in their own life, they would likely struggle on many bases and experience anxiety or worry.

If they received a monthly social welfare payment, the challenge level for their life would decrease, and they would fall back to apathy. If they would, however, start to take their life in their own hands, their life-skill would improve and so would their state of mind, moving into a different state of mind, such as arousal. Now once that would be achieved, try putting them back into their parent’s basement and you might find them be bored, rather than apathetic. Now, they would know how life works, but they wouldn’t be challenged by it, boredom would be the result.  

Someone, who is in the flow with their life, faces high life-challenges and possesses high life-skills. These are the high achievers in life. On the one hand, they put themselves into challenging situations, such as a demanding career. On the other hand do they possess the necessary skills to cope with that demand, thus are successful.

So, from now on, you could check out the situations in which you feel any of the emotions listed above and then analyze what it is that needs improvement. If you often feel bored, for example, you should increase your challenge level to get into the state of arousal. Or even better, also increase your skill level and enter the flow. 

If, on the other hand, you often find yourself worrying about your business, job, or other endeavors, you will need to increase your skill level on the specific task to switch from worry to being in control. Now, if your skill level is high enough, you could increase your challenge level and also get into the flow.

Finding Out in Which General State of Mind a Person is

In order to determine the general state of mind in which they are, requires you to know a bit about the person you are dealing with. You can draw conclusions from their past behavior, but mind you: people can change.

Nevertheless, it can be a good first indicator and you can try to get more information about what inspired them for their actions and based on the actions they have taken, you can see whether their challenge- or skill-levels have adjusted. As an example, we could take the person who presents herself to you in a job interview.

Her CV shows that she has been job hopping quite often in the past and never stayed in one particular position for more than a year. What does this say about the person? Find out about her motivation to constantly leave the jobs in which she was employed. If it was boredom and the role she is applying for imposes a low challenge level, you can expect her to be bored again and quit after a year.

If the job she is applying for now is, however, challenging and will offer her to increase her skills, you might find her to be a happy and productive employee for a long time. If it was anxiety that made her leave, you can conclude that the challenge-level of her previous job was too high and her skill-level too low, so she might not be an ideal candidate for a position requiring a high skill set. 

To find out more about yourself, you should just simply make a sober analysis of your past and present. Does your past and present behavior show that you were and are often worried about life? Or bored or apathetic? Well, you know how to tackle these now. 

State of mind and outcome

The emotional state of mind in which we and other people are, determines our behavior in a given situation to a great extent. Could you expect to successfully start a business if your state of mind is in apathy? Or would a job in which you carry a weapon be a good choice if you are constantly worried? The answer to both of these questions is naturally no.

And the same is true for your team mates, especially if they have to report to you. As a manager, you just would act ill-advised if you would entrust important projects to an employee who is in the state of apathy, worry, or anxiety. People in these states would rather qualify for smaller projects, which build their skill level first.

The person suffering from one of those three state-of-minds would then be able to get better in their skill and hence their emotional state would change to either boredom or arousal, depending on the challenge they are facing. So, once the state of mind of boredom would have been achieved, they could be challenged appropriately to get into arousal, while still being enabled to acquire more skills for the task and eventually enter into flow.  

On the other hand, a manager could certainly give it a try to task them with a challenging, important project, if they can already be classified as bored, aroused, relaxed, or in control. 

So let’s go ahead and look into each of these states in a bit more detail. Like this, we can find out how we can determine in which state we or someone else is and discover ways on how we can switch to another level and potentially also reach the state of flow.

The Lower States

The State of Apathy

Let’s start off with one that isn’t actually an emotion, but a state of mind which is characterized by a lack of emotion: Apathy. Earlier or later in our lives, we all have encountered a person who was apathetic and emotionless. Maybe at some points in time, we have also found ourselves to be in that state of mind. 

Apathetic people have no energy left to motivate themselves and are therefore unable to accomplish even the simplest tasks. Obviously their ability to work will be virtually non-existent. Let alone any ability to work hard. That doesn’t mean necessarily that they don’t show up at work anymore.

It can for example be observed in employees who are working in a dissatisfying workplace, role, or team. While they were smiling and appeared to be full of energy when they originally started on the job, their business or their project, they now appear more like zombies. Living-dead whose energy was sucked out by the work they do, peers they hang out with, life they live, or -most significantly- thoughts they think and consider to be true. 

Energy drainers can lead to apathy. Let’s take the example of a business person who is not good in financial matters. He doesn’t pay incoming bills and is sloppy in writing invoices to his clients. He has problems keeping the books in order and collects documents in a shoe-box which is mentally labelled as “to be reviewed at deadline”. While he is not conscious about the amount of work his body wastes on this cause of worry, it constantly drains his energy and will eventually lead to apathy. 

We can observe this in the habit of heavily indebted people not opening their mail anymore, not checking their bank accounts and instead trying to suppress the negative emotions attached to this and attempting to “ignore the problem away”. They are in a state of apathy and in a vicious circle, as apathy doesn’t resolve any of the problems that it created in the first place. This makes the problems even worse. And leads to worst outcomes, such as action for eviction, homelessness, alcoholism, and if all gets too much, even suicide. 

Apathy is a state in which you don’t want to be. And a state which should alarm you, if you are able to detect it in another individual, such as e.g. someone whom you want to hire, or someone who is working in your team. Apathy is always a sign that something is wrong. 

According to Csíkszentmihályi apathy is the expression of a person who has a low skill level for the specific task at hand in which the apathy occurs, and where the challenge level is also low. 

But how can you know whether someone is apathetic? Or if you are apathetic? Usually things go very slow with apathetic people. Procrastination over long periods of time is a clear sign of apathy. It takes an apathetic person a considerable amount of energy to do even simple tasks. Someone who doesn’t reply to emails for weeks for example. Or somebody who postpones the payment of due bills even if he has enough money to pay them.

But there are also certain speech patterns that reveal apathy. If a person doesn’t like the situation in which she is in but refuses to change it, by arguing with even the most ridiculous excuses, she is very likely in an apathic state. 

Apathy in situations which tend to become more urgent, is a sure way to doom. Apathic people are the ones who procrastinate everything until it becomes really urgent (which is when they might move into the state of anxiety). Just imagine what a sad result this behavior produces:

If you have a business, your clients will start to consider you as unreliable and be dissatisfied with your service. If you are employed, you will very likely be on the firing line when the next lay-offs are due and if you are apathetic in your private affairs, you will likely live in a dirty environment, have an unkempt appearance, and problems are knocking on your door.   

The State of Worry

This state of mind is characterized by an anticipatory concern. Nothing bad must have happened in the present, it is simply the anticipation of which negative things might happen to oneself or somebody else that is the cause of worry. The very reason that worry is anticipatory is proof that a person who feels a lot of it, is not, or thinks she is not, in control over her life. 

One can be worried internally, imagining what bad might lurk at any given situation. And one can carry out the worry and take action out of worry. So in essence a useful grain might be in worrying, if the worry itself leads to an increase in skill and action, which in turn leads to a relieve of the worry and might be able to change the state to being in control.

If, however, the worry itself, doesn’t lead to the necessary action, it can be considered as harmful. Many people worry about things they have no control over. This, for instance, is a situation in which worry doesn’t make sense and will likely lead to either apathy (which is paralysis) or anxiety over the course of time.

Let’s assume somebody is worried about the situation they are currently in. Based on this, the person might decide to reduce the challenge-level by quitting their job for instance. The challenge level decreases and the person slips into apathy. If the challenge level is out of their control, however, and the person refuses to increase their skill-level, the challenge-level is likely to increase. Just think of the example with the tax reminders that start to become more severe. The person’s state will change to anxiety. 

If you find yourself to be worrying frequently about one or more particular things in your life, you are well advised to increase your skill-level rather than your challenge-level. Increasing the skill-level means taking action in these areas, in order to escape the negative range of emotional states. There is just no way around it. Even if this would be as simple as hiring an accountant to do your taxes for you in the present and future.   

Worried people can be discovered by their underlying nervousness about things. Sometimes it shows in an over- or undereating behavior. Indulging in alcohol abuse or chain smoking. Nail-biting. All the usual things that can be observed in overly nervous individuals.

Things to observe in yourself include the above and furthermore: constantly and often repeating scenes in your mind that have happened to you and assessing what you could have done differently and wondering whether you have done everything correctly. 

The State of Anxiety

Many people consider fear and anxiety as being the same thing. And they certainly stem from the same place in our brains, the amygdala, and express many of the same symptoms. However, they are not entirely the same thing. The main difference is that anxiety is more of an underlying, unspecific feeling, whereas fear is a reaction to a specific threat. So if you are feeling fear without someone threatening you with a knife, you are likely feeling anxiety. This distinction is important because it provides the explanation why the state of anxiety can be taking your whole life, whereas the experience of fear is usually limited to specific, real situation and usually serves a very good purpose. Namely the one of surviving. 

On Csíkszentmihályi’s flow-model, anxiety rises out of a high challenge-level and a low skill-level. So if you are unable to measure up to the challenge that presents itself to you, you will experience anxiety. And anxiety has the potential to spread into other areas of your life and make it a true nightmare.

You can spot anxiety by observing the muscular tension in people. Anxious people seem to try to hide their head between their shoulders and hence often have their shoulders constantly pulled up. This can cause severe tensions in their shoulders and neck. So people who suffer from an uptight neck often, might also suffer from anxiety.

Other symptoms are a certain physical restlessness. Quick and repetitious movement of legs or arms for example or going from one side of the room to the other one repeated in a pattern. Anxious people usually have problems concentrating, and if their anxiety hunts them at night, they show signs of fatigue.

The Middle States

Boredom

While boredom might be mistaken as apathy by some, it is in fact not the same. Boredom is not the expression of a lack of emotion and energy, but rather a state of mental underload. A bored person will do the same thing as an apathetic person: namely nothing. But the motivation is different. While apathy has its roots in a lack of emotion, boredom has its roots in a lack of stimuli. 

In the flow-model boredom is the state of mind for a middle skilled person whose challenge-level is low. 

So boredom is a clear sign that you are unchallenged, and stay under your abilities to perform. When speaking about boredom, the bored king comes to mind, as someone who has everything he’s ever wished for. More than enough wealth, servants, entertainment, nice people all around him. Yet, still he is bored. The reason being: he has no real challenge.

The same is true for many tasks which are numb, repetitious, and without real meaning. Let’s say the task is to enter vast amounts of data into a database. Very understandably a person who has to do this, will easily get bored thinking this kind of work would best be left to a robot. 

Luckily boredom can easily be resolved by simply increasing the challenge-level. Let’s take the example of the data-entry task and add a time factor to it. So that so-and-so many datasets have to be entered in a certain period of time. All of a sudden it becomes a bit more challenging. But it might still be boring. So let’s increase the challenge-level a bit more by rewarding quick data entry with a cash bonus and punishing slow data entry with a lack thereof. All of a sudden a meaningless task can become a motivating one.    

You can spot boredom by observing behavior. People who are bored, are sometimes lethargic. Yet, opposed to the apathetic person, they still express their emotions and are able to become active very easily, if they find something that takes their interest. The classical sights that indicate boredom are the head resting on the hand, a constantly uninterested look and mimic, and a general disinterest. 

The State of Arousal

The State of Arousal is the other part of the middle states. In this state, a person is highly alert and ready to respond. They are excited and more positively than negatively aroused. You can spot this by looking for the typical signs of an aroused person. They don’t know yet, what is coming towards them, but are open for the challenge.

The State of Arousal is a very fragile one. If you manage to increase your skills to face the challenge, you have the chance to enter flow. If you do not,  you’ll fall down to anxiety. So it is important to spot this state and take appropriate action by improving the skill set that is required to tackle that specific situation.

The Higher States

Relaxation

Well, the state of relaxation probably doesn’t have to be explained in great detail. Contrary to apathy or boredom, this state doesn’t feel bad, but very good. It is a feeling of ease and being satisfied with yourself and the world. While relaxation might be desirable from time to time, it is not a satisfactory state of mind for most people.

Let’s say you’re going on a vacation and don’t do anything except laying on the beach the whole day. While this seems like a wonderful thing to do for a while, it doesn’t satisfy most people in the long run. After two to three weeks maximum, people usually change their state from being relaxed to being bored, and crave for something to do. 

You can spot relaxed people by observation. They are usually in a good mood, while still exerting an air of authority and self-esteem. Their body and mimic are relaxed and energy appears to be coming from them (rather than being taken by them). Relaxed people can often be seen smiling and usually their way of doing things is laid back and slower.

If you are a relaxed person or someone with whom you worked is relaxed, make sure to increase the challenge level. You don’t want to become bored or have one of your team-mates become bored. It is usually best to keep the relaxation in our tasks to a low amount. But it’s also good to visit this state of mind from time to time – albeit a limited time.

The State of Control

Being in control is a desirable state at all times. Even if you don’t get into the flow, it is advisable that you are at least in control over the tasks you carry out and your life in general. This means, according to the flow-model, to have a high skill-level while being moderately challenged.

Being in control means that you are able to handle the task and situations at hand with ease. You are the master of the task, rather than vice versa. Think about being in control in terms of an airplane flight. If you have boarded the plane, you would much more like to have the captain of it be in control of it, than the plane being in control of the captain (effectively meaning that you are just about to crash).

The same goes for everything else in your life. If you don’t control your tasks, your tasks will control you. If you don’t control your life, life will control you.

This is essentially the difference between this state and all the others (except for flow). An apathetic, worried, anxious, bored, or aroused person is not in control of their task. A relaxed person likely has no real task that requires to be controlled. So the only two states in which the person is effectively handling the task efficiently are the state of control and the state of flow. 

Someone who is in control can easily be spotted. They exert self-esteem, are not hindered by psychological barriers, such as worry or anxiety when it comes to the task and can be relied on to get the task satisfactorily done.  

The State of Flow

As mentioned in the introduction to this article already, Flow is the state in which the work is almost done automatically and without any negative feeling or waste of time. Think of a child that plays. They are totally consumed by the fantasy world they are creating. And they believe that it is real. Time flies and often, they forget to get home for dinner, because the “task” on which they are “working” has led them into a state of mind that could be compared to a trance-like state. This is flow.  

I am sure that you have unknowingly entered the state of flow many times before in your life. Namely, always when you were faced with a high challenge-level and possessed a high skill-level.

If you are jogging for instance, you might have experienced flow as a feeling when you were just running. You were in the present, your body was running, while you were in some sort of trance-like state, empty mind, just getting it done. Another example is painting. You can spend so much time painting a picture. And earlier than you think, hours have passed without you noticing it.

And, I have to say, writing an article like this one brings you into the state of flow very quickly too. While at the age of eighteen, I would have probably struggled for weeks – if not months- to write an essay of 3,000 words, I am now able to produce this word count on a daily basis. And once I start writing, there is no holding back. While time is flying, my hands are writing, and when the twilight sets in, I realize that I have finished more words than originally planned. But that obviously only applies to topics where I know what I’m writing about. High skill level, challenging task.

If you are unsure in which area of your life you have experienced flow, I would suggest you start with your hobbies. If you are one of these people who claim to not have a hobby, I would recommend you to get one, as these are the things that make a life really worthwhile.

But, nonetheless, in your mind you can still go back in time and think about the hobbies you used to have when you were younger. Maybe you liked to play soccer. Try to recall, how quickly time passed, how focused you were, how strongly attached to the present you were, when you played. And that all of that didn’t really require a lot of (perceived) work from your side.   

Flow can only come to fruition if you have the necessary skills for the task you’re doing and if it presents itself as a sufficient challenge. If you are the best cook and cooking baked beans, you probably won’t be in the flow, but relaxed. If, however, you are experienced in your field, know what you are doing and talking about, and you are working on something important and worthwhile, you will start to work away without even realizing it. And this will be your state of flow.

Some Final Thoughts on The Flow-Model

The flow-model is an excellent resource for an improvement in how you work and what skill- and challenge-levels have to do with our emotional state of mind. You need to be aware about the emotions that come up when you perform a task. And it is obviously advisable to work your way up from the lower to the higher states.

The development should always go from the left side to the right side. That means, you need to become more skilled in the tasks you do. The more skilled you are, the less you are dependent on the challenge-level. Because the more you are to the right on the X-axis, the less important are the challenge-levels. You will always feel better. And – as an added bonus – you can always increase the challenges and thereby become more successful in your life.

Note that all emotional states root from the basic desire of any living creature to survive and reproduce. Many of the emotions that have developed from our archaic needs to survive, have become somewhat obsolete in our western society. After all, in most parts of the western world, chances are slim that any action will lead to your immediate death.

In a fair world, we would understand that driving a car is more dangerous to our lives than speaking in front of a big audience, although most of us experience much more emotions that are connected to fear when holding a speech compared to driving a car. But even this skill can be mastered and might consequently lead us into the higher states even when talking in front of large audiences. 

There is no need for the negative emotional states of mind. You should become skilled in what you are doing, be it as an entrepreneur or an employed worker. Please also note, that there is neither a requirement for you to constantly be in the flow, nor is it realistic. Even the most experienced and skilled humans have to look something up from time to time, which disrupts their flow.

So don’t aim to be in the flow all the time. But be aware that it exists and note when you are in it. The state of flow is one that allows you to work incredible amounts without the subjective feeling of having been working. This is a very satisfying feeling and one that pays off in your personal and financial life.