How To Improve Flow for Increased Motivation at Work

 Originally published on March 19, 2017 by Andrea Obermeier
Last updated on January 29, 2018 • 8 minute read

  • You love your job
  • It takes no effort to do your tasks
  • You are in a flow

Congratulations! You've achieved flow!

For all of you who are not in a flow, here are some ideas on how to get there. 

When it comes to motivation, there are three components to consider:

  1. Implicit motives
  2. Explicit motives
  3. Skills

Only if all three come together can you be in your own personal flow.

Let's Take A Closer Look

Implicit motives are "unconscious". For example, an IT administrator, let's call him John, probably chose his profession because he likes to structure things without actually being aware of it. He might even think his life is chaotic and he would never call himself a well-organized person. Instinctively he has chosen a job which allows him to structure things.

Explicit motives are self-attributed and consist mainly of goals. Staying with the example above, our IT admin would probably say he chose his profession because he likes to work with state-of-the-art IT equipment. He made a "conscious" decision to work in IT because he knows that's the easiest way to get his hands on the newest equipment.

Skills allow you to have a positive attitude towards a task. You are thus prepared to make a greater effort in your job because you are confident that you are capable of completing the task successfully. Skill means not only knowledge and intelligence but also the ability to perform a task.  This includes having the necessary environment and tools for this. 

It is difficult to talk in detail about our implicit motives as these depend on our genes, education and other early socialization processes. We can, however, talk about general explicit motives and goals in our daily jobs. Explicit motives are developed at a later stage and can change frequently. In our example, our IT admin would like to reach 100% uptime but with reduced investments. This is not only a management goal, but also John's goal, since he likes to see his network running smoothly and with high performance as well.

For the optimal flow experience our admin needs not only motives, but also the skills to achieve this. These can include:

  • Educational experience like network architecture knowledge
  • Hardware and software overview - what is available on the market?
  • Knowledge about the company structure and user requirements
  • Information about existing network performance - finding bottlenecks, errors or possibilities for optimization

If you are able to work in the overlapping part of all three components - congratulations! You are in your flow! 

From Kehr, H. M. (2004): Integrating Implicit Motives, Explicit Motives, and Perceived Abilities: The Compensatory Model of Work Motivation and Volition. P. 479-499 From Kehr, H. M. (2004): Integrating Implicit Motives, Explicit Motives, and Perceived Abilities: The Compensatory Model of Work Motivation and Volition. P. 479-499

But what happens if the implicit motive and the explicit motive do not overlap? For example, John is given the task of planning and setting up the IT infrastructure for a new branch office in Germany. This requires several trips to Germany. John loves starting from scratch where he can design the IT infrastructure with new equipment. However, he doesn't like to travel a lot, especially not to other countries. In this case, we have a conflict between the two motives. His manager will probably notice this as in delays in the project.

We are not able to change our implicit motives on short notice. The only way to overcome this barrier is through willingness. This is also called "volition" in psychology. An international project like this one can be beneficial to John's CV for later job applications. If he makes himself more aware of this positive effect, he can work more enthusiastically on the project. This requires strong will from John, but it will allow him to finish the project successfully.

There can be a second barrier which prevents you from reaching your flow experience. This barrier comes when you don't have the skills to fulfill a task. For example, John's goal is still to reach 100% uptime. Therefore, he knows that he needs a comprehensive overview of the current network status. He also knows that there are a lot of different monitoring tools on the market that could provide this status. However, since he doesn't know much about these tools, he's currently compiling most of his status information manually, but it's practically impossible to collect all the necessary information because of lack of time.  To overcome this barrier, John needs to improve his skills. Psychology calls this simple "problem solving". John can save time and reach his goal more easily when he invests in training and time to select an appropriate tool.

This doesn't necessarily need to be a classroom training. He may simply subscribe to an email training course or an online video course.  With his newfound knowledge John can now work more efficiently by introducing a monitoring solution in his company.

Knowing about the different components which affect motivation and how to overcome barriers will allow you to love your job even more. The next time you realize you are in a flow, you may want to think a minute about the reasons so you can reproduce such a situation in the future. You should also have a closer look when you find it hard to complete a task and see if you can change this by willingness or by problem solving.