Is Flow State Necessary To Create Valuable Work?

Pick any book from the self-improvement and productivity categories, and I bet there will be a section dedicated to flow.

Flow is a state of optimal experience where you are engrossed in the activity, time dilates, and your focus is laser-sharp.

Research on flow began in the mid-70s with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s pioneering work, and it’s come to be seen by many as the productivity nirvana. Unsurprisingly, there’s a whole genre of products marketed at helping knowledge workers reach flow, be that with apps, music playlists, or nootropic pills. Needless to say, the only guaranteed effect they have is to separate money from wallets.

Flow is undoubtedly a desirable state to be in. Who wouldn’t want to be engaged with what they do and deeply enjoy it? But, while welcome when it comes, flow is not a prerequisite for valuable work.

Work’s value depends on its impact, not on how pleasurable it was to produce.

Truly valuable work is work that solves hard problems. Think of a coder crafting an efficient algorithm, a designer simplifying an intricate UX, or a writer synthesizing a complex topic into a clear framework.

Hard problems are not the best candidates for flow state. To reach flow, the challenge needs to stretch one’s ability without overmatching it. The activity also needs to provide clear proximal goals and immediate feedback1. But hard problems are, well, hard to solve. You might need to stretch way past what you thought possible or stare at a whiteboard for hours with no apparent progress.

That’s not to say you should sweat blood at work every day. Working smarter is always best than working harder. (See my tips for getting started with deep work, for example).

I fear that optimizing for flow might bias us towards tasks that are pleasurable but not necessarily valuable.

Take pride in your ability to consistently focus and apply yourself to hard problems. Enjoy flow when it comes, but don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t.

1. Jeanne Nakamura & Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, The Concept of Flow, form The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, 2009.

Photo by Tobias Carlsson on Unsplash, modified by the author.