Let´s face it, for all of us, some workdays are easier than others. We all have days where the ideas just flow, and we are challenged to type fast enough to memorialize our brilliance. Or we manage to tackle a project we have been dreading with eagerness and energy—finishing it in record time.On the other hand, we have all had days where we just sit at our desks, reading the same piece of paper over and over, unable (unwilling?) to absorb the contents of the latest office report or company memo, even when we know it is important. Or we hit a wall within the first few hours at our desk—instead of at 4:00 pm when most of your colleagues are in the same boat, walking the hallways sparking small talk or surfing the Internet, accommodating the decrease in cognitive sharpness that occurs over the course of the workday.
Considering the fact that both scenarios sometimes occur within the same workweek, resulting in drastically different levels of productivity, the important question is: what makes the difference?
Making it Flow
Apparently, we work better when we wake up refreshed. Sound like common sense? Sure enough, support for this proposition is both anecdotal and empirical .The study emphasizes the importance of ensuring sufficient recovery occurs during nonworking hours, in order to maximize experiences of flow throughout the workday. The researchers described flow as “an engrossing and enjoyable state of mind that occurs when people feel optimally challenged and are fully absorbed in their current activity.” They note that job-related flow has been shown to produce positive organizational outcomes.
They note that prior research has described flow as consisting of nine elements: “(a) a balance between high skills and high challenges (i.e., skill– challenge balance); (b) clear goals; (c) clear and immediate feedback; (d) concentration; (e) a merging of action and awareness, meaning that the activity becomes almost automatic; (f) a sense of control over the action; (g) a feeling that the activity is intrinsically rewarding; (h) the loss of self-consciousness; and (i) the transformation of time, that is, hours seem to pass by like minutes.” They describe flow as “a state of deep enjoyment and total immersion in a task,” and also note that research suggests that flow requires energy. Indeed, interviews with chess players, rock climbers, and surgeons revealed that flow occurred when engaged in “difficult activities that stretched the person’s capacity and involved an element of novelty and discovery.”
Regarding task management, flow involves the successful application of “above-average skills to meet the demands of above-average tasks.” The researchers explain that the amount of flow that occurs on a specific day is created by both the task at hand, and the personal energy a person is able to invest in it. Experiencing flow in the workplace appears to require a combination of energy and ambition. Ideally, it also requires planning our evenings in order to be able to obtain sufficient rest at night.
The Workaholic Hangover
As a practical matter, most people have experienced the difference between arriving at the workplace well-rested and alert, versus dragging in half-asleep, having spent most of the night catching up on work, rationalizing their presence is at least faithful to the famous quote attributed to Woody Allen, that 80% of life is showing up. Percentages definitely operate differently in a demanding workplace.
Regardless of where you work, one factor that creates positive energy during the day is getting enough rest the night before. For many people, however, juggling families or multiple jobs (or both), such aspirational goals are easier said than done. Many people in this situation rationalize they can recover from sleep deprivation or acquire extra energy from a second cup of coffee or a candy bar. Bad idea. Research reveals, however, that performance during the day does not depend on sugar or stimulants, but waking up sufficiently recovered from the day before.
Debus et al. note that previous research establishes that feeling recovered in the morning promotes performance throughout the day, including performance on specific tasks, organizational behavior, and personal initiative. Other research shows that the way someone feels in the morning impacts the way he or she actually experiences the workday. Debus et al. demonstrated that waking up sufficiently recovered impacts flow over the course of the day as a work-related, subjective perception.
Planning Productivity: Making it Flow
Busy professionals who think they can trade sleep for extra hours of work learn the hard way that there is no substitute for rest and recovery. If we are sufficiently rested, twice as much work can be done in half the time. Apparently, workplace productivity depends more on time management than extended hours. Plan accordingly.