Learn to ‘Get in Flow’ to Create Career Joy

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Dr. Jill StrattonDr. Jill Stratton

Ever become so involved in what you’re doing that you lose all track of time? That state is what author and psychology professor Dr. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.” Athletes refer to it as being “in the zone.”

That state correlates positively with happiness. The more our activities take us out of ourselves, the more moments of flow we experience and the happier we are.

If we reflect, we can identify strategies that will encourage flow in our careers. Taking time for reflection can lead not only to happiness but also to joy.

Too many of us look outside of ourselves for happiness when the answer is actually inside, said Dr. Jill Stratton, associate dean of students and director of residential academic programs at Washington University in St. Louis.

Starting her 8:30 a.m. presentation at the 2012 National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) conference in Phoenix by passing around bags of chocolate and playing music, Stratton knows how to create a positive scene.

As a student affairs leader, she works to create and sustain happiness for students. Her presentation was a way to encourage her peers to create it in their own lives.

Getting into flow

People who look inside and reflect can more easily connect their values to their career. Before identifying what activities put you in the flow, define the concept.

The Hungarian-born Csikszentmihalyi, a psychology professor at the Claremont Graduate University in California, defines flow as an “almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness.”

Flow has its roots in the positive psychology movement, which seeks to understand how people thrive. It looks at what is going well and replicates it, rather than looking at the negatives and trying to change them.

People often experience flow when they’re enjoying positive traits including “the capacity for love and vocation, courage, interpersonal skill, aesthetic sensibility, perseverance, forgiveness, originality, future mindedness, spirituality, high talent and wisdom.”

Although the terms “happiness” and “joy” may seem interchangeable, there’s a difference. Happiness is external and fleeting, relying on a transient state and context.

Joy is defined as having a deeper connection with your life’s purpose. Even in times of sorrow and tragedy you can be joyful, even when you’re definitely not happy.

Flow is an active state. You’re fully involved in the experience. The happiness that follows flow … “leads to increasing complexity and growth in consciousness,” wrote Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is linked to “positive emotions, improved performance and achieving a meaningful life.”

Stratton listed nine characteristics of flow:

  • Clear goals
  • Unambiguous and immediate feedback
  • Skills that just match challenges
  • Merging of action and awareness
  • Centering attention on a limited field of stimuli
  • A sense of potential control
  • A loss of self-consciousness
  • An altered sense of time
  • An “auto telic” experience

Auto telic is defined as “having a purpose in and not apart from itself,” often seen in missionaries, scientists and others with an intense focus on one goal. When your skills match a challenge, you enter the flow channel. If there are too many challenges, you become anxious. Too few and you’re bored.

Strategies to get in flow

Using some concrete strategies can bring you there.

Think of the activities you did as a kid that took you out of the here and now. Did you create with PlayDoh or play house? Or spend your days exploring the neighborhood?

To identify other flow experiences, do some free writing, which connects values and goals with your career objectives. Or try meditating, spending time in silence or talking to a trusted advisor or mentor. Another is to answer, “What brings me life?” Flow will happen naturally when you spend more time doing what you enjoy.

Identify your strengths so you can challenge yourself and try something new. An out-of-the-box experience that requires an intense focus will usually bring about flow.

A clue to finding flow is to understand what you value. The philosopher Aristotle believed that there is a purpose or goal for each person’s life and that the ultimate purpose is happiness: a life that flourishes.

Author Parker Palmer said, “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” Listen to what your own inner silence is telling you.

Stratton asked 100 first-year college students to write their response to the phrase “I believe …” Some of the results were funny; others were existential or philosophical.

Professional flow

Does personal flow connect to your professional life? Check by writing your own job description and see where the parts connect. If they don’t, it may be time for a change.

Think about the time you were in flow and ask yourself, “What would my life look like if I spent more time in flow?”

Ask yourself what brings you joy and how can you increase the time doing them? Author Annie Dillard pointed out, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

You can’t be in the flow 24/7 but you can work toward it. Does how you now spend your days reflect what you value? If your values match your work, how can you help your school’s students, staff and faculty to thrive? The little things often make the most difference.

Put money in another car’s parking meter. Buy coffee for a stranger. Research shows that helping others helps us. If you don’t buy the research, just listen to your heart.

Stratton ended her session with a quotation ending the poem “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver: “Tell me what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”


Santovec, Mary Lou. (2012, May). Learn to ‘Get in Flow’ to Create Career Joy. Women in Higher Education, 21(5), p. 19.

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