The addictive ‘flow’ of an always-online world

Posted by  GeoffBrown —June 14, 2011
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Johnnie Moore writes over at his blog here about research into productivity in the workplace. It resonated with me on a number of levels and this quote from Antony Mayfield got me thinking …

“… digital tools and networks can be used to loosen clogged bureaucracies and ways of working. But if we don’t think about how they are being used, don’t challenge unproductive and corrosive ways of working, they will establish new workplace tyrannies and inefficiencies.”

My use of online media has resulted in many new networks, friendships and business relationships. As my own work habits have changed (dramatically) since blogging, tweeting and Skyping, I have experienced these tyrannies and inefficiencies first hand. The addictive pull of these ways of working can lure are us into thinking that we can multi-task AND remain creative and focused. When we read the brain science and social research, we know that multi tasking makes us less creative and productive. When whole groups of people get in-the-flow of these ‘corrosive ways of working’, it becomes BIG problem.

Getting in the flow at work …

Flow states are often attributed to great sportspeople – who are ‘in the zone’. Researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term ‘flow’ to describe this heightened state of consciousness when people at their creative peak.

“In the flow state … people from all professions describe feeling a sense of competence and control, a loss of self consciousness and they so absorbed in the task that they lose track of time” Keith Sawyer (p. 42) – Group Genius

Not surprisingly, business leaders look for ways they help their staff to enter these heightened states of creativity and flow. Most of what we read about ‘flow’ is that it’s a positive and desired state … right?!

(Oh, and 1 little point I find interesting … at work, Csikszentmihalyi found that the most common place people experienced flow was in conversation with others. Conversation leads to flow and flow leads to creativity. So please STOP bagging Talk-Fests!)

Addictive flow at work …

What about the times when ‘being the in the flow’ works against us? We know that flow can be fabulous, like when listening to music – immersed and so lost in the melody that time disappears!

Well, these descriptions of flow seem to describe the state we can all enter when lost in our ‘always-on-online’ world. Some of us can even forget to drink, eat and breathe when lost in these online tasks!

Whilst many books on our shelves suggest how we can enter the flow state, not many talk about how to get out of addictive flow – when our immersion in the task or behaviour is doing us (and others) harm.

The Power of Reflection …

Reflection is a human, cognitive capacity that allows us to break out of the prison of automatic reactions and patterns of behaviour. Reflection allows us to observe ourselves with objectivity. Reflection helps us to reconnect with others. Reflection is 1 way we can break the experience of flow when in the grip of habitual patterns of behaviour – some online gamers will know exactly what I am talking about here!

In his series of Mindsight books, Daniel Siegel explains the neuro-science that underpins our capacity to reflect. He introduces us to a metaphor he calls the Tripod of Reflection. Here he suggests that there are times when we absolutely don’t want to get lost in the flow! Instead we need to recruit our powers of reflection to pull ourselves out-of-the-groove.

Without any 1 of the 3 legs of the Tripod working, our reflective lens becomes shaky and our capacity to see clearly is diminished. The 3 tripod legs are:

Openness implies that we are receptive to whatever comes to our awareness and don’t cling to preconceived ideas on how things should be – we let go of expectations and perceive things as they are.

Observation is the ability to perceive the self, even as we are experiencing an event. It allows us to perceive the moment by moment interactions and is a powerful way to disengage from automatic behaviours and habitual responses. With observation we can also find ways to alter our behaviours.

Objectivity permits us to have a thought or feeling and not become swept away by it. It allows us to view our own thoughts and feeling as just activities of the mind, and not the totality of who we are.

“So the essence of reflection, which is central to Mindsight, is that we remain open, observant and objective about what’s going on – both inside us and inside others. Without any one of these three tripod legs, Mindsight becomes unsteady and our ability to clearly see the mind, of ourselves or of others, becomes compromised.” Dr Daniel Siegel from his Mindsight writings.

I’ll return to our human capacity to Reflect in my next post, but here’s a question that relates to leadership as we learn to integrate New Media into our workplaces …

“What are we doing to build the capacity of our people and teams to remain open, observant and objective about the stuff that’s going on right now?”

The Tyranny of ‘New Media’ in Workplaces … and the need to start talking about leadership!

In returning to Johnnie’s post, I’d like to bring these ‘flow and reflection’ concepts with me and introduce some other observations about the New Media revolution in workplaces (and I use New Media in place of Social Media … all media is social anyway!).

One of the most common conversations I have with clients is about their inability to access YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and even my own Blog! Their IT departments say it’s all too risky. But, the unspoken reason is the fear of the unknown and mistrust of employees. It’s really a question about leadership!

Many business leaders and managers are fearful that the New Media experiment will result in reduced workplace productivity. Some also fear that employees will start working outside of the organisational silos. The assumption (often unspoken) is, “If we give employees access to Facebook and online collaboration tools, we’ll lose control and they’ll waste time!”. The focus of the conversation I hear is always about the ‘rules and tools’ and never about the leadership. From my viewpoint, it’s the latter we need to focus on. Quite frankly, the ‘rules and tools’ conversations are boring and assume that our work is predictable

Chris Corrigan says something similar here in the context of ‘complexity’. I like this quote from Chris …

“In a world besotted with analysis, this is a tough sell, and yet increasingly I meet decision makers who suspect that something is up with the way they have been taught to reason out every situations.  Rules and tools are increasingly failing us as we become more aware of how difficult it is to manage in complex and chaotic domains.  Principles and practices are much more useful.

As to what those practices and principles are, well, it depends.  And that is an invitation to a jumping off point for diving in and learning together.”

More Questions for Leaders

I like this question as it shifts our focus away from ‘rules and tools’ and onto principles of leadership …

“As leader, who am I being that my organisation cannot be trusted with open access to new media?”

Another question …

“What leadership is needed cultivate a workplace culture where New Media can thrive?”

And …

“What do leaders need to do to integrate New Media into day to day practices?”

My next post will delve a bit deeper into these questions … once I figure out where on earth this post is going!?!?


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