In a previous article “The Focus Factor”, I outline a framework for different styles of focus. In a nutshell: to thrive in the workplace (and life) we need to flex between the different styles of focus, leverage their strengths and be mindful of their pitfalls. One of these styles of focus is “Flow” or what I refer to as “Immersed Focus”. Flow is the experience of completing losing oneself in an activity such that time and self-consciousness disappears. Flow is seen by many high performers, whether athletes, executives or chess players, as the promise land of focus.
Yet, why is the entry to flow so difficult? Why do so few people experience flow in any consistent way? Flow researchers would argue that you must employ certain practices to create the conditions for flow which I return to below. However the role of personality has a huge impact in either enabling or derailing the flow experience. The relationship between personality and flow experience is fascinating and some interesting research has been conducted on this topic.
There are many personality tools through which to look at the flow experience. Below I provide insights into Enneagram types Ones, Twos and Threes in connection with the three necessary conditions for flow: engaging in a meaning and purposeful activity; inserting degrees of challenge and having a clear goal. I believe that the Enneagram is a more useful framework than other personality tools because it clearly maps out two key elements: a) best practices for growth and b) patterns of thinking and behavior that might disrupt these practices.
Type Ones focus on being perfect. One’s are typically very goal oriented and effective in facing challenges. There are at two obstacles however to One’s entering or staying in flow states: their tendency to be highly self-critical and their tendency to fixate on what’s wrong or broken can often limit them from entering and staying in the moment, and recognizing and accepting what is positive. This is known as “Neuroticism” in the Big 5 tool; research shows that types who have high Neuroticism are less likely to enter flow. When Ones can quiet down this internal, negative chatter, be open to experiencing the moment without judgement and engage in an activity that gives them meaning, then they are more likely to enter flow.
Types Twos focus on connecting with and helping others. This can provide great meaning for Twos however they can also fixate on other’s needs to the detriment of themselves. Not knowing or pursuing what they want and need can be the single biggest roadblock to entering flow states. Two’s often default to a diffused multi-tasking style of focus in which they over-commit to other people’s needs and demands. Having a clear set of goals and setting boundaries are key practices for Twos in general but especially if they want to enter flow; in doing so, what often occurs for Two’s is that they become more internally, self-focused allowing them to then remain and return to flow states.
Type Threes strive to feel outstanding. They are typically very goal and results oriented, competitive and ambitious. This helps facilitate their ability to enter flow states. Research studies actually show that types who are score high in the Conscientious trait (i.e. being goal-oriented, from the Big 5 tool) are more likely to experience flow because they have clear objectives in mind. Threes also like to be challenged and exceed standards which can help them enter flow as well. It is critical however that Three’s maintain focus on meaningful and purposeful activities as they can often get fixated on outcomes that will prop up their winning image to others. This fixation on always appearing successful has to be released as a way to reconnect with what truly gives them meaning and purpose.
Each personality type can enter flow. The barriers to flow however depend on the specific mental and emotional fixations of your type. Identifying and resolving these internal obstacles are key to not just becoming your best self, but going beyond, even if temporarily, the daily limitations of your personality style.