The Paradox Jobs Pose to Flow: Why We Prefer Leisure

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Flow" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What do jobs pose a paradox to flow? How can we enter a flow state doing work that we don’t enjoy?

In his book Flow, Csikszentmihalyi performed a study to determine whether we entered the flow state more at work or during leisure time. As it turns out, participants enjoyed their leisure time more even though they entered the flow state more often at work. This is the paradox jobs pose.

Continue below to learn more about Csikszentmihalyi’s findings.

Our Paradoxical Relationship With Work

To examine people’s relationship with work, leisure, and flow, Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow, paged his study participants at eight random times during the day for two weeks and asked them to report several things:

  • What they were doing
  • How they were feeling
  • How many challenges they were dealing with
  • How many skills they were using

A person was deemed to be experiencing flow when they were dealing with an above-average number of challenges for the week, and they were using an above-average number of skills. Here are the results:

  • Overall, people reported being in flow about 33 percent of the time.
  • During work, people reported being in flow 54 percent of the time.
  • During leisure—including activities such as eating out, socializing with friends, and watching TV—people reported being in flow just 18 percent of the time. (People also reported being in flow less frequently doing leisure activities that required outside resources, such as equipment or energy, versus those that didn’t.)

The more regularly a person was in flow, the more likely they were to report a high quality of experience. When in flow, they described feeling “active,” “creative,” “concentrated,” “motivated,” and “strong.” In contrast, people experiencing apathy—facing a below-average number of challenges and using a below-average number of skills—described feeling, “dull,” “dissatisfied,” “passive,” and “weak.” People were apathetic:

  • 16 percent of the time at work.
  • 52 percent of the time during leisure.

The type of work and role also affected the percent of the time people experienced flow:

  • Blue-collar workers were less often in flow at work (47 percent) than office workers (51 percent) and managers and supervisors (64 percent).
  • Managers and supervisors experienced flow less often in leisure (15 percent) than office workers (16 percent) and blue-collar workers (20 percent).
  • Managers were less likely to be apathetic at work than blue-collar workers (11 percent versus 23 percent).
  • Blue-collar workers were less likely to be apathetic during leisure than managers (46 percent versus 61 percent).

Lastly, as part of the study, Csikszentmihalyi asked people whether they would rather be doing a different activity. Their response indicates how motivated they feel about their current activity. This question revealed an interesting paradox about jobs: When working, people were more likely to say they would rather be doing something else, even if they were in flow; when in leisure, they were content to keep doing what they were doing, even if they weren’t in flow. In other words, even though people reported better quality of experience while working, they still wished they had more leisure time. 

Why People Feel Negatively About Work

There are several ways to explain why someone might strive for more leisure time and less work time, even when work offers higher-quality experiences:

1. The work is too challenging. It’s possible that people’s jobs are so demanding that they prefer to do less-challenging leisure activities, such as watching TV. However, there are plenty of people, whose jobs are demanding, but who still seek out challenging leisure activities, so this isn’t the most viable explanation.

2. The work conflicts with your goals. You might perceive working as being in conflict with your goals in two ways:

  • Work impedes your goals. Even if you enjoy your work in the moment, you may not fully appreciate it if you think it detracts from achieving goals that are more meaningful to you.
  • You work because you have to, not because you want to. If your only motivation to work is because it pays rather than because it’s satisfying, you’ll be less likely to enjoy it.

3. Job dissatisfaction outweighs the benefits of working. Though you may enjoy some parts of your job, these may not be sufficient to balance the parts you dislike. Ideally, you’d work to improve the dissatisfying elements. Here are three categories of dissatisfaction and their solutions:

  • Burnout. When a job demands too much of your attention and you face frequent stress, you might experience burnout. When you’re stressed, it’s difficult to focus and do your best work. What causes stress varies from person to person. For example, someone may find the idea of taking on an additional work project stressful while another will embrace the challenge—it’s about how you perceive the challenges you face. To reduce stress and improve the quality of your experience, change your attitude about the opportunities available to you and take steps to align your work with your goals. For example, implementing a new organization system could help streamline aspects of your work so they’re not so stressful. Strategies to cope with stress will be discussed further in Chapter 9.
  • Little challenge or variety. Challenging experiences are one way to generate flow. Similarly, a role that allows you to do a variety of tasks rather than one repetitive task is more likely to produce flow. How challenging or how much variety you have in your work depends on how you act on the opportunities available to you rather than the role itself—take advantage of the opportunities you have available to shape the role into what you want it to be.
  • Coworker conflict. When you don’t get along with your coworkers, it can sap your energy. To deal with coworker conflict, which can stem from conflicting agendas, it’s best to develop and work on your personal goals while also helping others work on theirs. This is more time-consuming than focusing only on your own goals, but it’s usually more satisfying.
The Paradox Jobs Pose to Flow: Why We Prefer Leisure

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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