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Increasing productivity: How do we get calm in the flow?

24/08/2021 2021/08

Increasing productivity: How do we get calm in the flow?

Being in "flow" or experiencing the "flow state" - that's what many workers are working towards in our meritocracy.  We talked to Christopher Buschor and he says: "A flow state is desirable, but absolutely not necessary to be serenely productive, or the path to it is already very valuable". You can read here how this works and what this path can look like.

Hello Christopher, we'd like to start with a few questions to get to know you better. 

What was it like for you? In my childhood/youth there was...  

  • Gameboy or tablet?

“Gameboy, and I spent some time with Pokémon, which were enthusiastically swapped from Gameboy to Gameboy on the school bus via cable with friends. When I heard the term tablet, everyone would have thought of a serving device and could hardly have imagined holding such a flat screen in one's hands with more computing power than all the computers in the household or all the households in the neighbourhood put together.”

  • Walkman or Mp3 player?

“I still remember the Walkman with songs from the hit parade painstakingly recorded on cassette and a lot of fast-forwarding and rewinding. But then I always quickly switched to the latest technology and am currently very grateful how uncomplicated listening to music is now with a single streaming service, always available, whether in the car, living room or smartphone.”

  • Playing outside or sitting in front of the computer?

“As a child, a lot in the garden, at the lake, in the forest and in nature in general, often from morning to night. Unfortunately, the fascination with the digital world was so strong during my youth that "e-sports" temporarily replaced "real sports" and exercise in nature.”

  • What did you want to be when you were a child?

“Excitingly, I would say that as a child, without being able to name a job title for it at the time, I wanted to become a coach & trainer in the field of personal development. The question about the meaning of who I really am, what makes me different from others and how I could achieve "everything" without stress but with ease and with friends was already central during my early childhood. I always wanted to pass on my insights and ideas and philosophise about them, even if my friends at that time definitely had other things on their minds and were not very enthusiastic about them. Accordingly, I essentially made up my own mind about it and at first never thought of dealing with it professionally. After a diversion as a software engineer in the aerospace industry, I have now been exactly where I always wanted to be as a child.”

Our topic today is the contradiction, or perhaps not a contradiction, between productivity and serenity. What does productivity mean to you on the one hand and serenity on the other?

“For me, productivity means achieving something, or as much as possible, with a minimum of effort - in terms of time or otherwise. Of course, without being satisfied with less quality or accepting any other negative side effects. The result can be any kind of physical product, but also of a mental nature, i.e. different ideas, concepts, solutions, insights.

For me, serenity means an inner calm and, above all, being able to think and act calmly even in difficult situations and not getting lost in the situation. For me, being able to lie "calmly" on the beach on holiday is not serenity. I maintain that you can recognise true composure in challenging situations by how much resistance you feel to the situation. Of course, this does not mean that you have to approve of the situation or that you do not want to change it. It just means accepting what is anyway.

I see the basis of meaningful serenity in, firstly, accepting what is. "What is, that is". This sentence is so simple and yet so difficult for most people. Dale Carnegie once compared it to trying to saw sawdust. No one would think of trying to cut sawdust. It has already been cut. And yet so many people try to do just that when they try to change the past that has led, for example, to an unsatisfactory current situation.

Secondly, after the acceptance of the present comes the examination of whether I want to and can change something about it. Many people waste an incredible amount of energy trying to change things or complaining about things they cannot change. As an everyday example, just listen to how many people complain about the weather. Of course, this is comparatively harmless and socially very accepted, but the principle is exactly the same. You are in resistance with what is right now and, on top of that, you cannot influence it - the opposite of serenity.”

What do you think serenity can mean for individual productivity? OR And how does the combination of productivity and serenity work?

“Exactly, how are the two areas connected and where could one see a contradiction? I think the main reason people see a contradiction is that the word serenity is often confused with sloth or laziness. Serenity is NOT about letting everything be the way it is and not wanting to change anything. Of course, serenity does mean paying less attention to certain things and letting them be. Let's say I'm sitting in the office and I'm constantly distracted by all kinds of things, then serenity could mean turning off sources of disturbance or paying less attention to them. Colleagues who are talking loudly, for example, I could either ask them to talk more quietly or somewhere else, or my high level of composure means that they hardly bother me and it is easy for me not to be distracted by them. And that brings me to the combination of productivity and serenity. Here, serenity leads to more productivity. So it's not a contradiction, but the opposite. By reducing distractions and being more relaxed about them, I am more productive because I can concentrate on my actual work. And by being less distracted in my work, there is less stress, I achieve more, overtime is less often necessary and all this in turn leads to more serenity. A mutual reinforcement. Isn't that wonderful?

That was just an example, but it illustrates Productive Serenity very well. Because Productive Serenity is more than the sum of productivity and serenity. The sum would be to work hard, perhaps to let oneself be distracted and disturbed again and again, to want to increase the lower productivity again overall by working overtime, and then to recover from it, i.e. to be calm. Many people practise exactly that. They work hard all day and fall onto the couch in the evening, exhausted and tired. They recharge their batteries on holiday and at the weekend, only to be fit for work again and have their energy robbed there once more. "GSDF - Thank God it's Friday" is what Bavaria's biggest private radio station always used to motivate its listeners for the weekend: So end the exhausting productivity (which was often not so productive at all), recover for two days and then... Oh dear, Monday, serenity adé, the whole thing all over again. It is - hopefully - obvious that this is not a satisfactory solution.”

We have already briefly philosophised about this in advance. Composure often still has a bad reputation in the business environment, or no justification at all. Where do you think this comes from and why is it still the case today?

“In my opinion, there are still a lot of false and very obstructive beliefs, i.e. facts that are assumed to be true and are not questioned. "Real work is hard and exhausting" or "if you have a responsible job and are always deeply relaxed and satisfied, you don't take your job seriously" are typical examples. Especially here in the German-speaking world, I experience this quite strongly. The colleague who is always in a good mood and deeply relaxed is at least suspicious to most people. Unconsciously, some may simply be envious or they are actually convinced that she can only be in such a good mood and relaxed because she is not productive and does not take her work seriously.

I myself have often experienced that colleagues have reacted very irritated to my composure and, even if they didn't say so directly, initially accused me of laziness or indifference. When I frequently asked them what I was doing and what I was working on, they probably expected to catch me out. But when I told them what I had already done, what I was currently working on and what my current challenges were, they were usually very surprised, and in the end they always said: "Oh, it's impressive how calm you can stay, I'd like to be like that too".

The bad reputation of composure, in my experience, often increases as the person's responsibility increases. For people who hold responsible business positions, stress is often seen as a necessary side effect. By the people themselves, as well as in social judgement. Sometimes it is even the case that the deeply relaxed company manager or influential politician seems suspicious: "He must not be working properly! (If he were doing his job properly, he wouldn't be so relaxed!)" At the latest in times of crisis, when a company is on the verge of insolvency or politicians are confronted with extremely difficult situations, an overly relaxed attitude on the part of the people in charge is often little tolerated and interpreted as indifference or incompetence. The situation is quite different for people who have a less responsible job. If, for example, a lorry driver of a construction company is always in a good mood and relaxed, no one will probably accuse him of not doing his job properly. If an administrative employee, whose only job is to sort and forward documents, complains about stress, he will usually be met with little understanding.

You may know that decisions made under stress are often problematic because, among other things, the brain is cognitively less efficient, prepares for fight or flight and considers rational decisions to be unnecessary. So what are the effects of bad decisions by a corporate leader or an influential politician? The effects can be devastating - deciding life and death, war or peace! What are the effects of the truck driver? Well, maybe he arrives late with a load of gravel or at the wrong construction site. That is annoying, but the impact is limited.

So it should be the other way round: Especially people with high responsibility should not be "allowed" stress or even be seen as positive. This often requires a change in thinking. Contributing to this is an essential part of my mission to integrate more productive serenity into the world of work. Stress or a lack of composure is not an expression of productive work - on the contrary!”

When it comes to productivity, many people wish for the much-discussed flow state. What is that actually from your point of view and is it really so desirable?

“I think everyone has experienced this state. After you have spent a long time concentrating on an activity that has challenged you to just the right degree, you look at the clock and wonder how late it is. You have completely forgotten the time, have been absorbed in your activity and have achieved a great deal. On top of that, the state is often characterised by a strong feeling of satisfaction.

Yes, the flow state is really very desirable. But, and I can't stress this enough, the path to the flow state is also very valuable. Some people imagine that at some point a switch would be flipped, that they would suddenly be productive in the flow state, and that it was initially only a matter of getting to this switch. But this can actually be a great hindrance. If the focus is on getting to the switch, then the concentration is no longer fully on the activity you want to immerse yourself in, but on the switch. I also find the term flow state somewhat misleading. It suggests that there is one state of flow. In my experience, however, it is a steady increase in concentration, immersion, freedom from distraction, ... There is no such switch. It's more of a knob that represents a degree of absorption or flow. For practice, I find that something very pleasant. There is no switch to find, the only thing you are allowed to do is to work in Productive Serenity and everything else is the natural consequence, as is the increased and more intense occurrence of flow states, if you want to call it that.”

What do you think it currently takes to be both productive and calm?

“It takes much less than most people would assume. Some clients tell me about various techniques they have read, books they have read, seminars they have attended, etc. and yet many fail to finally be truly productive or calm.

The prerequisite - and many people are not aware of this - is that you allow yourself to be productive and calm and consciously decide to do so. Probably many people now say: Of course I allow myself to be productive and calm, everything else makes no sense. Consciously this may even be the case, but unfortunately many people carry an unconscious resistance within themselves that they "only" perceive as a feeling or not at all. I had just mentioned beliefs and it is precisely from these that this resistance can result. If someone is not ready for the fact that they can work productively and calmly at the same time, their subconscious will do everything to keep it that way. Especially when I work with teams or groups, I cannot, of course, address all individual and often still very unconscious resistance, as I do in personal coaching, but at least the understanding of Productive Serenity and the motivation for a conscious decision to want to work productively and calmly is quite crucial. In my experience, this is already usually sufficient to really bring about a change. But without the understanding and motivation to try different techniques, it is difficult to achieve real change.”

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About the Author
Nadia Döhler | Organisational & HR Consulting
Nadia Döhler
Transformation Consultant

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