You wake up to the monotonous sounds of an alarm. It shines its light on you: 6:30 AM. It’s Monday morning.
What sort of feelings or images does this scenario bring up for you? Is it a sense of motivation and drive to get up and work on your craft? Or perhaps you feel a sense of dread and anxiety about going in today. If you don’t feel engaged and excited to work - that’s ok. Don’t worry - I am not here to tell you that you have failed at life just because you don’t feel excited to wake up early in the morning. That would just be silly.
However, it might be worthwhile to take stock and assess the situation. If there are consistent feelings of anxiety or dread when it comes to your career then it could be time to figure out the root cause. Without periodic review periods, it is easy to fall into some negative patterns of thinking and behaviours that ultimately don’t serve our values and lead us away from a fulfilling life lived with intention.
Our lives and careers can follow very unpredictable patterns and are difficult to predict. At one point in our lives we may feel like we are on the right track, and other times we feel like we are off of it. Sometimes we are bombarded with responsibilities and opportunities; other times we feel bored and unmotivated. This could be by our own design or by unforeseeable external factors. Whatever the case, something that we can do that is fully within our control is to periodically assess our ability to meet the demands of life’s various challenges. Specifically, we need to ask ourselves: is there anything I can do about this right now?
If you have read my book you might be familiar with the challenge-skills balance proposed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It is one of the more important conditions necessary for flow and basically requires there to be a close balance between the amount of challenge you feel in a task (both internally and externally) and the amount of perceived skill you have to meet the demands of the challenge. It looks like this:
Athletes are quite familiar with this. Sports are ripe with flow triggers. But the challenge-skills balance doesn't only work for sports - it can be applied to your career as well.
something that we can do that is fully within our control is to periodically assess our ability to meet the demands of life’s various challenges. Specifically, we need to ask ourselves: is there anything I can do about this right now?
Individuals outside of sports or “performance” based activities often don’t reflect on this enough. They may feel a sense of dread or a lack of motivation come Monday morning but can’t quite pinpoint what it is, or where it is coming from. What I propose is that everyone, regardless of their craft, should take the time to assess their current level of challenge and skill. This will give you a better understanding of what to do next.
The skill component of the graph can be difficult to measure for an individual without a clear definition of their “craft”. Thus, researcher Roberta Neault expanded on Csikszentmihalyi's early work on flow and developed a model that replaces 'skill' with 'capacity'. Capacity comprises external priorities, needs, and resources (such as those of the organization or industry you are in or social support at home) as well as individual priorities, roles, health, and abilities (e.g., physical, intellectual, social). In essence, capacity refers to the sum of your resources available to you - both internal and external - that help you meet the demands of the challenge. Challenge comprises not only the level of difficulty but also how meaningful or motivating a task is to you.
Thus, career professionals have a working model to assess their level of engagement at work. It looks like this:
You might find yourself in these various feelings throughout your career or even daily work tasks. These can be perceived both at a micro-level (day-to-day activities) and a macro-level (taking an average over a few weeks or months). Let’s go over each stage in a bit more detail:
Overwhelmed is defined as high challenge and low, insufficient capacity. It is characterized by anxiety/worry and stress-related burnout. This can lead to disengagement at work due to the mind and body shutting down or avoiding the feeling of anxiety altogether. To deal with overwhelm, we have two options:
1. Reduce challenge
2. Increase capacity
Remember: challenge can be both internal or external. Internal challenge could just be the pressure you are putting on yourself through unhealthy levels of perfectionism. In this case, you would benefit from becoming more aware of how you speak to yourself and figure out where this excessive need to be perfect comes from. Though high standards are important, they can come with a cost when the standards are just relentless and unrealistic.
External challenges are tougher to control. Perhaps your boss is the one with unrealistic standards or does not provide clear expectations or feedback. Or maybe they are just not a nice person! In this case, increasing capacity might be the only option if quitting is not feasible for you. Developing mental resilience and practicing mental skills can help you do this. It’s useful to take lessons from athletes and train the mind to deal with pressure.
Increasing capacity can also be learning to implement better micro recovery strategies, or taking extended time off work. Western societies tend to overemphasize productivity and “hustle culture” which can lead to burnout. Without time off to recover we risk the potential for negative consequences to occur. If you work in high-performance environments where extreme effort is required then you should double down on recovery strategies.
On the other side of the spectrum, one might be feeling Underutilized. This is defined as high capacity and low, insufficient challenge. It is characterized by boredom and apathy and can also lead to disengagement since the individual is simply unmotivated to do the work. In order to move towards engagement the individual in this scenario essentially has one option: Increase the amount of challenge.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Increasing challenge at work may be out of your control. You might have to seek opportunities elsewhere or have a discussion with your manager about restructuring your duties.
But there are some ways we can increase challenge without necessarily changing jobs. One option is to cognitively reframe your work so it aligns with your values and overall mission in life. For example, a janitor working at a hospital might feel underappreciated, but if they reframe their job as a necessary part of the hospital ecosystem it can help them find more engagement. They can learn to appreciate that they have a vital role to play in keeping the hospital clean and free from bacteria and disease that can harm patients. This can motivate them to do a good job and reduce feelings of being underutilized.
Another way to increase challenge is to find opportunities to make work into a flow activity. By reframing work as a game with certain rules and challenges to overcome we break some of the monotony. For example, an assembly line worker can keep track of their personal best time of how fast they work in an hour and try to beat that score. Or a corporate recruiter can set a goal of employing a certain amount of people within a time frame. Incorporating some of the other flow conditions - clear objectives, immediate feedback, and deep focus - can increase the likelihood of flow at work. If we can’t find a balance of challenge-skills at the macro level, we can find it on the micro.
For example, a janitor working at a hospital might feel underappreciated, but if they reframe their job as a necessary part of the hospital ecosystem it can help them find more engagement
Ultimately, we want to work towards being in the Zone of Engagement (flow) more often. The balance between challenge and capacity won’t be perfect or static, and it will take some experimenting to get the recipe right. But individuals who can manage their careers/lives to align challenge with capacity have a better chance of maximizing career/life engagement.
There is research to support this as well. A large body of scientific evidence indicates flow is highly correlated with happiness in the long term. There is a range of psychological benefits such as enhanced well-being and a healthier concept of self that are related to flow. Many studies confirm that experiencing flow is an important predictor of subjective emotional well-being and of healthy aging (see references below). Thus, it is in our best interest to pursue engagement in our daily lives, and since we spend about one-third (30 percent!) of our lives working we need to design a life that ensures this time is spent in flow as much as possible.
Are you finding yourself engaged and in flow on a regular basis? Here are some questions to consider:
Are you experiencing too much challenge, or too little?
How would you rate your level of challenge from 1-10? What about capacity? Using the graph above, mark the spot where these two numbers intersect.
How can you make your current work more engaging?
How can you reduce the amount of internal challenge you place on yourself?
Are the factors affecting challenge within your control?
Am I able to hold off on making drastic changes, or do I need to do this right now?
So if you are finding yourself disengaged at work, whether that is through overwhelm or feeling underutilized, spend some time reflecting on where you find yourself on the challenge-capacity graph. No one else will magically understand what it is that you want or do the work for you. Ultimately you need to take charge of your life and make it authentically yours. As Carlos Castaneda puts it:
“We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same”
Neault, R., & Pickerell, D. (2019). Career engagement: A conceptual model for aligning challenge and capacity. In N. Arthur, R. Neault, & M. McMahon (Eds.), Career theories and models at work: Ideas for practice (pp. 271-282). Toronto, ON: CERIC
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Jackson, S., Thomas, P., Marsh, H., & Smethurst, C. (2001). Relationships between
flow, self-concept, psychological skills, and performance. Journal of Applied Sport
Psychology, 13 ,129–153.
Fritz, B. S., & Avsec, A. (2007). The experience of flow and subjective well-being of music students. Psihološka Obzorja / Horizons of Psychology, 16(2), 5–17.
Ryff, C. D., Singer, B. H., & Dienberg Love, G. (2004). Positive health: connecting
well-being with biology. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 359(1449), 1383–1394.