Flow as the Grand Unifying Theory of Productivity

In the current issue of Strategy & Business magazine, I have a lengthy article examining the substance, as well as the accompanying “sell” of several powerful systems of productivity. The piece examines both the meat of what folks like Peter Drucker and David Allen deliver, as well as some possible external reasons for their broad and enduring appeal. (Apologies that this requires registration.)

I’ve come to believe that at some level the personal productivity gurus are dealing with similar issues as those who teach broader organizational effectiveness. The challenge, in a time of an ebbing entrepreneurial threshold, is to recognize when boundaries SHOULD be drawn. (“Dad always practiced what he preached, and it was just about impossible to tell where his scientific management company ended and his family life began,” state the authors of Cheaper by the Dozen, a terrific book about the need for such boundaries.) The following thoughts are adapted from material that I couldn’t fit into the article, for space reasons. It’s my attempt to recognize where the big schools of productivity overlap with individual systems like Getting Things Done (GTD) which focus on personal activity.

Individual productivity systems that build awareness and purpose for one’s actions, and re-examine how to make these activities simple and transparent, are not just removing the obstacles to doing things more quickly: they are building the capacity to produce at a higher level. They enable you to produce without distractions or roadblocks—to immerse yourself in the work itself and essentially love yourself in the work, rather than the thought of the work.

In a sense, being properly aligned and aware creates the capacity to scale. Indeed, herein lies the unifying principle of productivity, whether individual, or organizational: the idea of flow. David Allen mentions flow in terms of a psychological state described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose classic book of this same title defines the condition as those rare moments when, “instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions when that happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be.”

Flow plays a central role in the Toyota/lean system as well. Toyota managed to achieve greater speed and quality by focusing on the flow of materials, and the linked, reflective capacity of people and parts in the system to auto-correct in the moment. The system shifted its emphasis from raw speed (accomplished by mass) to flow (a quality of insight more than output). In a similar manner, David Allen’s GTD system sees completion and presence as the secret to productivity. Those individuals who have most fully exposed their coming needs, and sorted them into a an overall system which processes them effortlessly, will necessarily achieve greater output, not to mention peace of mind and a greater ability to do more as a result. In his system, fullness counts far more than more-ness.

For Toyota, the quality of flow signals a waste-free, standardized, nearly living system of production. For Allen, flow has more to do with Csikszentmihalyi’s rapture, a state of mind where there’s no wasteful and corrosive thinking about doing: rather, thinking is doing, and the more one rids the mind of distraction, clutter, and doubt, the more one achieves fullness and presence. Enhanced outcome becomes a product of bliss, instead of happiness resulting from having boosted productivity. Optimal begets optimized, rather than the other way around.

Flow, in all these systems, comes down to arriving at the simplest possible process of seamless change and action. (“Possible” indicates that this can always be improved, and allows that this is an ideal state, rarely an actual one.) The essence of getting things done right is not about learning to do more, or better per se. The primary practice to be learned (the habit to be cultivated) is to learn how to not do the things that are unessential.

While this may sound simplistic, I believe that it is far harder than it sounds. Over time we bundle all the unnecessary things we do in life into our daily routine, and only rarely take an instance to examine if we must still do so. It’s like being a parent and adapting new skills to match your child’s developmental needs. It always takes time, since part of you wants your child to slow down growing up. And all these habits, practices, and wasted motion, take a real toll in terms of distraction, useless energy, lost time, and psychic entropy.

The Toyota system places enormous emphasis on eliminating waste in all its manifestations—everything from wasted activity to a surplus of inventory. Likewise the best personal systems should challenge you to question why you do things the way you do—and then enable you to simply do them. Remove that last layer of pure waste, which is the thinking about doing. Just do. To quote from Chogyam Trungpa, “The absence of struggle is in itself freedom.”

Posted by tom at September 28, 2007 12:42 PM

This is an awesome article. My blog, Epic Flow, endeavors to cultivate these same principles. In my blog, the word EPIC refers to an event or happening that is magnificent, actually heroic and even majestic. An epic life is a life of significance, purpose and full potential. The word FLOW means to move, issue or proceed freely, continously and smoothly. Flow is the highest state of human performance and productivity. EPIC FLOW, for me, represents a series of eight things that have an ultimate purpose that I will outline here. Here are the eight elements of my epic flow:

Engage for Fulfillment

Participate by Leading

Interact with Organizations

Create through Wisdom

EPIC FLOW is my means for appreciating life, contributing value and collaborating with other world changers. The ultimate purpose of EPIC FLOW is to make the world a better place than I found it.

Posted by: Herman Najoli on September 29, 2007 02:48 AM

I agree that in the world of production, Toyota has lead a revolution in productivity. Continuous improvement, the focus on the totality rather than an individual task, and the acknowledgment that process is people and not the other way around.

My question is, how can this be applied to the bureaucracy that is modern corporate culture. The modern design of project management involves endless PowerPoint decks, excel spreadsheets, and meeting minutes that no one can possibly hope to decipher.

Where in this ever more fiddly world of detail that looses sight of goals in the reality of design by committee can the principals of lean manufacturing be applied?

I wish someone could tell me--especially before I have to make another PowerPoint deck of "risks and vulnerabilities".

Posted by: David Silverman on October 9, 2007 11:00 PM
Post a comment

Recent Writing

Flow as the Grand Unifying Theory of Productivity

Lowering the Personal Entrepreneurial Threshold

Sufjan Stevens, Entrepreneur

Good Writing Begets Good Writing



Book cover



Read or print the Intro and Chapter 1 .

Read some book reviews at Inc, 1-800-CEO-READ, and the Miami Herald.

Read the publisher's press release.

Visit the companies that Tom discusses in the book

Hear a recent lecture by Tom on the Startup Garden


Read about other books and web sites about starting your own business.


Just Managing – articles that Tom wrote for The Industry Standard and some Business Articles written for Inc., Fortune Small Business, Harvard Management Update, and other places.



To buy directly from me, simply go to Paypal and send 15 bucks to Tom@startupgarden.com. I'll take care of the rest. If you have any questions, email me at that address.

© 2001-2003 Tom Ehrenfeld | Site design by Tim Swan