The Flow-Oriented Approach to Effectiveness

The world is obsessed with productivity. Everyone wants more for less. We measure our productivity, compare it, stressed by it, and eventually, we are alienated by the never-ending pursuit of being more productive.

Some have already moved forward to a better way of looking at the “more for less” issue by bringing effectiveness to the front and ditching the simplified more for less mindset. To use the term effectiveness, well, effectively, Stephen Covey defined it as the ability to achieve desired results at a given time while improving our capability to produce even better results in the future. The beauty of this definition is that it aims to balance the short term – the desired results in a specified time – with the longer term – our ability to improve over time.

But Stephen Covey’s definition of effectiveness does not free us from the urge to measure and compare. Can we shorten the desired time for achieving some predefined results? Can we produce more results at the same time? And how do we measure our improvement?

In the spirit of the Seven Habits model, I prefer a less measurement-oriented approach. I believe it can help us achieve goals in domains which are less measurable or predictable, but it can also be implemented in more traditional areas that we tend to measure just because we can. What I am aiming for is focused on flow.

The idea is to ask ourselves five simple flow-oriented questions. Each one of them is tightly connected to the others, so we have to make sure to think about them together. This set of questions should be applied to every dimension in which we would like to be effective.

Am I moving forward?

The first question I ask myself at the end of each week is where am I today compared to the previous week? Have I moved forward, backward, or did I stand in place?

The goal, of course, is to move forward, but this requires some explanation. How do I know what forward is? The best way to answer this question is based on a goal I defined for this week. Assuming I have defined a concrete goal for the week in the right direction, I know I moved forward if I managed to achieve it. How to set such a weekly goal is an important issue. We’ll get to that in the fourth question.

There are many occasions in which I don’t achieve the exact same goal I set in advance for the week. Sometimes, I have partial achievements, and at other times I have an entirely different set of results. This doesn’t necessarily mean I wasn’t effective. And that’s why the first question is a flow-oriented question, and not a measurement-based question.

I need to be honest with myself and consider whether the things I achieved during the week brought me to a different, improved, place compared to where I was in the week before. To be able to answer that, I must have a good vision and sense of the direction I should be moving at – an aspect covered by the next question.

You have to trust your gut feeling, and I truly believe most of us can feel if we are moving forward or not, even if we cannot show the measurement to back up this feeling.

Am I in the right direction?

I may feel that I am moving forward, but at the same time, I must constantly verify that what I consider to be forward is indeed in the right direction. The local achievements I aim for every week must be oriented toward a longer-term goal which in turn should be derived from my vision. This is the lighthouse that gives me the sense of direction.

Asking myself am I in the right direction serves two goals. The immediate (and more frequent) one is validating I am indeed moving forward and setting the goals for the next week (we’ll get to that in the fourth question). But from time to time I use this question to verify my longer-term goals are still the right goals for me. I don’t do this every week of course, but it is an important question I must answer every now and then to verify I am not investing a lot of energy in a direction that is no longer the right direction for me.

Am I moving fast enough?

The third question, although it may sound very much measurement-oriented, is also based on how I perceive my flow. If I feel I am moving forward, I ask myself could I have reached this place sooner. The scope of this question is not only the past week. I am trying to analyze if I could have set a different set of interim goals and do a different set of activities to reach the same place more effectively.

If I haven’t moved forward in the past week, I try to analyze the reasons for that: what was holding me back? How could I have anticipated it or overcome it to be able to achieve the goal I set for the week?

The purpose of this question is to set the ground for ongoing improvement of my effectiveness whether I have managed to move forward or not.

Where do I want to be next week?

Next in line is the forward-looking question. Based on what I did in the previous week and how I did it, where would I want to be by the end of next week? This is the question that sets the goal for next week, and there are a few things to consider in that respect.

First, keep in mind that the timeframe for the goal is one week. So, the goal should be very concrete and achievable in such a short time. It can be challenging, but realistic.

The second thing to consider is that the short-term goal I define should be in the overall direction I aim for. I should understand how achieving this goal in the upcoming week will move me one step forward in the right direction. Remember the lighthouse?

What would help me get there?

Last but not least, I am trying to understand how to achieve the goal I set for the upcoming week. Sometimes, the answer is quite trivial. However, there are cases where I need to consider the steps, or the setup and resources required to achieve the goal – a sort of a simple action plan.

This question cannot be separated from the previous one. There will be cases in which defining this plan will convince you to change the definition or the scope of the goal for next week, either because it is too easy to achieve or because it is not realistic to accomplish in one week. So, it is reasonable to have two or three iterations on both questions until you have a clear target and a matching mini-plan.


[clickToTweet tweet=”Having long-term goals is super-important. But the breakdown to weekly-steps is extremely handy.” quote=”Having long-term goals is super-important. But the breakdown to weekly-steps is extremely handy.”]

When you read the five questions we’ve listed, they probably sound pretty trivial. What makes them powerful though is asking (and answering) these questions on a weekly basis.

Having long-term goals is super-important. But the breakdown to weekly-steps is extremely handy. It is a weekly sanity check that I am on track as well as a mini-planning activity. This practice is much more effective than setting a detailed long-term plan, especially for domains in which it is difficult to anticipate and plan all the details in advance. This inherent difficulty should not discourage you. It just means you need a slightly different approach.

You might be thinking that this approach is too blurry – that you cannot manage something without measuring it. I beg to differ. With a good sense of direction and an ongoing flow in that course, you will not only make progress – you can achieve your goals and improve your effectiveness.

When my goals are defined, and I have a good lighthouse to direct me, I trust my gut feeling at least as much as I rely on accurate KPIs. As your goals become more complex and involve a bigger operation, you will probably have to use some classic KPIs as well. But I don’t believe numbers can fully replace the sense of flow in the right direction which is often hard to formalize. A mixture of the two approaches can be a powerful tool in the journey toward realizing your vision.

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