Do you frequently become distracted, bored, or anxious between tasks? Or do you stay absorbed and fully engaged with your work so that things get done in a calm, nearly effortless manner? In other words, do you “get in the zone” and stay there?
We often hear from highly successful, creative, and productive people that they work in that calmly tuned-in state for hours or even days at a time. I’ve been in that blissed-out, hyper-focused state of work at least once in my life: when I was 17 and taking the SATs. It was as though all the correct answers had a spotlight on them, and all I needed to do was just fill in the bubbles with my #2 pencil. The whole time, I was playing Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 in my head–listening to it, and also playing the cello part. Getting into that zone changed my life. But this isn’t just bragging: I think about the fact that there hasn’t ever been a repeat performance of quite that level, and it makes me want to change my process so I can harness my full potential like that much more often than once every twenty-five years or so. (I mean seriously, grrrr….)
It turns out that there is a whole scientific study dedicated to this phenomenon, called flow by its most high-profile researcher, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Flow is characterized by complete immersion in an activity to the exclusion of emotions or self-consciousness. But simultaneously, that activity also induces a feeling of euphoria. Flow state requires active engagement and motivation: simply getting into a calm, relaxed state isn’t flow (though that might be useful for other times!).
When you fall short of the motivation and engagement required for flow, you will experience boredom, apathy, worry, anxiety, or control, instead. If you ever stop in between your tasks and feel a gaping sense of anxiety or unwillingness to move onto the next, yes, I’m so with you.
The good news is that there are ways to actively pursue the state of flow. Here are some things to keep in mind.
1. Identify your objectives.
The first step to getting in the flow is to identify your tasks. Flow isn’t just a magic state in which you do things without even realizing. For instance, if you need to do X, Y, and Z, write those things down at the beginning. Fully understand what you’re in for.
2. Be prepared for the tasks on hand.
Before you enter the flow state, you should have the skills and knowledge to accomplish those tasks. For everyday work, this isn’t an extra step–but if you’re new to any activity (ie coding, or painting) don’t expect to get into the flow just yet. On the other hand, if you already know what to do, have confidence in your ability to get in the flow.
3. Free yourself from distractions.
A very talented photographer I know doesn’t eat on shooting days–not even breakfast before the shoot even begins. Freeing himself from the distraction of food was how he got into the flow state. I do my best thinking work when I’m not dressed to the nines, and most days I wear and eat pretty much the same things. Creating a distraction-free work space is also critical to inducing flow.
The most dangerous distraction, however, isn’t anything external. One of the key aspects to flow is the absence of self-consciousness, almost as though you *become* the activity itself. You must let go of your troubles and anxieties, and internal monologues, and just think about what you’re going to do and how.
4. Use triggers.
There are triggers to opening that meditative, calm, and highly focused state. In my earlier example, classical music was a huge trigger to getting my brain going. (Now I’m thinking I should start listening to symphonies again!) For some people, a little soothing sound at the level of pleasant cafes may be helpful, and others might require library-like conditions for flow. Whatever it is, use something as your trigger so that you click into flow.
4. Quantify your goals.
Set quantitative goals to motivate your flow: a deadline for your task, how long you want to keep working before taking a break, how many words you want to write today, etc. Make your flow be only about accomplishing this with a single-minded focus.
5. Be rewarded by the activity.
According to researchers of flow, a sense of immediate positive feedback is crucial for this state. Translation: If you’re not feeling continually rewarded by your focused and motivated activity, you’re going to lose your steam. In practical terms though, feeling rewarded by your tasks is more subtle than your boss coming by your desk and thanking you for all your hard work every 15 minutes. (Why don’t they do that?) Even if your work is truly valuable, the affirmation won’t come so quickly and so often.
So the sense of reward has to come from the activity itself, rather than external validation. That might mean you derive satisfaction solely from checking off your to-do list, or simply doing something well, efficiently, and on time. But the more you can give yourself that positive feedback, the more you will sustain that flow.
Have you ever gotten into an amazing flow state? What were the conditions that led to that? Please share the secret! 🙂
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Photo: Luis Llerena via unsplash