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Get into flow to be more productive and get the results you need faster and easier
Have you ever been so engrossed in something that you not only lost track of time, but you seemed to move out of time? You stopped noticing distractions and became totally immersed in what you were doing. You accomplished more than you thought possible, and the task went easier and faster than you expected.
You were in the “zone” — or “flow.”
Named by Mihály Csikszentmihalyi, Ph,D,, in 1975, the concept of ‘flow state’ came from research conducted on athletes, musicians, and artists which aimed to discover what contributed to their optimal performance. Said research shows that flow is characterized by eight indicators:¹
- Complete concentration on the task;
- Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback;
- Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down);
- The experience is intrinsically rewarding;
- Effortlessness and ease;
- There is a balance between challenge and skills;
- Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination;
- There is a feeling of control over the task.
Examples of Flow States
Orchestral musicians focus totally on the notes as they play them; you can see their whole bodies move with the music. Artists become one with their paintings or sculptures.
When a quarterback enters flow, they can completely ignore the 300-pound wall of opposing players barreling toward them and calmly focus downfield for an open receiver. The receiver, too, is in flow, completely focused on where the ball will come from, getting into position to catch it, and dodging opposing players trying to stop him from all sides. The quarterback throws and is pummeled by a half-ton of charging blockers. The receiver fixes his concentration on the arcing ball, adjusts his position, leaps, and catches it.
When you are in flow, focus improves, and you see associations, connections, and possibilities more easily. This leads to greater creativity and improved innovation.
In short, flow states lead to optimal performance.
“The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” — Mihály Csikszentmihalyi, Ph,D
The Benefits of Flow States
Flow does more than improve productivity. Because you are immersed fully in the present moment, at one with the task you are working on, it’s easier to tackle challenges and overcome obstacles. Because you are actively engaged in the present moment, you stop ruminating and worrying. This improves your mood, boosts your feelings of self-confidence, and gives you a heightened sense of self-worth.
But that’s not all. Flow states produce a potent soup of neurotransmitters in the brain: dopamine, norepinephrine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin. This increases productivity, performance, motivation, creativity, and satisfaction.²
Being in flow feels good. So how can you trigger this feel-good state when you need it? You might think the nature of a task would be conducive to flow states, but Csikszentmihalyi’s research shows that the actual task is less important than how you approach it.
You can enter a flow state while washing the dishes, working in the garden, writing an article, building a birdhouse, and so on. The key is discovering and enhancing conditions that contribute to entering flow.
Create an Environment that Encourages Getting into Flow States
While flow can occur naturally when focusing on simple activities, it can also be created by choosing an activity that you find challenging, yet achievable. If a task is too easy, you may become bored — a barrier to flow. On the other hand, if you choose a task that is too challenging, a lack of self-confidence or worry may prevent your entering flow.
To reach a state of flow, a task needs to be testing but manageable. That’s the first step. But there’s more to it than that. Of course, you cannot enter flow if you are distracted, so you need an environment that is conducive to concentration. How should we go about creating this environment? Well, here are a few places to begin:
- Turn off your phone and any notifications on your computer.
- Prepare everything you need for the task at hand, so you don’t have to stop and rummage through a stack of documents for the one you need.
- Try using a technique like the Pomodoro method to set a specific amount of time for uninterrupted focus. Close the door if you can; otherwise, let people know that you are unavailable.
- Wear headphones or listen to music or white noise to cancel out external noises that can yank you out of flow.
- Make sure you have eaten and are hydrated. You can’t concentrate if your stomach is growling, or you’re thirsty.
- Avoid processed foods, sugary and fatty snacks, or heavy meals, which are obstacles to flow states.
Flow States Help You Tackle Large, Hairy Tasks
When you are facing a daunting task like writing a book, preparing a major presentation, creating and leading your first webinar, learning a language, and so on, you want to cultivate a flow state.
Quarterbacks, receivers, and all other team players typically start a game by focusing on the win, but they also focus on actually making each play to gain maximum yardage. Football is a game that is won by inches, so teams do it by breaking down the game into a series of plays. The players focus on the challenge — the play — right in front of them, one play at a time.
This same tactic applies to you. Start by breaking down large, hairy tasks into small steps that provide the right amount of challenge to trigger flow.
It also helps to identify an intrinsic reason for achieving that one step. What do you gain or avoid by completing it? The more enticing the pay-off, the more motivated you are, and the greater the likelihood of entering flow.
To finish on James Clear’s wise words,
“What looks like a talent gap is often a focus gap. The ‘all star’ is often an average to above average performer who spends more time working on what is important and less time on distractions. The talent is staying focused.”