Do you ever have days that just drag on – that you never seem to get the hang of and you never feel fully productive? You may work all day and get what you need done, but the whole time it’s like pulling teeth to do even the most simple thing. What’s lacking on days like this is flow.
We all have lethargic days, and perhaps every now and again it’s unavoidable, but it certainly doesn’t have to be commonplace. Fortunately, there are a number of simple strategies you can employ to bring about flow and make it an integral part of your routine.
Everybody has heard of an athlete that’s “in the zone” and knows that this is a time of peak performance. Being “in the zone” is essentially the same thing as the experience of flow. Defined technically flow is a state of consciousness in which one becomes totally submersed in an activity. The experience of the state is shown to be enjoyable and meaningful – meaning it’s intrinsically rewarding. During a state of flow time passes without notice and the activity you’re deeply engaged in progresses seemingly without effort. This state is associated with improved productivity and overall job performance. From this it doesn’t take much to believe that flow improves one’s feeling of job satisfaction.
Now, hearing about how wonderful flow is, you probably want to know how you can integrate it into your workday. According to Csíkszentmihályi, there are certain conditions that must be met in order to achieve this ideal state of engagement. First, you must be intensely focused on something you like – you can’t achieve a flow state doing something th
at you dread to even think about. Second, the task must be doable but challenging – too easy and you will get bored and lose focus – too hard and you will get frustrated and lose focus.
To set yourself up for these conditions, train the following habits:
You probably already know when you work best and when you are most focused – if you focus best in the morning before the day gets hectic plan that as your time to get your most important work done. Personally, I find that, while I am not a morning person, I am most productive and focus best on intensive work during this time. So, while it is often a struggle to get myself up early, I know it’s worth it to help bring about the flow state.
People of course have a wide variety of preferences – perhaps you don’t like the quiet of the morning, but the energy of the afternoon. Whatever the time or condition of the day may be – mark it out and make a conscious effort to do important or meaningful work during this time.
Once you’ve established your optimal time the last thing you want to do is waste it on clearing out your inbox. Be strict with yourself and determine what times during the day you can allow yourself your favorite distractions. But be realistic – if you’re overzealous at first and seek to eliminate distractions all together you may fall right back into your old habits. The point is to make a workable plan that you can stick to consistently.
Personally, if I look at my phone for too long, for any reason, I can ruin myself for the day. I’ll be able to set my phone aside sure, but the possibility of achieving flow is gone. My mind becomes unfocused and wants to go everywhere but where it needs to. I prevent th
is by limiting myself to important apps during the day and looking at it only when there is a particular end in mind.
There have been a number of instances in which I’ve ruined a flow state because I forgot an important aspect of my project. I had to leave what I was doing and spent however long getting the necessary materials. By the time I was actually ready to work I lost the focus I had. To avoid this, plan around your optimal time and think ahead to what you need to get your tasks done. But be sure to always do this in advance – the night before, or whenever – just so long as it keeps you from interfering with your flow state.
Not all activities lend well to maintaining a state of flow. Tasks that are too easy or repetitive will quickly become boring and your mind will wander. If the task is too hard you will likely become frustrated – even if not, it will prevent you from getting in the groove of the activity. The goal then is to find the happy medium. You will need to find tasks that require your full attention, but match your skill level.
Perhaps you find that your job is, in general, not very challenging. If this is the case, consider strategies such as job crafting: the process of creatively applying your talents and personality to the job you currently have. This involves finding ways to integrate new elements to your work, or alternating the way you approach the task.
If you have a job that doesn’t require frequent socializing you may imagine flow as an atomized state: you working alone completely focused on the task ahead of you. While this can certainly make up a significant portion of your flow – you will likely not get the most out of your flow state without obtaining feedback or discussing the work at hand. When working on a topic for long it can start to feel dull or repetitive – the way I find best helps me to maintain focus is to do precisely this. Receiving feedback when and how you want is not always an option, but when it is available be sure to make use of it.