Finding flow at work
We all know that feeling. When work feels effortless, distractions fade to the background, and we lose track of time. It’s amazing what can be accomplished in even just a couple hours in flow. Achieving flow is energizing, productive, satisfying, confidence-boosting.
Yet, getting to flow state is harder than ever. Slack messages ping back and forth. Meetings fragment your time. That email alert ticks up on the bottom of your screen. Workplace culture has fostered a sense of urgency to be responsive and always online.
Those very conditions, which create a veneer of productivity and diligence, are the very same ones that make flow so elusive in the workplace.
Simply put, the modern work environment wasn’t designed with flow in mind.
And the costs are high. When we go too long without achieving flow, we tend to feel stuck – you know that feeling when your wheels are spinning yet you’re getting nowhere? It’s a massive drain on motivation and our sense of purpose.
So what is flow?
The term “flow” was coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who studied positive psychology. He used the word “flow” because so many people described how they feel when they’re in that hyper focused state as akin to flowing along with a river. In those moments, actions and decisions flow seamlessly from one to the next.
During periods of flow, people report skyrocketing motivation, productivity, creativity, innovation and cooperation. Some studies have found activities increase by as much as 500% of baseline.
Put simply by Steven Kotler, “flow is to extreme innovation what oxygen is to breathing.”
What makes flow feel flowy is a combination of experiences, including:
- Total absorption
- High-speed, near-perfect decision making
- Tuning out all other noise
- Time distortion
- Performance spikes, be it mental or physical
Everyone experiences flow in different ways and may describe it using a range of terms, yet the experience is universal. If you tell a colleague that you were “in the zone” they would know what you mean.
Achieving flow at work
I’m a huge advocate of creating the conditions you need to get into flow. Even if your workplace culture may be counter-flow, there are common practices you can adopt.
- Design your day to include protected focused time: Schedule protected blocks of time in your calendar, ideally at a time of day when you feel most productive and able to focus. (For lots of us, this is the morning, but you know yourself best.) In most instances, people are able to focus, and by extension flow, for a maximum of 90-120 minutes. It may take 15 minutes to get into focused mode, so try to allow for buffer time if you can. And if the task requires significant creativity, four hours may be necessary. The important thing is to protect this time. Block it in your calendar, communicate it to your colleagues and boss – simply put, set expectations that you need this time uninterrupted.
- Mute distractions: Turn off email notifications. Logout of chat. Switch your Slack status to Do Not Disturb. Put your phone away. Block social media. Whatever distracts your focus should be turned off. If your team has a culture of high responsiveness, you may want to let people know you’re going off the grid for a set period of time and will get back to them later in the day.
- Set clear goals: When clear goals are set, our brains focus on what needs to be done next. You can then break goals into bite-sized chunks and set and schedule tasks accordingly. When setting goals, think challenging yet manageable. Enough to focus attention in the now, but not too much to cause stress (which will pull you out of flow).
- Don’t force it: Some days we just don’t have it. Perhaps you didn’t get enough sleep, missed your morning workout, skipped that extra coffee, or have something weighing on your mind. Even with time scheduled and a distraction-free environment, your brain just isn’t flowing. It happens to all of us. You can still get work done, even if you can’t get into flow state.
Set yourself up for success with the right tools
In the past, I relied on Google Calendar. Unfortunately though, it alone doesn’t help me make and protect time for getting into flow. Google Tasks didn’t work for me so my to do’s lived outside my calendar, making it hard to know where I should be focusing my time.
I now rely on Morgen. It integrates with my Google Calendar, but is also my universal place to track and schedule all my to do’s, reducing my worry and stress about forgetting something. I now schedule time for my big and demanding tasks in my calendar, helping me get the blocks of time I need to flow.
Danny Hatcher is a Youtuber, blogger, author and self-proclaimed productivity nerd. Fueled by a curiosity in learning and educational science, Danny shares his ideas and observations to change the way we teach, coach and learn. He is currently working towards his PhD focused on the learner’s journey.