You’re sitting at your desk. The phone rings and breaks your concentration. When you pick it up, you notice it’s nearly lunchtime, and you’ve been working for a few hours, without distractions. While getting up from the chair, your legs feel completely numb. You take stock of the project on your screen and realize you’re almost done. At a quick glance, you also realize that it’s done well 😀 Congratulations, you’ve just experienced the flow state!
The flow is a highly researched and contested concept, where a person is totally absorbed in a challenging yet rewarding activity. In a 1996 interview with Wired magazine, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a psychologist considered its founder, defines the state as:
“Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. 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.”
Debunking myths with facts
The flow state is not a productivity myth. However, there are many misconceptions about getting there. Let’s go deeper into the subject and separate fact from fiction.
Fact: Limit distractions to get into the flow
Unfortunately, distractions are common in workplaces. A Udemy report found that 54 percent of workers aren’t performing well due to distractions and 50 percent say distractions make them significantly less productive.
Distractions impede flow. When working, interruptions limit concentration and move your train of thought away from the task at hand. This also causes lackluster results. A 2005 study emailed participants taking an IQ test and compared the results with a group that wasn’t messaged. The distracted group scored 10 points lower.
To get into the flow, stop multitasking. Limit external distractions like your mobile notifications or an open email inbox. Here’s how to stay calm and keep your focus at work.
Fiction: You can do it with any project
Jeanne Nakamura is another professor and flow expert, as well as a colleague to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. In The Concept of Flow included in the Handbook of positive psychology, Oxford University Press, they confirm that tasks must provide just the right amount of challenge for you to get into the flow.
As they explain, to achieve flow, you must have “perceived challenges, or opportunities for action, that stretch (neither overmatching nor underutilizing) existing skills; a sense that one is engaging challenges at a level appropriate to one’s capacities.”
In essence, you need to have a project that’s just hard enough to engage your mind but not so hard that it stresses you out. It also can’t be too easy that you’re not thinking enough, and your mind wanders.
The professors clarify this: “If challenges begin to exceed skills, one first becomes vigilant and then anxious; if skills begin to exceed challenges, one first relaxes and then becomes bored.”
Even though it seems like a goldilocks scenario, these projects are attainable and can help you get into the flow while doing them. You just have to be working on the right tasks.
Set your day up for productivity by outsourcing the tasks that are below or above your skill set. Focus on the ones that you can do with the greatest efficiency and enjoyment. And on top of being more efficient, you’ll also become a master in task management 🙂
Fact: Exercise can help your performance at work
If you have a regular exercise routine, it can enable you to become more productive than inactive individuals.
Exercise helps take your mind off stressors that can negatively impact your focus when doing other tasks, I.E., stop the flow from happening. Working out also gives you endorphins and energizes you, which leads to better productivity and effectiveness.
Learn more about exercising your way into the flow.
Fiction: The flow state is effortless
Barbara Gail Montero is a professor and author who wrote a brilliant piece on the supposed effortlessness of the flow state. Montero explains that you get into the flow when you master the skills needed to perform that task. She uses the example of ballet dancers and how they make their performance look easy and graceful. While behind the scenes, dancers practice the most fundamental positions repeatedly, so it seems like second nature. It’s not effortless—but the opposite. It’s the effort that gets you into the flow.
As Montero put it, “The idea that expert actions are in a placid state of flow—a state in which things seem to fall into place on their own—is a myth.” In other words, when you know what you’re doing, have experience and practice, that’s when you can achieve the flow state.
It’s also important to note, the flow state isn’t a type of autopilot, where you’re in the zone, and the best outcomes magically happen. Again, Montero came back to the ballet analogy to explain that dancers aren’t lost in the movement during the performance. They’re in deep concentration.
Learn how to be more productive
To get into the flow and succeed with projects at work and in your private life, you need to understand first what the flow is. Remember, the flow state only happens when you’re prepared, challenged just enough, and therefore able to focus and enjoy the work.
External factors like exercise can also help your productivity at work while distractions can hinder your flow state. But you can do it, you can get into the flow and improve your performance.