Achieving Flow

“To do two things at once – is to do neither.”

- Roman Philosopher Publilius Syrus

We know our BPTs.  We schedule rest and recovery into our work week to give us finishing lines to strive for.  And we’ve started implementing positive energy rituals to maximize the quantity, quality, focus and force of our energy.

Next up: how can we enter the zone during our work day?  How can we achieve that blissful feeling of focused attention when concentration deepens and we lose track of time and ourselves?  When we’re less concerned with the result and simply enjoying the task at hand?

According to Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, the key conditions for flow are:

  1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals. This adds direction and structure to the task.
  2. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenge and his or her own perceived skills.  In other words, one must have confidence that he or she is capable to the task at hand.
  3. The task must have clear and immediate feedback, which allows the person to negotiate changing demands and adjust his or her performance to maintain the flow state.

When was the last time you entered the flow state?

Chances are you met the three conditions above.  You had a good idea of the purpose and boundaries of the task.  You also knew what success looked like (#1).  Accomplishment of the task was just beyond your reach (#2).  And you weren’t working in a bubble – it was easy to track your results and progress (#3).

I realized that many of my flow experiences came when playing sports, video games, or solving puzzles – all games!  We need to make our work more game-like to give us the best chance of entering the zone.

One way is to schedule our work day into “ultradian sprints” of 50-80 minutes, which roughly match our bodies’ natural ultradian rhythms during sleep.  Specifically, this means sorting our day into tasks that individually or in combination would take 50-80 minutes of work and then taking 10-20 minutes off between “sprints” to recover.

Scheduling such blocks accomplishes a number of things.  First, it makes work more of a game by imposing structure, challenge, and more immediate feedback to the task at hand.  Second, it forces us to break our tasks into smaller more manageable tasks - the hardest part of achieving flow is getting past the initial inertia and scheduling mini-blocks of work helps reduce the threat of work (we often procrastinate because we are perfectionists or we fear failure, and procrastinating gives us temporary relief from this anxiety).  Finally, when you know the end is coming soon, you’re more motivated to stick with the task and avoid multi-tasking (the opposite of flow), which has been shown to impair mental capacity.

If 50 minutes is too long, try the 25 or 10 minute version – known in productivity circles as the “Pomodoro technique” and "attention dash" respectively -  to break the inertia and get focused.

You can also batch similar tasks (i.e. email) together and give yourself a time limit to respond.  You’ll be amazed by how much more you can accomplish by blocking your time and devoting your attention to one task.