Ah flow. . . What a wonderful thing.
That powerful feeling of complete engagement with the task at hand.
Those moments of pure creativity where you do your very best work.
You glance at the clock. 90 minutes have passed. It only feels like 10 minutes.
All those other thoughts in your head stop. You only have your work on your mind.
This, my friend, is flow. . .
I struggle to think of anything else that gives me such a feeling of fulfilment, contentment and happiness- and it helps me to do my very best work.
Flow is the mental state when a person is fully engaged and immersed in an activity. You’ve experienced flow before. . . Many times in fact. Perhaps you just didn’t know the name.
The biggest indicator of a flow state is that time flies by. Two hours feel like two minutes as work flows out of you.
Being in a flow state is like meditation. The goal of meditation is to focus all your thoughts on one thing- usually the breath. When in a flow state, your full concentration is on the task at hand.
It is in these times of flow, that not only do we ENJOY our work or the most, but we also do our very best work.
During a creative flow, whether it be writing a report, programming, speaking or any form of work for that matter, everything clicks and the work ‘flows’ out of us easily and naturally. It’s during these exceptional moments that we work at our peak capabilities.
And to add icing to the cake, flow state activities make us happy. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Mee-Hi see-CENT-mee-hi), the pioneer of flow, ran an experiment in the early days of his research to try and figure out this phenomenon.
He gave a number of students a pager, and each time the pager went off, the students were asked to record what they were doing at the time as well as how they felt.
Csikszentmihalyi (see-CENT-mee-hi) then paged the students at 8 random intervals throughout the day.
The results were too obvious to ignore. Invariably, the students described being happiest not while relaxing or socialising, but when in the midst of deep work and full engagement with their work.
Doesn’t this sound like something you’d like a lot more of?
I’m going to show you the actionable steps you can implement STARTING TODAY, to enter this state of flow AND STAY in this state for long periods of time so you can do your best work and love doing it.
8/10 = Flow
Csikszentmihalyi (see-CENT-mee-Hi) had this to say about flow-
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
This brings us to our first rule of flow:
The challenge can’t be too hard or too easy – it has to be just right.
If a task is too easy you have too much time to think about what George said at lunch, or what you’ll have for dinner.
Similarly, if the task is too hard, we want to give up and quit. We don’t get enough small wins and feeling of progress that give us momentum and thoughts of self-doubt and frustration fill your head.
Like most things in life, the answer is the middle path. The optimal task has a difficulty of 7-8 out of ten. Difficult enough that we are right at our limits but not so difficult that we can’t get started.
Of course, not all of our work is going to fall in this sweet spot but we can find ways to vary the difficulty.
For example, with tasks that are too hard, use chunking. Ask yourself what the very next step is and do that. Instead of having, “write report”, on your to-do list, take the very next step and write the introduction. Very often when we take a small step like that, it gives us the momentum we need to finish the rest of the task.
And speaking of momentum. . .
Tame the horse early to guarantee flow
Your mind is like a wild horse. You need to tame it to get it to do what you want it to do.
In the morning time, the horse is at its quietest. This is when you need to take control. What you do in the first hour, but more specifically the first ten minutes, is what will decide whether or not you have a good day.
That’s not to say you can’t recover and enter flow later on, but why make it so much harder on yourself?
A fascinating thing about how our minds work is that how we feel NOW, is how we want to feel LATER. Changing takes energy and our lizard brain will try to conserve energy at all costs. If we feel depressed NOW, we will want to feel depressed LATER as that conserves energy. If we feel great now, we will want to feel great later.
During the fist ten minutes, if you can jump out of bed and start your day well, it will make it many times easier to take the right actions in the following ten minutes and you will build more and more momentum.
Momentum at work
Everyone has different ways they like to start their work day. Some people need to quickly sort through a few menial tasks so they can free their minds to think about other things. Other people need to have a quick chat with the other employees.
However, for 90% of people, the best way to start your work day is with the highest priority task.
When you check your email or indulge in instant gratification, dopamine is released into your bloodstream. . . And dopamine is addictive. Once you get that first rush, you start to crave a second. . .
This is why by the end of the day you can’t help but check your email and procrastinate compulsively. The dopamine is calling you.
The longer you can push back that first dopamine rush, the more control you will have over your mind. This equates to higher focus, less distraction, and much more flow. This is why you must start with your highest priority task.
As you complete each task, different chemicals and endorphins are released into your body, which induces a feeling of momentum and flow.
It raises your self-esteem immediately which makes you want to make another sales call or complete another task. This combination makes it many times easier to move on to your next high priority task.
Paper Beats Rock… Flow Beats Resistance
Another caveat of flow and creative work is that it takes a block of at least 90 minutes to two hours to accomplish anything worthwhile. To really enter flow, you must set aside a period of at least a period of 90 minutes.
It takes 15 minutes just to get going and by the 45 minute mark you will hit your peak.
During this time, focus 100% on one task. Close everything else down. It might be painful initially as Resistance– the voice in our head that stops us from doing our work- calls your name. What’s fascinating is that flow is the Resistance killer. Momentum can overpower the lizard brain that will try and hold you back.
Resistance is the test to see if you deserve to enter a flow state. During those first 15 minutes of a task, it might not be enjoyable. You WILL want to quit. You’ll want to check email or do some easier work. . .
The days you enter this battle with Resistance and WIN, are the days you will experience incredible flow.
Resistance is the price of admission to see who deserves to have the high of flow. . .
You won’t enter a deep flow everyday as we are all human and some days Resistance wins. So when you do hit flow, try to push back all other work and any appointments if possible to continue working on your most important work.
Authors are the very best people at flow and doing deep work. When Tim Ferriss writes a book, he might only hit his peak flow every three days, so when he does, he will often stay up all night to get as much from it as he can.
You might not have a best-selling book on the line, but try to get as much as possible out of these periods of peak performance.
How to stay in a flow state-handle the stuff upstream
You’ve taken my advice and have gotten into a deep flow state. Awesome. . . But how do you stay there?
I don’t see this talked about anywhere near enough and I don’t understand it. Actually I do. It’s because it’s sexier to talk and read about willpower and self-discipline than the 80% of things that make the difference.
Sleep, nutrition and exercise. . .
Want to triple your productivity in one day- get a full 8 hours sleep.
Want to have more energy at the end of the day than at the start of the day- go to the gym three times a week.
Want to double your willpower- put down the big mac and have a chicken breast with some veggies.
I’m not slating self-discipline or impulse control. Practice these things and make them stronger. But practice them AFTER you have handled your sleep, nutrition and exercise- which account for 80% of your energy, willpower and self-discipline.
I can’t stress this enough. The techniques I’m giving you to STAY in a flow state, assume that you are handling your health.
Take Tactical breaks
A common reason for losing your flow state, is energy mismanagement. This means not having enough energy from your lifestyle as we just discussed, but also not managing your energy correctly.
Energy is not linear but cyclical.
You might think that it makes sense NOT to take a break when you are in a flow state. After all, you don’t want to break your rhythm and I did tell you to push back your other work when you are in flow. . .
. . . But it doesn’t quite work like that
90 minutes is the longest ANYONE can work before needing a break. Every minute after 90 puts you into a negative. We want to take a break before we hit this point so that we can carry on working at a high level.
The best work to break ratio is 50:10 or 90:20 i.e. take a 10 minute break for every 50 minutes of work.
These breaks aren’t so long that you lose your focus, but long enough to regain your energy. You can stack many of these focus blocks on top of each other and stay in a flow state for most of the day.
Obvious but needs to be said. . .
The science shows us that it takes 15-20 minutes to enter a flow state. Each time you are interrupted, the ‘flow clock’ resets.
If you have something creative that you want to get done, limit distractions. Tell other people not to disturb you until after lunch.
This doesn’t just apply to those of us who work in offices. We live in a world with constant distractions – namely, the internet.
If you can, turn off your internet. If you need to use it, block programs like your email you know you will try and get on. This is where apps like Freedom come in handy.
This is particularly important for those first 15 minutes when resistance is at it’s highest.
Master your equipment
I am a novice programmer. I know spatterings of a few programming languages but I am far from proficient in any.
When I do try to do some programming, it is impossible for me to enter flow. I have to think far too much.
An experienced programmer on the other hand will be able to enter a flow state while programming with ease.
The difference? The experienced programmer has mastery over his tools. While I end up thinking about very basic things, which leads to frustration, the programmer with know-how doesn’t waste time figuring out simple things. They just go into their flow state and produce.
Imagine trying to do some writing but you could never find the letter ‘A’. If you had some magic keyboard that the letter ‘A’ was in a different place each time you needed it. How frustrating would that be?
It’s another form of interruption by having to stop to figure something out. This is why mastery of your equipment is necessary.
What does this mean in a practical sense. If you can’t touch type, learn. If you don’t know your sales presentation perfectly, learn.
Don’t be overwhelmed
There is a ton of actionable advice in this post. Don’t think you need to make every change I’ve listed just to experience flow.
You’ve already experienced flow many times without knowing these techniques. My goal was to bring it to your conscious attention so you could enter this state on demand.
Just focus on changing one thing this week. Do you need to ensure your morning gets off to a good start? How about getting 7 hours sleep instead of 5? Maybe you just need to take more breaks?
Whatever makes sense to you, make one change starting TODAY even just to try it once.
Some of the happiest moments of my life (and without a doubt my best work), have been in this state of flow. That’s what I want you to experience often.