Flow State at Work: Get into the Zone in 7 Steps and Be More Productive
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Flow State at Work: Get into the Zone in 7 Steps and Be More Productive

Joe Neely Joe Neely Last Updated:
Illustration of a woman with six arms doing office work

When psychologists and productivity experts talk about flow state, they mean the exciting feeling of being in the zone.

I feel this way when I’m writing about my passions and making music. My hands tingle, I feel elated, and time stands still.

You might find your flow while surfing, having a deep conversation, or climbing a mountain.

Some people feel their psychology flow and change when working in perfect sync with their team members – or when producing independent work at a high level of quality and quantity.

Most of us have trouble putting the concept of flow state into words and use pop-culture metaphors to describe this feeling.

However, since the 1990s, psychologists have worked to create a precise flow definition. Today, experts study the elements of flow, its precursors, and various flow triggers.

Experts say only 5% of workers spend their time in a blissful, high-productivity work state. Imagine the impacts on your performance (and your team’s) if this number could be increased!

Follow these steps to trigger your intrinsic motivation – even in situations where you might not expect to find your flow.

#1 – Learn the Basics of Flow Science

Flow psychology begins with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Godfather of positive psychology. The architect of the flow concept in psychology, he identified the many factors that promote to this highly-enjoyable (and profitable) mindset:

  • Balance Challenge and Skill – Choose tasks that suit your (and your employees’) talents and ability levels. As people rise to manageable challenges, they gain the confidence to accomplish harder and harder tasks.
  • Merge Action and Awareness – Talking about flow isn’t flow. Identify the tasks in which you feel the freest – those moments when “time flies.” Flow experiences arise when you take the right kinds of actions.
  • Set Clear Goals – Be aware of your accomplishments, no matter how small. The dopamine hit you get from accomplishing a task helps you do the next, and the next, and the next. As you “stack” tasks, your excitement and flow can grow exponentially!
  • Solicit Honest and Immediate Feedback – Were you really in a flow state, or were you just over-caffeinated? Did that meeting produce as many great ideas as you thought, or did you find flaws in them the next day? Will your team’s great new plan jive with the other departments in your organization?
  • Concentrate on One Task at a Time – Don’t lose focus by multitasking. Instead of mixing flow tasks with boring ones, enforce unshakeable goals to get the most of your high-productivity moments and stay in the flow.
  • Understand the Paradox of Control – When you’re in a flow state, you control even the most difficult nuances of an action with easy grace. For example, if you’re having a rough practice session as a musician, don’t grind through difficult passages and frustrate yourself. Play the pieces you know by heart. Reconnect with your love of music. When you feel the bliss of a flow state coming on, choose a short, manageable goal and get it right!
  • Recognize Time Transformations – Flow states seem to last forever – or pass in the blink of an eye. Imagine having a conversation with a close friend or partner that goes on for hours, but doesn’t feel that way. When you feel this way while working, keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t get distracted and lose this valuable opportunity!
  • Release Your Self-Consciousness – When you feel yourself getting it right and moving at remarkable speeds, accept that your self-judgement mechanisms may kick in. Don’t listen to that voice in your head that says everything has to be perfect. For example, tell yourself there’s a time for creating and a time for editing – at a later date.
  • Autotelic Experience – When you’re working towards your goals (not someone else’s), you feel an intrinsic motivation. People with autotelic personalities seek challenging, high-reward activities. Autotelic means “self-goal”; by seeking empowerment and freedom, you can “turn on” your mind’s potential to invest heavily in your work.

#2 – Love What You Do/Do What You Love

Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake.” When we choose our own tasks, we feel empowered and very willing to work. Our brains know we’re engaging in an activity we value and enjoy – that will bring great rewards.

Today’s cadre of experts includes co-founder of The Flow Genome Project, Steven Kotler.

Flow, human potential, and abundance are all in his wheelhouse.

Kotler highlights the value of doing the things you love, even when you don’t feel like doing anything at all.

Cultivate relationships with people who encourage you to engage in your favourite activities – even during hard times when you’d rather stay in and do nothing.

#3 – Find Something to Love

We don’t always have the freedom to choose our own work schedules.

However, you can kickstart your psychology by reframing your work tasks. You can complete repetitive jobs with an easy grace (and no self-pity) by seeing them as a means to an end. As you complete each task, congratulate yourself on your growing skill and productivity.

Recognize that every step you take, however monotonous, gets you one step closer to your big goals. When you bridge the emotional gap between your current situation and your dreams, you’ll gain a new resilience and excitement for your daily grind.

#4 – Don’t Hold Back

Repression is not the way to virtue. When people restrain themselves out of fear, their lives are by necessity diminished. Only through freely chosen discipline can life be enjoyed and still kept within the bounds of reason.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Author of Flow

Once you find your flow state, don’t let anything stop you. Set aside other tasks. Don’t answer emails. Turn off message alerts. Let your coworkers know you

If you’re working alone, let your coworkers know you’re on a roll and you’ll talk with them later. If you’re working in a group, encourage your team members to focus.

Communicate about your flow state as little as possible – just enough to keep it going. Don’t let your attention wander by talking excitedly about this magical state.

Managing flow takes finesse. For example, if your group gets into a highly-productive state in a brainstorming meeting, tell them to talk about it later. For now, they need to focus on the task at hand and squeeze as much productivity as possible from this experience.

#5 – Take Action

Mindset impacts emotion, which alters biology, which increases performance. Thus, it seemed, by tinkering with mindset—using everything from physical to psychological to pharmacological interventions—one could significantly enhance performance.

Steven Kotler, Author of The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance

The trick is to create these flow states in everyday life – (Kotler says they can quintuple your productivity).

It’s one thing to find your flow on the tennis court or at the gym. It’s another to get into this high-productivity mindset in the workplace.

When seeking flow, look at everything as an experiment.

  • Try out new and unusual brainstorming techniques in meetings.
  • Examine the effects of various scheduling and workflow structures.
  • Gauge your progress (and your team’s) on Toggl’s powerful time-tracking app.

Most of all, remember every action (whether your experiments succeed or fail) moves you closer to your goals. By acting without restraint and judgment, you can enter a blissful—and productive—flow state!

#6 – Remember How You Got There

In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi describes flow work as “at the absolute top of your form – alert, energized, and free of self-consciousness.”

In this euphoric state of complete immersion in an activity, you might not remember the details of how you got there – or how to replicate this experience.

Balance the distraction of analysing your flow state with the good feeling and productivity of simply staying in the zone.

When you’re in the flow, simply recognize this fact (and any possible triggers) without putting too much thought into it. Once this intense work session comes to an end, take a moment (while the experience is still fresh in your mind) to jot down how it felt.

Record the triggers that may have caused this experience and what factors kept you going without distraction.

Before your next work session, revisit your flow journal. Remind yourself of what works and what doesn’t.

Select triggers and techniques to try. And—most importantly—replicate the feelings you experienced in your most recent flow work sessions. 

#7 – Create Flow State Habits

Entering a flow state of mind once in a while feels great. However, to enter this highly-productive state on a regular basis, you need to approach it like a scientist.

If you manage a team, experiment with flow state techniques to increase your employees’ job satisfaction and retention rates. Today’s millennial workers want free and flexible workplaces – and the chance to pursue their passions.

You can attract and keep top talent by studying flow theory, learning your team members’ flow triggers and facilitating their most productive work!

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