Everyone has experienced it: that moment where everything clicks and you’re able to breeze through a task seemingly effortlessly. The Greeks explained it by saying it was a visit from the muses. Modern science calls it achieving flow state.
As the name suggests, flow state is that peculiar feeling when you are working on a task and everything simply “flows.”
Sometimes referred to as “being in the zone,” this term is usually linked to the work of positive psychologists Jeanne Nakamura and Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. The latter wrote the 1990 book that brought the concept to the mainstream, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
Csíkszentmihályi defines flow in the book as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” In a 2004 TED Talk, he also explains that the focus that you experience in flow state “leads to a sense of ecstasy [and] clarity.” “Sense of time disappears, you forget yourself, you feel part of something larger. [...] what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake,” he states.
The focus that comes with being in the zone, or flowing, has been shown to lead to better performance. This represents an obvious benefit to all working people, but perhaps especially for office workers who are operating on deadlines while facing distractions from coworkers and noisy environments.
If office workers can manage to crack the code for how to enter a flow state, they could more easily crush their daily to do list without sacrificing the quality of their output.
As the aforementioned 2004 study states, achieving a state of flow can help with emotional regulation. Indeed flags being able to control your emotions as one of the top five essential soft skills in the workplace, meaning that flow can help you not only be a more productive worker, but also a more pleasant person to have around the office.
Similarly, students can benefit greatly from learning how to get into a state of flow since focus and concentration are needed to consistently turn in good assignments on time. A 2008 study also found a positive correlation between flow and motivation in students.
But flow state isn’t good just for the practical matters of life. This state of mind has also been found to be linked to creativity, meaning that both creatives who subsist from their art and passionate hobbyists can benefit from it.
Creativity can also help more traditional workers who need innovative problem-solving skills to succeed at their jobs.
This all sounds great, but how exactly do you get into a flow state? While getting in the zone is not as simple as setting up an offering to the muses, it’s also possible to consciously achieve it. The following guidelines for achieving a flow state were drawn from Csikszentmihalyi’s research and insights.
The task at hand should be balanced—not too easy and not too hard. An easy task is bound to bore you, while a task that is too challenging will discourage and frustrate you. A task that requires your attention but that is achievable is the perfect Goldilocks ratio of just right. This is good news for workers and students since the tasks required to succeed at both school and work tend to meet this criterion.
Clear goals and unambiguous feedback are the next requirements. When you know what you are working towards and when to stop, you can focus on this goal and avoid distractions. Keep in mind, however, that goals should be autotelic, or done as ends to themselves.
This means that you’re better off concentrating on the goal for a single task rather than an external goal, even if it’s the reason you started the task in the first place. A football player, for example, will more easily achieve a state of flow by focusing on getting the ball across the finish line rather than focusing on winning the game.
Although not every task at work will be an autotelic experience, chances are that something about the job you have is pleasant and interesting to you. This can help guide you when setting goals.
Busy work will probably not take you to this place of focus, so you can try to get through it as efficiently as possible.
Work tasks related to what you love doing—be it problem-solving, public speaking, writing, playing music—are where you want to harness the power of flow. This is where you naturally shine, so trying to enhance these skills is well worth it.
To this end, it is very important when doing flow state training that you try to limit distractions as much as possible. This means no multitasking, which has been shown to be pretty detrimental to productivity and cognitive function. You can’t be completely lost in a task if something else is demanding your attention.
A specific space solely dedicated to the task can also help with flow, which is probably why artists have ateliers, why CEOs have their own offices, and why Virginia Woolf argued that a woman must have a room of her own if she is to write fiction.
All that said, your mind and interests are unique, so the process of reaching a flow state will be specific to you. Experiment and pay attention to your own patterns in order to recognize when you function optimally and what kind of environment helps you.
As stated above, limited distractions, clear goals, and unambiguous feedback are important when trying to reach a flow state. This is where a time tracker can be a great tool. Here are some of the ways.
A time tracker can encourage you to avoid multitasking, if only because you can’t simultaneously track two tasks. Once you set the timer, you know that you have to concentrate on the task you are tracking for it to be accurate, and this encourages the focus that flow state needs in order to happen.
Time tracking can also help you set clear goals when they don’t occur naturally. For instance, if you’re working on a task that will take multiple days, you can set a goal of working a certain number of hours on it before taking a break, or timeboxing your day.
Likewise, during a workday where you have several, interconnected tasks, setting up sub-tasks for the task can help break it down. Some time tracking apps—like Toggl Track—have a built-in hierarchy that breaks down big projects into smaller tasks. You can then focus on doing one thing at a time, using the tracker to signal to the brain that it is time to focus on that one job.
Unambiguous feedback is another way time tracking can help. For instance, if your goal is to finish writing a report, you can set the timer and then forget about it as you work your keyboard magic.
Once you are done, you will not only have the report written, but also feedback on how long it took you, which can be a great motivator. If you see that concentrating on a single task helps you finish it faster, you will be more motivated to continue the habit.
Finally, tracking time allows you to find out more about yourself. When you have information about your work times spread out in front of you, you can draw conclusions about what your optimal work and flow times are.
You can then set the tasks that you believe are more flow state-compatible to happen around these times. You can also track how interruptions, environment, and other factors affect your ability to reach a flow state, and then use that information for future decisions.
Flow state isn't the same as increasing productivity or time management, but they all exist in a symbiotic relationship with each other. Time management can help you more easily achieve flow, which can increase productivity. In turn, being productive will allow you to manage your time and tasks more effectively.
If you follow the steps outlined above, you may find yourself in a cycle of productivity and fulfillment—much better than the cycle of stress and rushed deadlines that often traps us.
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