Possessing the power to find a Flow State in everything you do is possibly the single greatest tool for productivity.
My Last Three Flow States
Yesterday I was out in the yard doing some maintenance on my chicken coop. The work was relatively easy but required an above-average level of concentration. I was measuring and cutting wood to size, drilling and screwing. A good chunk of the time, I was crouched under a 3-foot ceiling in a very uncomfortable position. I had six chickens around me watching my every move. Among all this, I found a state of flow. I worked for over 6 hours, got the job done and it felt like just 2 or so hours.
Last week I updated hundreds of products on a Shopify website. Tedious, repetitive work that was open to error due to the amount of checking and referencing required. Despite the mundaneness of the job, I found my flow state after editing just a few listings and made zero mistakes.
A book I recently finished reading – ‘Ikigai’ had a chapter on movement over exercise. The chapter went into fascinating detail on the low-impact exercise and general daily movements of the Okinawan people of Japan. The Japanese region of Okinawa has the highest life expectancy in the world. Whilst the rest of the book was an eye-opening read, the chapter on movement had me finding a flow state. It’s worth noting that this book has a chapter dedicated to ‘flow’, a chapter I didn’t find flow on!
These three recent examples of finding flow are all vastly different activities yet in each case, my mind engaged fully to the task at hand.
How To Trigger A State of Flow?
There are several different triggers that can help you reach a flow state, but it’s important to find the right ones for you. Some common triggers include working to a strict deadline, having a clear goal, working with others and feeling absorbed in the work.
- Working to a strict deadline – If you simply have to finish a task by a deadline, your focus will be greater than if you have no timeframe to finish what you’re doing. Set yourself a deadline and stick to it.
- Having a clear goal means you know what the end result will be. By being able to visualise this end goal, you are more likely to find flow in the pursuit of achieving it. List out what you need to achieve before you begin.
- Working with others can help you to become more absorbed in the task. Being part of a team can make the work feel more purposeful. Or if the job is not able to be shared, find yourself an accountability partner.
- Feeling absorbed in your work means your focus is clearly on this one task. You’ll lose track of time and easily find a state of flow.
In 1990, the Hungarian-American Psychologist – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defined the state of flow as “the subjective state in which a person functions at his or her fullest capacity with their attention so focused on a task, that factors such as fatigue and boredom do not interfere; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will participate for the sheer sake of doing it.”
Flow is often attributed to compelling activities such as playing sports or video games. I’m convinced that you can find flow with almost anything you put your mind to.
Csikszentmihalyi notes that flow “can only be achieved on the basis of an individual’s personal effort and creativity.” So if we want to be able to get in the zone on any task, can we find flow by getting creative with the task?
The Goldilocks Rule
James Clear the author of Atomic Habits writes in his book about ‘The Goldilocks Rule’, a specific example of challenging yourself just enough so your environment for Flow is just right.
“The human brain loves a challenge, but only if it is within an optimal zone of difficulty. If you love tennis and try to play a serious match against a four-year-old, you will quickly become bored. If you play a professional tennis player, you will quickly lose motivation because the match is too difficult.
Now consider playing tennis against someone who is your equal. You have a good chance of winning, but only if you really try. Your focus narrows, distractions fade away, and you find yourself fully invested in the task at hand.
James Clear talks in more detail about The Goldilocks Rule in ‘Atomic Habits’ (chapter 19) and in this blog post.
Getting Creativity to Find Flow
Not all tasks are enjoyable, obviously! By getting creative with the task at hand, we can increase the enjoyability factor of a job, which will help us find a flow state. Here are a few tips on how to do this:
- Break the task down into smaller, more manageable pieces (mini-tasks). This will help you focus and not feel overwhelmed by the entire project.
- Treat each ‘mini-task’ as a milestone. Each time you complete a mini-task, you’ll get a sense of accomplishment which can help motivate you to keep going.
- Remove distractions – what specific things could pull you away from your task?
- Turn off your phone
- Put on noise-cancelling headphones if noise affects you
- Shut the curtains if you’re prone to staring out the window
- Close all tabs and applications on your computer
- Tell colleagues or family to not disturb you
- Go to the toilet before you begin
- Prepare food and drink in advance
- Set a time limit for each task. This will help you stay on track and not get bogged down in one particular area. Come back to a specific area of a task later if you’re struggling.
- Be flexible with your approach. If something isn’t working, don’t be afraid to try something else. The key is to keep moving forward until you find what works best for you.
How I Found Flow With My Tasks
I used various ‘flow-finding’ techniques during my last few flow states. It is important to find the appropriate ‘flow-tools’ for the job. With practice, it will become easier to identify what techniques you need to apply to get a job done with flow.
Yesterday whilst working on the chicken coop I removed all distractions, this was easy being in a place with no communications or electricity. I gave myself no option other than to finish the maintenance that day (strict deadline). By breaking the job down into 4 mini-tasks, I was able to reward myself with small achievements as I went.
Updating the Shopify products required my full attention. My mind had no space for distraction which helped me quickly find flow. The task was naturally broken up into sections (mini-tasks).
Reading the chapter on low-impact exercise in the book ‘Ikigai’ was so fascinating to me, I wilfully fell into a flow-state.
There are many books and articles on the subject of flow. Of course, we can’t find flow without mentioning productivity and creating good habits. These three things are closely linked.
Here are my recommendations for further reading.
- Atomic Habits by James Clear 📖 (book)
- Hyperfocus by Chris Bailey 📖 (book)
- Ikigai by Héctor García 📖 (book)
- Finding Flow: The Psychology Of Engagement With Everyday Life by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 📖 (book)
- Flow State: 11+ Activities to Enter a Flow State of Mind by Elaine Houston (article)
There is countless playlist on Spotify, YouTube etc… with music to help you find a Flow State.
I recently came across this email newsletter which is literally called ‘Flow State’. They send out a daily email with new recommendations.