While some professions arguably lend themselves more easily to productive flow states, with the right structure, approach and environment anyone can tap into them. It can often involve a rather delicate balancing act between task challenge, skill and motivation, but with consistent, deliberate practice we can get better at accessing our flow. Here’s a brief rundown of what you need to do to regularly get into a flow state at work.
In order to access flow, we first have to understand the conditions that create it. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – who first coined the concept of flow – breaks down the core components of flow as follows:
To get into a flow state at work, we just need to structure our environment and behaviour to enable these flow conditions. While this is much easier said than done, these approaches largely boil down to:
Applying these practices can help us develop what Csikszentmihalyi calls an autotelic personality, which describes a person who “is never bored, seldom anxious, involved with what goes on and in flow most of the time.” It ultimately requires you to develop your approach to flow to such a point that you are able to translate any potential threat into an enjoyable challenge. By no means something you should expect to develop quickly, but a nice long-term goal to aim for.
Thankfully, there are a few simple actions you can take to put these approaches into practice at work. Here are just four of the most effective:
Flow requires unbroken focus and presence on a task – so it can’t happen in a distracting work environment. This applies to both your physical and digital workspace: noisy open-plan offices are obvious obstacles to focus, but digital clutter and notifications also work also serve to distract and fragment your attention.
Take responsibility for your focus, paying attention to what is happening in the moment and enjoying your immediate experience. Try using anti-distraction apps to help bolster your focus when it falters. Always work on one task at a time and consider batching low-value disruptive tasks like email to an hour at the end of the day. It’s also a good idea to capitalize on the motivational force of “grand gesture” and move to a specific quiet location for undisturbed immersive working.
Anyone can get into their flow by conquering the right challenge. That is something that you care about which stretches your skills without overwhelming them. The challenge has to be thoughtfully considered: if it’s too easy, you will become bored and distracted; if it’s too high, you become stressed and anxious. If you find your challenge too easy, you can return to flow by adding difficulty; if it is too hard, learning new skills will help you get back to flow.
Setting goals is essential to all of this. They are an act of taking direct control of your attention, instead of letting it be passively determined by circumstance. Identify the important, meaningful work that drives you forward and set challenging goals for achieving it. These goals should be highly specific and easy to measure, so you can immediately grasp your progress against them – like writing 1,000 words a day, towards the longer-term goal of completing a book or paper.
Flow can’t be snatched at random – it requires space and time for deep concentration, which you need to prioritize above other tasks. Georgetown professor Cal Newport – who coined the concept of “deep work” – believes commitment and consistency is crucial to getting the most out of flow: “three to four hours of continuous, undisturbed deep work each day is all it takes to see a transformational change in our productivity and our lives.”
He proposes deep work as a methodology for regularly accessing flow. It requires you to schedule regular time-boxed sessions free from distraction throughout your week that push your cognitive capacities to their limit. Starting off with 60-90 minute sessions is ideal, but as you practice this form of working more, you should gradually push session length to improve your ability to concentrate – and thus get more from your flow state. Much like the preceding point, each session needs to have a clear objective, and you should regularly measure your deep work performance to check how effectively you’re working.
It may sound counterintuitive, but rest is an important component of flow. So important, that it constitutes two of the four stages of flow credited to Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson. Flow requires an intense level of mental horsepower which is extremely expensive for the brain. Since our attention is a limited capacity resource, we regularly need to pause and take cognitive breathers to help replenish and restore it. Failing to do so will quickly lead to stress, poor quality work and burnout.
Work lots of short breaks – no longer than 15 minutes – into your schedule to your brain recover and recharge itself for flow. Just be careful: what you do on your breaks can have a massive impact on your ability to concentrate when you return to work. Productive breaks help you mentally disengage from work while setting you up to dive straight back in. Avoid any activities which introduce new tasks that you can’t finish within your break, lead to a sequence of distraction or create emotional stress.