Sometimes, getting work done seems like the most natural thing in the world. We have so much energy and are so absorbed in what we’re doing that hours fly by without us realizing. But too often we work in a state of unengaged distraction, willing a creative focus that never arrives. Why does this happen, exactly? In a word: “flow". Here's why mastering your productive flow will change the way you work forever – and how to practically go about it.
What is productive flow?
Essentially, flow is a state of heightened attention towards one task – a period where creativity seems effortless and we perform at our best. We attend intensely to our work and forget about everything outside of it. “In this state, we’re so focused on the task at hand that all else falls away,” explains Steven Kotler in his book Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance; “Action and awareness merge. Our sense of self vanishes. Our sense of time distorts. Performance goes through the roof.”
The power of flow states
Achieving this state of flow has many benefits: one study found that executives are 500% more productive when they’re working in a state of flow! Complex problem solving requires intense cognitive focus, so we tend to produce our best and most rewarding work in positive flow states. Understanding difficult concepts or learning new skills is much more achievable when you’re in a state of flow, making it easier for you to become more well-rounded outside of work, too.
But there are other, more intrinsic benefits to flow. When you’re entirely focused on the present and what you’re doing, your mind is organized and balanced – something that brings surprising harmony. We often don’t grasp how many thoughts are running through our heads until we come out of a state of flow and realize how rewarding it’s been – that’s why deep work and being productive feels so good!
There are also tangible health benefits to having an organized mind. A study by the National Institute on Aging found that, aside from suppressing productivity and creativity, having a disorganized mind causes high stress, chronic negativity and impulsivity, and can lead to other issues like weight gain, heart disease, sleep problems and migraines.
How to master your productive flow
While it all sounds great, reaching a state of flow isn’t always easy. It often takes a bit of experimentation to work out the best set-up for you, and even then you need a good helping of self-discipline and staying power. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to make it easier to access your flow – and stay focused once you’re there.
1. Automate menial tasks
Pesky, mundane jobs eat into the time we could be spending on productive work and often prevent us from focusing entriely on important work – think needing to routinely check your email or log hours to your time sheet. Besides, they frustrate and bore us, sapping our productive energy and engagement. So we need to keep them to a minimum.
Automating unproductive task is one of the easiest ways to master productive flow, and is also pretty simple to go about. Just think about all the low-value, repetitive tasks that get in the way of the job you were actually hired to do – like task and email management, expensing and invoicing, time tracking and reporting. Many of these tasks are essential, but are massively time consuming and don’t make the best use of your skills. Then look into solutions – here are a few of our favourite work automation apps to kick-start your search.
2. Never multitask
When we’re trying to get things done, many of us fall into the trap of multitasking – doing a little bit of one task before hopping onto another. It gives us a sense of control over our vast to-do list, convincing us that we are getting more done than normal. But nothing is more harmful to your productive flow.
Simply put, multitasking “kills your brain”; it makes it impossible to lock your focus on any one task. As such, it’s the No.1 enemy of flow. It takes about 30 minutes to fully refocus every time we swap jobs, meaning a great part of our attention is still located in the previous task – something social scientists have coined “task residue”. Our attention is spread so thinly that it’s impossible to enter into any state of deep focus or flow. So when we multitask, our work will always be “shallow”. To protect yourself from multitasking, try one of these time management techniques – all designed to lock your focus.
3. Stop working with invasive tools
Since flow requires focus, you don’t have any space for interruption. But with our modern work tools, it’s practically unavoidable – an email or Slack ping is enough to make us immediate drop what we’re doing. Unfortunately, your attention is a gold mine for software companies. Many tools tap into our psychology and are so easy to use that they steal us away from what matters most. It’s like a passive or unconscious form of multitasking – our tools distract us, we respond to their stimulus, we lose our train of thought, our flow is broken.
But the solution is simple: stop using invasive tools designed to distract you and look for alternatives that use intelligent automation. Where you can’t cut out tools completely, manage how you interact with them. Rather than reading emails whenever they come in, set times to check them. Set availability hours so people know when they can contact you. Lay out how to use different communication channels, so you don’t have to dig for information or get the same message in multiple places. Get wise to mute and notification controls, so you can decide when to let notifications in. Ultimately, your work tools should require you to spend as little time in them as possible. They’re there to support and simplify your workload – not to add to it.
4. Understand how you actually work
None of the above are possible without thorough self-analysis. If you don’t understand how you work, you’re unable to recognize how you get distracted or what saps your productive focus – and therefore unable to take steps to bolster your flow. Ideally, you want to get a clear picture of what you do in a working day – down to the time you spend in different work tools, meetings, events, documents and locations.
But don’t sweat – this isn’t a new task you have to do yourself. Thankfully, automatic desktop tracking apps can now figure this all out for you. Apps like Timely give you an overview of all your tasks and how long you spend on each without any manual input. It’s all stored in a private timeline that only you can access, providing the full picture of what you get up to. With insights on your workflow and productive behaviors, you can effectively address the ways you work to master and protect your productive flow.