What Is Flow and How to Get Into It?

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Wikipedia describes the mindset of “flow” as a state of energized focus.

Imagine that you are an athlete competing in the Olympic Games’ final. You’re concentrated and confident, four years of preparation pounds through your veins. Time dissolves around you and the finish line is the only thing that matters. You are in flow.

A concept, initially developed by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is far from relevant to Olympic champions only. It can be achieved by anyone, and can have significant effects on productivity.

When do you need flow?

As the typical line of thoughts goes, natural flow usually appears when starting something new. You get excited about the fresh projects on your plate and jump into “the zone” with ease. But as time passes, your productivity has a tendency to burn out. Derailed focus can have devastating effects, which means identifying the signs will be crucial. Vera Budean, a certified expert in high performance culture, distinguishes two of them that hold utmost importance:

– You arrive earlier or leave work later. Not because you have too much work on your plate, but because you have no opportunity to concentrate during standard working hours.

– You procrastinate till the very deadline and experience additional stress performing tasks at the very final hours. That’s what Vera calls “using urgency planning” and it’s hardly the best way to make plans.

At the end of the day, if you notice one of the above signs, you should certainly learn how to put yourself back into the flow.

How to get into flow?

There are more than 20 different triggers of flow, but the most efficient one is called “the skills to challenge ratio”. In a nutshell, this ratio can be found on a border between tasks which bore you to death and tasks which frighten you into sheer panic attacks. The whole thing boils down to the fact that you’ll get in the zone on an achievable, familiar, but challenging project. With no doubt, it might be hard to find such a unicorn, and so you may have to create it on your own. Put a new spin on your routine tasks by adding creative details. Ask for help from senior mentors to deal with the potential anxiety you encounter on the more challenging aspect of a project. Strike a balance between boredom and pressure and it won’t be long before you’re in flow.

The whole thing boils down to the fact that you’ll get in the zone on an achievable, familiar, but challenging project.

Working environment is another factor that may bring you into the zone. Unfortunately, the modern shift towards open working spaces may cramp this power. A study from 2013 showed that the benefits of open spaces are significantly diminished owing to the added distractions and obvious inconveniences. To minimize the negative effects of open spaces, some companies offer a system of green-red lights. They show whether your co-worker is buried in work or available for a small chat. Although this system can’t save you from general noise, it helps to avoid direct distractions and that’s a start.

Sitting alone, however, doesn’t guarantee that you will get into the flow. There is still a truckload of distractions, like a broken thermostat, turning your room into a sauna, e-mail notification pop-ups, or a tiny scratchy patch at a back of your sweater, are all examples of distraction risks. To get into the zone you need to nest yourself into a comfortable position, prepare a glass of water, turn off all notifications and focus.

There are also methods of entering into flow during regular meetings. If you tune them right, and if the topic is of a highly perceived relevance to everyone, a collective discussion can bring everyone into flow. One way to achieve this is to ask everyone involved to prepare questions, to answer them as a group, and to analyze the answers. Even if it doesn’t trigger flow, let’s face it, it’s still not the worst way to spend time in a meeting.

Signs that you are in flow

Now, if you manage to explore some of the above methods for flow generation, there’s a good chance that you’ll succeed. There are signs—both physiological and psychological—to indicate that you’re there.

–          Time distortion. You can’t remember if it was a minute or an hour since you’ve started to work.

–          Relaxed concentration. It means that you don’t have to use your willpower to focus—it happens naturally.

–          Higher productivity, better results.

–          You feel there’s a win-win ratio between challenge and mastership. Your task isn’t easy and isn’t stressful—it’s just right.

–          Clear recognition of what you do. You don’t stop to ask yourself is it the right thing to do? You already know the answer.

Good luck.

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