The concept of the flow state is one of the more important and elusive abstractions in productivity.
Those who have experienced “getting into the flow” describe a beautiful combination of heightened focus and increased ability to handle complicated or creative work—outside sounds and distractions melt away and all that’s left is a calm and joyous and meditative relationship with work. Sounds pretty great, right?
I have a theory that flow is what many self-professed “workaholics” are really chasing, even if they don’t know it. It’s too good of a feeling, and too many positive things flow from it (pun partly intended), to not want to chase it.
I hope to spend more time and multiple articles in the future detailing the wonders of the flow state, and how best to bring it about. For many, it’s a fleeting experience that comes when we least expect it, and when we’re least thinking about it.
But it’s also much simpler than we make it a lot of the time. It doesn’t have to be this mystical thing.
The flow state is attainable. You know it when you feel it. You know you’ll feel it again.
And while finding it reliably might be a taller and more complex order, and many of us resort simply to chancing upon it in our daily lives, there’s one element we can control: not squandering it when we have it.
Because as much as we all love and strive for flow in our every day life and work, we sabotage ourselves—make it harder. And we may not realize it.
It’s easier to never start
Breaking up your focus with distractions and dopamine producers is a lot like cheating on a diet.
Some people in dieting communities point to the fact that eating less or eating healthily is much easier if they never give themselves a high-sugar or high-sodium snack early in the day. Put more simply, if they never “get on the train” early in the day, it’s easier to stay off for the whole day or longer.
Because once you’ve taken a seat on that rollercoaster, you’re stuck there—following cravings, giving in to silly thoughts like “I should balance that salty snack with a sweet one”. Your chances at success are instantly diminished.
Instead, wait until lunchtime to eat something, and you might be so hungry that a salad tastes amazing.
The same thing applies to those stupid little rectangles in our pockets. We can tell ourselves that there are productive and worthwhile functions on them amidst all the flashing lights and colors, but we know the truth: the net result is negative to our productivity. You can access your email in different ways, like on your work computer. You can use your phone very purposefully and intentionally, to check weather and then go straight to Google Maps. Just try to be mindful of what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it.
Hang on to your dreams
Have you ever woken up, without an alarm, and almost by accident not checked your phone?
You just blink awake, roll over, and get out of bed and walk somewhere in your house without really thinking. Or, you pause there, lying still, watching the sun twinkle through the blinds of your window. In those moments, you’re present in your mind. You sit with the reality and the quiet and the peace of that moment, and you are where you are.
Aren’t those moments gorgeous? Don’t they leave positive memories?
It’s a little insane that what I just described is a rarity for many people. But I had to do it myself, again accidentally, to realize how long it had been since I sat and drank in the quiet of a morning. My routine, like it is for most of us, was to reach over and welcome in a bombardment of media first thing in the morning. And we wonder why we’re distracted and unhappy.
It got to the point where I would have a lovely dream, and want to stay in that world as long as possible, but out of habit upon waking up I would instantly look at my phone. And the dream would be erased. The memory of it entirely gone. Just to be reminded of the person I actually was, and the stressors I was stuck with. Why do we do this to ourselves?
Instead, see how long you can make it in a day before checking your phone. Get through your morning workout maybe, or past your first task at work in the morning? See how things change.
Set a timer
In the middle of a work session, if I feel the edges of flow or focus around the corner, I move to try and “lock in” that feeling. At this point, I know what makes those little fairies of focus scatter on the wind. So my noise cancelling headphones go on, the phone gets placed face down, and my back straightens. That’s my cue to my body and mind that “we’re in this now.”
Then it’s a just a matter of staying there.
I find that I fail the most often when I want to sneak a quick peek—for a burst of color, or dopamine, or what have you—even when I know what’s there won’t be satisfying (or when I just checked it thirty seconds ago).
Just power your way through the urges at first, and they’ll likely start to lose their strength.
I have the best results when I use the RescueTime’s Focus Session feature—the experience of setting up that timer and pressing start is so supportive and satisfying—after all, it was designed for the express purpose of sitting down to work.
Remember that it’s worth it
If all else fails and your motivation starts to wane, remember why we’re doing this.
Flow is, to many, the single best feeling in the world. Your best work comes from these times. It’s a healthy and productive thing, worth chasing.
And as we’ve discussed, flow can extend beyond the office. In a lot of ways, that kind of calm and present peace can be a way of life. Walking around with the same headspace you woke up with, rolling with the punches and staying clear, not being distracted or tossed around by your thoughts or your devices.
If you ever have that feeling, hang on to it as long as you can. It’ll change everything.