Flow

How to Build More Flow Into Your Work Day

As I mentioned a few weeks ago with my How to Take Control of Your Indie Work Career article and video, I was asked to record some material for the now defunct en*theos Academy. The second lecture I recorded is called How To Build More Flow Into Your Work Day. You can see my 10 main ideas below and I expand upon those ideas in the video which you can watch here if it's not showing up for you.

[youtube=://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZT5lfaKUuJM&w=854&h=480]

Introduction

Think about the last time you were doing something that was incredibly engrossing, utterly immersive, and at the complete peak of your abilities. This state is something that psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.” Flow is awesome. When you’re in flow you’re highly focused, highly productive, and completely engaged with the task at hand. Time seems to fly and you look back on the experience as positive and worth doing again.

Obviously, it can be pretty easy to find flow during leisure activities like mountain climbing or playing a video game. Luckily, flow is not reserved just for “fun” activities like that. Work is a great environment to find flow and with a little bit of effort you can find more flow in everything you do.

I’m going to share ten basic ideas that will help you find more flow in your work on a daily basis. The Top 10 Big Ideas

1. Set Clear Goals

A key component to finding flow in anything you’re doing is having a clear goal you’re working toward. If you can make the goal personally meaningful then you’re in an even better position. Without a goal the task will lack structure and direction.

Action tip: Set a daily goal before you start work in the morning and keep it in your field of vision throughout the day (I like putting mine on an index card that I keep clipped to a notebook).

2. Combat Boredom

Csikszentmihalyi argues that flow emerges when we do a task that is challenging and we have the required skills to successfully complete the task. If the challenge of the task is too low and your skills far outpace it then you’re likely to become bored. If you find yourself in that situation, one way you can be more likely to find flow is to figure out a way to make the task more challenging, thus requiring more of your skills to finish it.

Action tip: Try turning a boring part of your job into a game. Give yourself some kind of restriction or challenge that makes it more difficult. I like to check my email using only keyboard shortcuts and seeing how quickly I can get in and out of my inbox.

3. Eliminate Distractions

One nice component of being in flow is that some low level distractions will never even reach your consciousness. People in flow sometimes forget to eat or don’t realize they’re sitting in an uncomfortable position until they leave the flow state and realize their foot is asleep and they’re super hungry. Where you need to be aware of distractions is when you’re first trying to get into flow. A continuous stream of notifications will make it difficult to get deep enough into any task to find flow.

Action tip: Eliminate the vast majority of notifications on your phone and computer. Even better, when sitting down to work on something try turning your phone off or leaving it in another room.

4. Develop Your Ability to Concentrate

At its core, being in flow is a matter of regulating your attention. When you’re in flow you’re using your full attention on the task at hand without letting it spill into other concerns or activities (which is why a lack of distraction is so important). Since flow is so reliant on your ability to concentrate, doing anything to strengthen that ability is a great idea. In my own experience, my meditation practice has helped develop my mind to the point where I can more easily become engaged with the task at hand and find flow in what I’m doing.

Action tip: Try starting a meditation practice. Start with just a few minutes a day and work your way up. A great guide is Mindfulness in Plain English (plus, it’s free!).

5. Build in More Opportunities to Do What You’re Good At

Remember, finding flow requires a balance of challenge and skill. Take stock of what you’re already good at and see if you can get involved with projects that let you use those skills. While flow can be found doing nearly anything, it’s easier when you’re doing something you’re already good at and enjoy doing.

Action tip: Take stock of your strengths with the Gallup StrengthsFinder 2.0 or the VIA Institute on Character Survey. Once you know your strengths, brainstorm ways to use them in your work more often.

6. Seek Challenging Projects

Csikszentmihalyi makes the point that flow requires higher than average skill and ability. You might think that having low skill and low challenge in an activity would also result in flow since the ratio is 1:1. However, Csikszentmihalyi calls this zone “apathy” and it won’t be nearly as engaging as flow. Similarly, doing something in which you have high skill but are presented with low challenge results in “relaxation,” not flow. For flow you need high skill and high challenge.

Action tip: Volunteer for a project that seems just slightly outside your comfort zone. You’ll be forced to develop your skill to keep up and you’ll be much more likely to find flow.

7. Find a Supportive Group

Being in a group of other people can sometimes help you enter the flow state more easily. In my personal experience, this is why I love sharing workspaces with other people who are working intently on things they care about. When I’m around other people there seems to be a sense of “positive peer pressure” that pushes me toward working more diligently and deeply.

Action tip: If you normally work alone, try going to a local coworking space or finding likeminded people to share a workspace with.

8. Be on the Lookout for Anxiety

If you’re feeling anxious about something you’re working on it means the level of challenge is exceeding your level of skill in that domain. In order to move from anxiety into flow you’ll either have to lower the challenge or raise your skill (or a combination of both).

Action tip: Try lowering the challenge by getting additional help from a knowledgeable coworker or relieving external pressures when possible (by getting an extension on a looming deadline, for example). To increase your skill, utilize the vast world of great learning resources on the Internet like iTunesU, Lynda, or en*theos!

9. Have a Plan

A key component of finding flow in anything you do is having a sense of where you’re going and whether you’re headed in the right direction. That’s not to say you need to plot out every single point along the journey, but it does help to have an overall plan. A mountain climber doesn’t pre-plan every single movement while he’s on the mountain, but he also doesn’t just “wing it” with no preparation at all.

Action tip: Spend some time at the beginning of a project thinking about the end goal and figuring out what success might look like. I even like to do this on a daily basis by spending a few minutes planning my day in the morning and thinking about the criteria I’ll use to decide whether or not I’ve had a successful day.

10. Seek Feedback from the Work Itself

To know whether you’re making progress you need to get feedback on what you’re doing. Feedback can take the form of information you get from the task itself. For example, when practicing a musical instrument you can tell if you’re doing well by noticing if you’re hitting the right notes. A mountain climber receives feedback in the form of “not falling off the mountain.” At work it’s probably not quite as obvious as hitting a wrong note or falling off a mountain but you can still get feedback from the task at hand. Is the work flowing smoothly? Excellent! If it’s not, ask yourself what seems to be causing the blockage and figure out ways to work around or eliminate whatever is clogging things up.

Action tip: Check in with yourself every couple of hours and take note of what’s going well and what isn’t going well. Perhaps you keep thinking about something else you should be working on. Take steps to get that anxiety out of your head before going back to work on the original task to make flow more likely in the future.

Call to Action

I think learning about flow and striving to find it in our work is one of the best uses of our time as human beings. When we look back at the end of our lives what we’ll be looking at is the sum total of how we used our limited attention throughout the years. Seeking flow in your work (and beyond) is a commitment to use your attention as wisely as possible.

The List #18

This special weekday edition of The List is brought to you by relaxation, rejuvenation, the letter R, and the complete lack of will to do anything remotely looking like work over the weekend.

Why You Should be Paid For Commitment, Not Hours or Results - 99U

This strikes me as terrible. Am I wrong? I'm much more interested in being compensated for what I can do and what I produce -- not how committed I am to an organization. Yuck.

The Cult of Busy - Medium

Busy busy busy busy.

I've made it a personal point to not respond with the word "busy" when people ask me how I'm doing. It's a cop out answer and it shuts down a conversation.

Why We're Building All Tomorrows - Medium

I've done a little bit of consulting with this company and they are working on some great stuff. They just released an app called Emojiary which is a nice mix of quirky emoji-based journal writing and experience sampling method/Quantified Self personal development. You should definitely check it out.

How to Build More Flow into Your Work Day - Entheos

This is my second entheos class and this time it's all about how to tweak the way you work and think to help you experience greater flow during your work day.

Photo by honbliss

The Psychology of GTD, Part 3: Flow

This is a very special article for me because it unites two of my favorite ideas -- flow and GTD. I originally came to graduate school to study positive psychology because of Csikszentmihalyi's book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. At that time I had already been practicing GTD for a couple years but I hadn't yet realized how the two are united. Over the past year I've come to realize just how closely they are intertwined.

Intro to Flow

I've written about flow many times before so if you're a regular reader of this site you probably already have a good sense of what flow is. For the newcomers, though, I'll give a one paragraph summary of the idea.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi noticed that sometimes people become incredibly engrossed in an activity even when there is no external reward. An amateur mountain climber is not being paid to climb a mountain yet she can become so immersed in the task it seems like time flies by and every last bit of her ability is being challenged by the task at hand. Csikszentmihalyi calls this state "flow" and has elucidated numerous characteristics and components of it. In a nutshell, you need to have clear goals, clear feedback, and a balance of high skill and high challenge in the task at hand to find flow in what you're doing. When you do find flow, whether in work or leisure, you will lose track of everything else because what you're doing requires the absolute limit of your attention.

Being in flow is generally a very positive experience and has been linked to all sorts of great outcomes in terms of work such as job satisfaction and productivity.

Implications for GTD

I think adopting a GTD system makes it easier to find flow in your work. By creating a GTD system for yourself you have to create clear goals, you receive clear feedback, and you facilitate concentration -- all of these are preconditions to experiencing more flow.

Goals

As I wrote about last week regarding implementation intentions and goal setting, Project and Next Action Lists are essentially lists of goals. Each project and each next action has a desired end state, that when reached, represent completion of a goal. GTD forces you to get very clear about what "done looks like." With this clear vision of "done" you can immerse yourself in the task at hand instead of constantly asking yourself what you need to do. You know what you need to do and it's just up to you to get it done.

Feedback

A good GTD system, whether digital, analog or some combination of the two, is purely external. You can see the entirety of your commitments and responsibilities at one time. Like standing on top of a skyscraper you can look down and see how your life is arranged. With your clear sense of organization and goals you receive feedback as you cross items off your lists. You create a sense of progress as you move through your lists finishing tasks and projects.

Concentration

Finding flow requires the ability to concentrate on one thing at a time. It's impossible to find flow if you're constantly being distracted by external or internal interruptions. Adopting GTD requires you to think about what you are and aren't doing at all times. By batching your next actions into similar contexts and seeing the entirety of your commitments at one time you can ensure you're working on the "right" thing. Even if you're feeling some discord about whether or not what you're working on is truly the right thing, you at least know that you aren't forgetting anything because everything exists outside your brain and in your external system. This frees you up to use your concentration on the task at hand, not trying to remember what you need to do or worrying about the decision you've made.

Conclusion

At its core flow and GTD are about the same thing; using your attention deliberately and wisely. When you're in flow you're focusing your attention on one activity or task and immersing yourself in it. Using GTD allows you to make good decisions about where you're directing your attention and frees you up to make conscious decisions instead of purely reacting to what happens to you. It only makes sense that these two concepts are intertwined. If you're looking to find flow in your work more often -- and really, who isn't -- you could do much worse than trying out GTD.


Much of my coaching and consulting deals with helping individuals with productivity and finding more flow in their daily activities. Have you ever thought about working with a coach? You can learn more about what I do here and you're more than welcome to set up a free consultation call with me.

Photo by David Stanley

How Your Work Is Like a Chemical Reaction

There was a period of about three months in high school where I thought I was going to go to college to get some kind of chemistry degree. All that really means is that I can cobble together enough chemistry related facts to make this basic metaphor about chemical reactions, activation energy, catalysts, and doing great work. Join me on this ride down memory lane and into basic high school chemistry!

First, I want you to think about what it feels like when you're super engaged in your work and everything is flowing extremely well. You probably feel like you're being swept along with relatively minimal effort and you're just guiding the overall trajectory of the work. It's a great feeling and it's basically what Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. What if you could get this feeling every single time you sat down to work? How awesome would that be? The problem, though, is figuring out what to do to make that happen more regularly.

Activation Energy

Think about finding flow in your work as being similar to a chemical reaction. In a chemical reaction you may take two seemingly inert chemicals, combine them, and suddenly you have an explosion. Picture vinegar and baking soda. On their own, they aren't anything special. Combine them, though, and you get a volcano. Your work can be like that, too. You may sit down at your computer to work on your latest project and not be feeling particularly motivated or inspired but every once in awhile you're able to find the groove and can explode into your own version of a violent/productive chemical reaction.

In order for a chemical reaction to occur, however, a certain amount of energy has to be applied to get it started. The amount of energy varies depending on the materials involved, but the overall concept is called "activation energy." Activation energy is the minimal amount of energy needed to start a chemical reaction. I think the same idea can be applied to finding flow in our work where the work explodes out of us like a chemical reaction. Sometimes we need a lot of energy to get the reaction started and sometimes we need less.

Activation energy can take many different forms for the typical knowledge or independent worker. Merlin Mann of Back to Work says he has to move his fingers on the keyboard for 11 minutes before any real writing happens. For me, I almost never find flow in my writing unless I spend 10-15 minutes with a clean piece of paper, a pen, and the creation of a mindmap/outline of what I intend to write. Merlin's activation energy is created by moving his fingers for 11 minutes and not worrying about the words that are being produced. My activation energy comes from getting my ideas out of my head and onto a piece of paper.

When you adopt this metaphor of needing activation energy before your work really starts to get going you can lower the expectations to getting started. I think a lot of our hesitancy and procrastination can come from dreading how it feels to be working when that reaction hasn't gotten started -- when we haven't hit the proper amount of activation energy. Instead of being willing to sit there and build up that energy we don't allow ourselves enough time to hit that threshold and get the reaction started.

Catalysts

A catalyst is a chemical that increases the rate of a chemical reaction. Keeping the chemistry metaphor going strong, there are "catalysts" we should be identifying and cultivating when it comes to how we work. One of my favorite catalysts is something called "front end decision making." This is a very simple idea which says figuring out the what of our work is distinct from actually working on our work. When I've clearly thought about what it means to work on a project (essentially giving myself a very discrete and clear next-action) then it's much easier for me to get engaged with the work itself (the chemical reaction starts much easier). Another example of a catalyst in my own work experience is working in an environment that promotes deep concentration and focus. I've been crafting my home office for optimal engagement with what I'm doing and I've found it's much easier for me to find flow when I work there than in a busy café.

A few other catalysts from my own experience include:

  • Knowing my tools (hardware and software) so well that they seem to become an extension of who I am.
  • The practiced ability to concentrate and focus.
  • A deep sense of purpose and meaning behind a task or project.
  • Being well-rested and physically healthy.

When these catalysts are present getting my work done is much, much easier.

The next time you sit down to work try not to be frustrated if you don't immediately find yourself immersed in the task at hand. In order to find that flow you need to invest the proper amount of energy to get the reaction started. Start moving your fingers, start outlining your thoughts, or use any other strategy of your own creation, to start pouring energy into the project. Bring in a couple of the catalysts I mentioned (be well-rested, have a sense of why you're doing what you're doing and/or know your tools inside and out), or develop some of your own, and the next thing you know you'll find yourself and your work set on fire (hopefully metaphorically).


Another catalyst may be reading my guide to better work, Work Better. Signing up for my monthly newsletter gets you a copy of the guide in your digital reading format of choice.

Photo by Kelly Teague

How to Find More Flow In Your Work

Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has a story I've heard him tell on several occasions that illustrates the power of flow. Many years ago he went to visit a brother that he hadn't seen in a long, long time. When Mihaly got to his brother's apartment he was astounded with how many crystals and other geologic specimens were on display. It was like walking into a museum. Eagerly, Mihaly's brother beckoned him over to a microscope to show him his latest acquisition.

Being a dutiful brother, Mihaly looked through the microscope for a few seconds and agreed with his brother that it truly was a beautiful rock. His brother then told him that on the day he received this specimen he sat down at the microscope after breakfast to look at it. When he next looked up from the microscope, he noticed it was much darker outside. Thinking it must be getting ready to rain he got up to close the windows. Only then did he realize that it wasn't getting dark because it was about to rain -- it was getting dark because it was evening! He had sat at the microscope all day with nearly no sense of time elapsing. How is it that Mihaly had looked at the crystal for a few seconds and gotten all the enjoyment he could muster from it while his brother could look at it for hours and seemingly be enraptured with it?

The answer to that question is what I think makes flow such a valuable idea for work. Flow is the concept Dr. Csikszentmihalyi developed to explain the sense of optimal experience we get when doing something that causes us to lose track of time, feel fully engaged with what we're doing, and "lose ourselves" in an activity. To find flow in something you have to match up the amount of skill an activity takes and how much challenge it presents. Since Mihaly had no skill in understanding geology, the challenge presented by the crystal under the microscope was very low. However, for his brother (an expert on crystals) looking at the specimen under the microscope was like reading a book. He tried to determine where the crystal came from, how it was formed, how old it was, and probably countless other aspects of it I can't even fathom because my skill in geology is also nearly non-existent.

When it comes to being more engaged in your work, whether you work for yourself, a company, or just want to get involved with a creative hobby or outlet, learning how to find flow in it is key. Given this story, a great way to develop the ability to find flow is to become more knowledgeable about whatever it is you want to find flow in. The nice thing about flow is that it's a constantly growing target. As you experience flow in an activity you develop skills that upset the skills/challenge ratio which means you need to find greater challenge (which then means you need to develop greater skills to meet that challenge -- and so on).

Was Mihaly's brother in flow the entire time he was learning about geology to the point where he could spend an entire day looking at one rock under a microscope? Probably not. I think Cal Newport's critique of flow in the framework of deep work is fairly valid. Sometimes building knowledge requires you to step outside of flow, to be in a situation where the challenge outweighs your skill to the point of frustration. As you battle to build the skills to fix that ratio you will find yourself in flow more often.

In fact, being in flow is probably a better diagnostic tool than ultimate end-goal in itself. Being in flow means you're in a comfortable place between your skills and the challenge of your environment. In the case of a pleasant hobby then maybe that's enough. But in the context of work, spending too much time in flow might mean you aren't doing enough to push yourself forward. Use flow as a nice reward when it happens but be ready to step outside that comfort zone. Eventually, you'll be surprised by what you can do in the name of flow. What's the equivalent in your line of work of looking at one rock under a microscope all day and being thrilled with the choice to do so? How can you use flow to craft a meaningful career?

Photo by Machine Project

Harnessing Flow to Craft a Meaningful Career

Study Hacks writer and Georgetown professor Cal Newport recently released one of the best books I've read in awhile, So Good They Can't Ignore You. In it Cal describes his "career craftsman" philosophy which is pitted against the "passion hypothesis" (the idea that finding your passion is the key to happiness). Instead, he thinks the way to a fulfilling and meaningful work life is the slow and steady accumulation of expertise and skill in a specific domain. By picking a general domain of interest and then dedicating oneself to systematic improvement in the constituent skills and techniques that make up that domain, Cal postulates you're much more likely to end up with a career you love. This goes against much of the advice peddled by well-meaning adults and advisors to "follow" or "find" your "passion." This tends to set up young people for disappointment and anxiety when a well-defined and socially worthy passion doesn't magically appear in front of them.

Flow and Career Crafting

I think Cal has hit upon something important in his philosophy. Not only does it "feel" right to someone who has been frustrated with his past adherence to the passion hypothesis (i.e. me), but one of the most key concepts in positive psychology fits with it very well. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has carved his niche in the psychological literature with his investigations into what he calls "flow." In the 1970's he began studying people who partook in activities for seemingly no reason other than intrinsic motivation. He looked at rock climbers and painters who weren't gaining fame or wealth but still pushed themselves to physical and mental extremes. How can someone become so wrapped up in a painting or a chess game that they lose track of time or forget to eat lunch? His inquiries into this concept led to the development of flow, or the psychology of optimal experience.

The Balance of Challenge and Skill

One of the best ways to think about flow is to think about the interplay between skill and challenge. If an individual is partaking in an activity that is far more challenging than their current skill level, they are likely to experience anxiety. If they are doing something that is very unchallenging and they possess a lot of skill in the domain, they are likely to be bored or apathetic. There is a "sweet spot" or channel where an individual's skills and the challenge presented by a task are in balance. This is when people are likely to experience flow.

In order to stay in this flow channel an individual must gradually seek out greater challenges as their skills increase. The longer you do something the more you build skills (especially if you're engaging in deliberate practice). If the challenge of the activity remains stagnant then eventually you drop out of the flow channel and experience relaxation, boredom or apathy. However, if you're able to tweak the activity or find a new aspect of it to focus on, you can keep increasing the challenge as your skill improves. I believe this is what Cal is talking about in his career craftsman philosophy. A career craftsman constantly finds ways to uncover new elements of challenge as she develops her skills in a domain.

A Defense of Flow

If you're a regular of Cal's blog, however, you may be asking, "Wait a second, I thought Cal was critical of flow?". Cal is critical of flow because the work that often builds skill is not effortless or time altering or unselfconscious -- all components of the flow state. Instead, it's hard, frustrating, and a constant battle. What Cal describes in the article above is what I believe to be the "arousal" state in the flow model. Arousal is experienced with the perceived challenges are just outside the current skill level. It's not a necessarily pleasant feeling but is instead characterized by a conscious effort of striving to master something very difficult. I think Cal's right, the largest gains to be made in terms of skills are when time is spent in the arousal segment of the flow model. However, this is not a sustainable mode of work. It is something you can engage in for a short amount of time but if you spend all of your productive time in this state you would likely experience burnout and exhaustion before long.

It is the steady balance between arousal and flow, between skill and challenge, that allows the career craftsman to constantly move forward in his or her domain. You don't need a specific passion to experience flow. Indeed, the most powerful aspect of the idea is that it's possible to experience flow doing nearly anything. It's an exercise in attention control that can be practiced and refined. Likewise, the career craftsman can craft a worthwhile career in almost any domain.

The career craftsman needs a myriad of tools available in the hard work of crafting a meaningful work life. I think an understanding of flow theory is an important -- maybe even vital -- tool in that collection.