How to get into flow: a simple guide for procrastinators

Erin McGee |    | 

I told myself I’d get into the writing zone at 2:00 pm.

It’s 3:41.

I’d even set a time in my calendar and blocked out two whole hours – solely dedicated to writing a blog post.
Then what?

I went for a walk, had a cup of tea, ate a jam doughnut and managed to get stuck in the abyss that is blog ‘research’ (opening up 27 tabs and proceeding to flick between them, saving them as bookmarks for writing inspiration that I probably won’t open again).

This is a relatively common occurrence for me. If I could put procrastinating on my CV, I would.

However, when I’m not eating doughnuts and lurking around the internet, sometimes an extraordinary thing happens.

My fingers fly between keys at incredible speed; I don’t pay attention to people getting up around the office, I don’t register what playlist I’ve got rolling on Spotify. I don’t even stop to eat or drink.

I’m well and truly in the flow state.

Productivity gurus have hailed the 'Flow State’ as the ultimate life hack that promises to S_upercharge your work! Quintuple your productivity! Ultra-boost your concentration ability!_ And if you’re anything like me, reading these articles is sometimes a form of afternoon entertainment – because surely this sort of mindset is only for non-procrastinators.

The thing is, the flow state isn’t reserved for the hyper-focused. ‘Flow’ is a natural ability of the brain to narrow in, otherwise known as entering an autotelic state.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who recognised and named the mental state, describes an autotelic activity as:

“One we do for its own sake because to experience it is the main goal.”
And that’s what the flow feels like. Effortless, enjoyable. It’s when you take a second to come up for air only to find that hours have passed.

The five key elements of flow:

  1. Extreme focus on a task.
  2. A sense of active control.
  3. Merging of action and awareness.
  4. Loss of self-awareness.
  5. Distortion of the experience of time

The mix of neurochemicals the brain releases in the flow create a euphoric experience that keeps us coming back for more. The five chemicals include norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin – of which there are few instances in which they’re released at once.

As Steven Kotler (journalist, co-founder and director of the Flow Genome Project) explains the effects of the fantastic five in this HBR article:

Norepinephrine and dopamine tighten focus, helping us shut out the persistent distractions of our multi-tasked lives. Endorphins block pain, letting us burn the candle at both ends without burning out altogether. Anandamide prompts lateral connections and generates gestalt insights far more than most brainstorming sessions. And serotonin, that feel-good chemical at the heart of the Prozac revolution, bonds teams together more powerfully than the best-intentioned offsite.

In the flow state, your brain works on overdrive. It processes complex data more smoothly and allows you to think deeply without even noticing – which is why our best work is done in the flow. However, as effortless as it feels when you’re in it and how rewarding the experience is, the act of getting into it is challenging. Especially so for us procrastinators.

So, how do we do it?

Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. What may be a flow trigger (a psychological, social or environmental factor that helps you get into the flow) for some may not be the same for others.
You also can’t sit back and expect flow to turn up without inviting it to the party.

Personally, I’m still unsure of what triggers I respond best to. However, there are a few personal and environmental adjustments that I’ve found give me the best chance of getting into flow.

1. Do some pre-flow training

Meditation and mindfulness training is incredibly beneficial in harnessing your focus. For some, hearing the word mindfulness may conjure up an image of a person sitting on the floor in the lotus position, om’ing profusely – but the benefits far outweigh the stereotype.

Before you try to get into the flow state, a 5-minute life hiatus is seriously powerful. Below I’ll walk (sit) through a mindfulness-based meditation that’s focused on breathing.

Find a comfortable place to sit. This can be in a chair, on the floor, wherever you feel you’ll be most relaxed. Although, try to steer clear of laying down as this may prompt you to doze off. Set yourself a timer, so you don’t have to worry about when to stop.

Notice the points where your body is touching the floor or the chair. How does it feel? Is your body feeling heavy or light, even or uneven? Take a few moments to release any tension in your muscles. Drop your shoulders, lower your chin slightly and let your spine fall in its natural position.

Take a few exaggerated breaths. In for 3 seconds, hold it for 2, then out for 4.

Next, either gently close your eyes or just let your gaze sit wherever it falls.

From here, simply notice your breath as it occurs naturally. Don’t try to force or change it. Notice where the breath begins through the nose, how it travels through the lungs and into the abdomen, and how it lightly fades away.

When your mind starts to wander (and it will, maybe even after just a few breaths) notice where exactly it wants to go. Is it a distressing event, a task you’ve been putting off, troubles with your relationships? It could be as menial as what you’re going to have for lunch. Don’t be frustrated about having these thoughts. It certainly doesn’t mean you’re not meditating ‘properly’. You are giving yourself the chance to notice, accept and move on from your negative thoughts. This is what it’s all about.

Now comes the part where we allow the thoughts to exist wherever they may and train the mind to return to the present. Some people like to internally repeat a word like ’thinking’ or ‘attention’ to give the wandering brain some encouragement.

2. Remove distractions

When I say remove, I go as far as physically removing distractions.
To keep myself from falling prey to task-switching, I move my phone out of a 1-metre radius from myself, move every item off my desk, and close all applications, tabs and notifications that aren’t critical to me getting the work done.

If you’re in an office setting, having a digital and a physical indicator that you’re trying to get in the zone is super helpful to avoid well-meaningtime bandits from breaking your flow.

In the Yarno office, we have one simple rule for supporting each others’ productivity:

If somebody has their headphones on and their Slack notifications snoozed – leave them alone!

3. Stop with all the multitasking

Most tasks that we spend attention on are completely mindless. Answering emails, making calls, communicating on chat, reading blog posts, doodling in meetings, watching videos, scrolling through social media.

These are shallow tasks. Shallow because they require little focused effort and we can switch between them quickly. We may feel productive when we’re performing them, but we’re unlikely to have produced anything of value afterwards.

The human brain is designed to be able to focus on one thing at a time. Only about 2% of the population can actually multitask while performing activities that require cognitive ability. This puts an immense amount of strain on the brain, and for each switch in a task, an equal amount of attention is drawn from the primary task. It’s even been discovered that the average time to draw attention back to a task after distractions is 23 minutes and 15 seconds.

However, rather than trying to cut out the shallow tasks altogether, focus on the one task at a time. If you’re answering emails, just answer emails. If you’re talking to a client, just talk to the client.

4. Make the task mean something

Figuring out the purpose, or the ‘why’ of your task is an irrefutable element of the flow mindset.

Every task doesn’t have to be (and is unlikely ever to be) your life’s true calling, but you’ve got be able to attach some meaning to what you’re doing.

Meaning can be found by having clear goals and immediate feedback, two psychological triggers of flow that Csikszentmihalyi’s deemed crucial.

Clear goals
When you’ve got clear goals, you’re not worrying about what you’re doing next. You can just get it done. Without this extra mind wandering, you can up your concentration, shut out irrelevant information and stay motivated.
Immediate feedback
While clear goals are great for keeping us on track, their effectiveness can be heightened by the existence of immediate feedback. As goals tell us what to do, feedback tells us how to do it better. Being able to adapt and improve in the moment allows us to stay present and focused on our task.

5. Challenge yourself just enough

We’re most engaged in a task when we’re at the sweet spot of being capable of completing it while still being challenged by its difficulty. If it’s not challenging enough, we get bored and distracted. If it’s way beyond our ability, we get anxious, frustrated and freeze. This sweet spot in between is called the flow channel. Visually, it looks a little like this:

This sweet spot keeps our attention grounded in the task at hand. There’s a loose ‘golden rule’ of a difficulty of about 4%, wherein the task should be roughly 4% more difficult than our perceived ability.
The 4% rule brings complexity, though, as people of different skill levels will have varying experiences. A high performer would aim for challenges greater than 4% and miss the flow channel, while low performers may not reach the channel due to feeling discouraged. The solution is for high performers to learn to pace themselves, and low performers to understand that being uncomfortable is all a part of learning and progressing.

Lastly, and most importantly, take a break.

Our brains aren’t cut out for being engaged all the time.
Being in the flow state, though it doesn’t feel like it at the time, is incredibly taxing on our brain and energy levels. It isn’t feasible to expect to be able to be in flow all day, every day. That (while not being humanly possible) is an excellent way to burn out.

Between flow attempts, taking short breaks to have a stretch, 5 minutes of meditation, a cup of tea or go for a walk can help you reset and recharge.
If you are taking a break (or if you’re not) here are some more Yarno resources on multitasking, focus and mindfulness:

Erin McGee

About the author

Erin is Yarno's trusty wordsmith and resident spreader of good vibes. You'll find her chatting up a storm in Mandarin, yelling kiai's at jujitsu and eating dark chocolate at 2pm sharp.

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