Have you ever gotten into a project so deeply and focused on it so intently, that you looked up to discover several hours had passed? You accomplished a great deal, and the time seemed to fairly fly by. We even have sayings about this phenomenon: “Time flies when you’re having fun,” and “I’m on a roll.” But psychologists don’t take such occurrences lightly. They’ve put a lot of time and effort into studying this occurrence and have a name for it: “the state of flow.”
When you achieve a state of flow, skill merges with practice and preparation in an almost magical way. Athletes represent the most common examples of this state; they call it “being in the zone.” They put balls and pucks exactly where they want, score baskets, goals, and touchdowns with the greatest of ease, and set records. In the best instances, the athlete in the zone incorporates positive feedback from his or her audience, pushing to even higher levels.
You may not have a large audience to do this for you, but you can take the feedback you do receive from your manager, coworkers, and customers, and in combination with your inherent skills and abilities, reach for a state of professional flow. You may not always attain it, but these five techniques will trigger it more often than not.
1. Quiet down. Although some might argue that recent generations have learned to overcome or even thrive despite what you and I might consider distractions—my three children study with the TV or music on and still manage to pull straight As—it’s usually easiest to fall into the state of flow when surrounded by absolute quiet. If you work in an open-plan office where silence is impossible, find a way to dampen all the sound. Invest in noise-reduction earphones, even if you have to use them with soft music and/or ambient sound. This sets the stage for success.
2. Turn off everything else. You’ll never get in the zone if your phone constantly rings or the email alert goes off twice a minute. Turn them off so you can focus.
3. Singletask. Don’t do anything other than work on the task before you. Do not click on another browser window. Do not start an email. Do not check your phone. If you are tempted to do switch to another task or you think of something, write it down, but don’t DO it.
4. Relax. If worry is jangling your nerves or you’re jazzed up on three cups of coffee, you probably won’t get into a state of flow. At best, you’ll find yourself working through the task just to get it done. Rarely does this result in the sort of inspiration or sheer joy that drives you to maximum productivity of the kind people like Branson, Gates, and Jobs have become famous for.
5. Be mindful. Practicing mindfulness—which some define as the art of living in and focusing totally on the moment—lies at the heart of the psychological state of flow. I don’t mean to sound like a New Age guru, but sometimes the best way to accomplish your work is to treat the present moment as all there is. Be in the now.
Pulling the Trigger
It’s easiest to slip into a state of flow when your ability level and the task at hand roughly match. This makes sense; we always do best what we already know how to do well. But you can also flip over into a state of flow when the task stretches you a bit—say, 5-10 percent more than normal. When you have to struggle a little before you slide into the relaxation of being effortlessly in the zone, you get the best of all possible worlds: not only do you enter the near-magical flow state, you improve your abilities and grow just that much more toward the top of your game.
Don’t wait for the perfect moment to strike before trying to tap into flow. Take the present moment and make it perfect. The best way to start is to implement these tips to trigger your peak performance flow state.
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