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Another day, week, month, or even year is over and you still didn’t achieve your goals. You feel as if you’re hustling all the time, yet, it seems impossible to get everything done.
But you don’t seem to have a choice, so you start from scratch every single day.
We all know how bad it feels to be in that constant doom loop of working hard yet achieving less. And the good news is that there is a way to break that circle.
The secret is called flow.
Did you ever lose yourself in an activity to a point where you lost track of time?
You’ve been so deep into it that new ideas came naturally and you made great progress without much effort? That’s what we call flow state or being in the zone.
Flow states are extremely powerful because they can help you significantly increase your productivity with ease.
And even though most people experience flow states coincidently, you can actually learn how to get in the zone more frequently and make use of that powerful state whenever you need it.
Positive psychologists define being in a flow state as the following:
“A mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”
If you’re in flow, you are fully aware of every action, you have a strong sense of control over the situation, and your perception of time changes.
Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, the author of the book Flow and one of the pioneers of positive psychology, describes being in the zone as the following:
“Flow is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably the previous one.”
Being in flow is a reward itself as it gives us a sense of control over our lives.
When you’re in the zone, you don’t care about problems; you just focus on the task at hand.
And even though being in the zone and experiencing flow states might sound like a coincidence or luck, it’s not.
You can indeed make use of flow states whenever you need them, but you need to be aware of a few crucial rules.
Clarify your goals
Getting in the zone is easier if you know why you’re doing what you’re doing. You should have a purpose, a bigger picture, but also know why a specific task is necessary to reach your goals.
Let’s say you want to experience the flow state for an hour because you need to get some work done: What’s the specific, desired outcome of this work session? Is it writing a blog post? Recording a video? Answering your emails?
If you’re not aware of why you’re doing something, chances are high that you’ll give up too easily and choose instant gratification over long term satisfaction.
Without specific goals, it’s easy to give up and go for short term pleasures instead of moving forward and working on the bigger picture.
How to do it:
Before starting a work session, ask yourself what the goal of that session is. What do you want to get done? And why?
Whatever you do, make sure your work has a purpose and that you desire a specific final outcome.
If you’re working on a big project, break it down into sub-goals so that you can easily track your progress and reach small goals regularly.
Your skills need to match the goal
Flow states are mostly experienced when we do something that is challenging but still matches our skills.
You’ll barely experience flow states if you’re a beginner at what you’re doing as being bad at something isn’t fun or engaging. If you, however, have a mental checklist of everything you need to do to complete your task, you’ll get into the zone with ease.
The most effective way to experience flow states is by balancing your skill level and the difficulty of the task.
If the activity is too simple, you’ll quickly be bored and can’t access flow.
And if it seems too challenging, you’ll likely suffer from anxiety and can’t get in the zone either.
The ideal combination is that your skill level is just a bit below the task's difficulty level so that you’re a little challenged, but not too much.
This allows you to further improve your skills without being overwhelmed by the task itself.
How to do it:
Whenever we face a situation that is neither too easy nor too difficult, we tend to expand our personal limits and reach new levels of development.
To make use of flow states, your skillset needs to match the challenges you face.
Whenever you find an activity unengaging, boring, or exhausting, the problem is that your skill level is either above or below the challenge you face.
Your aim should be to find yourself in the upper right corner of the Flow Chart: Where your skill level is just slightly below the challenge. This will enable you to grow your skills while creating great work based on your past experiences.
“Competition is enjoyable only when it is a means to perfect one’s skills; when it becomes an end in itself, it ceases to be fun.”
— Mihaly Csikszentmihaly
Focus on intrinsically rewarding activities
Flow is a state that is experienced when we enjoy what we do without depending on external rewards.
You can, of course, experience flow states even when you’re getting paid for what you do, but according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, it's going to be easier if you detach the activity itself from the payment.
Intrinsic rewards, however, can help you to be so deeply engaged in your interests that you enter a state of pure flow.
How to do it:
The only way to be intrinsically motivated to do a particular activity is knowing why you do it.
Whatever you do, having a purpose and a sense of importance for the task at hand will benefit you in the long run.
Even if you’re completing a repetitive task, your intrinsic motivation can be based on goals for the future, such as freedom or the safety of your family.
Use the power of regular feedback loops
Flow states require feedback and mini-goals.
Regular feedback on the activity will help you get in the zone and stay there for as long as possible. Without feedback, it’s easy to lose motivation.
The most effective feedback tells you in real-time how well you perform on a specific activity.
If that’s not possible, you can also set mini goals and reach out for feedback regularly.
Unfortunately, most daily activities don’t have feedback loops. That’s why you need to develop creative ways of either giving yourself feedback or receiving it from others.
“Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.”
― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Your openness towards criticism and how you deal with feedback can significantly influence your levels of focus and concentration.
How to do it:
Immediate feedback on your work helps you to stay focused.
Once you’ve set your goals and know what you want to achieve, come up with ideas for feedback loops. You might be able to ask someone for feedback, or you can gamify the whole task and divide it into sub-goals so that you can track your process easily.
Organize your mind
It’s impossible to be in the zone if your mind is continuously wandering and you’re worried about many different things.
Our attention has limits, and it’s impossible to do several different things simultaneously.
If you’re studying for an exam while thinking about what to eat for dinner, you’ll fail to get into a flow state.
Having too many different tasks to complete and not knowing where to start will leave you feeling overwhelmed or even anxious. These internal conflicts hold us back from reaching a flow state.
Being in the zone requires mental clarity, which is impossible if you’re concerned with too many things.
How to do it:
When we look at our life from distance, many things might seem insignificant. And if we examine everything in detail, we might be too focused on the little miseries and forget about the positive aspects. Both options aren’t ideal and the best case is to have a clear, organized mind.
Meditation and journaling are two simple yet powerful ways to free your mind from clutter and stay present.
And if you feel overwhelmed because of too many tasks on your daily to-do list, you can use the Eisenhower Matrix to set priorities and eliminate unnecessary tasks.
By being more mindful and paying attention to the things around you, you’ll be better aware of your environment and learn more about yourself.
Paying attention can even turn the most simple and mundane activities into adventures. Additionally, being more mindful helps us feel more connected to the world around us instead of living in our own heads.
Create a distraction-free environment
Even if you take care of all the steps above, you won’t be able to get in the zone if you’re constantly being distracted during a work session.
If you’re always being disturbed by notifications, coworkers, or the bell, you’ll fail to enter a productive flow state.
To get into a flow state, you need to focus on one specific task without distractions for at least 10–15 minutes.
Science proves that a notification on your phone can distract you as much as a phone call, even if you don’t touch your phone.
How to do it:
If you’re serious about getting into a flow state, you need to eliminate all distractions.
Put your phone away, mute all notifications, close unnecessary tabs, and let your colleagues know that you don’t want to be disturbed for a specific while.
If you’re working in a crowded office or a public space, you can also use noise-canceling headphones.
Another great way to avoid distractions and put yourself into a flow state is by listening to repetitive, instrumental music. This helps you to eliminate external distractions and get into the zone quicker.
When listening to music, make sure you’re listening to the same sounds on repeat so that your brain isn’t distracted by getting used to new sounds.
Hydrate your body
Did you know that more than 70% of all Americans are chronically dehydrated?
Drinking enough water is one of the simplest yet most ignored ways to increase your performance and wellbeing.
75% of your brain consists of water and if you’re dehydrated, you’ll struggle to get into the zone and experience a flow state.
Being dehydrated will leave you feeling sluggish, unfocused, and tired. These are not good conditions for highly focused work.
How to do it:
Carry a reusable water bottle with you wherever you go, add your favorite fruits for more flavor and show the world that you’re a responsible adult who cares about staying hydrated and the environment.
If you’re not used to drinking water, you can also try tea or other sugar-free drinks. Another way to stay more hydrated is by eating foods that contain high amounts of water, such as cucumber, watermelon, or salads.
Use the power of your Biological Peak Time
We all have our peak times.
Some people are most productive in the early morning, while others prefer working late at night. And while both options are perfectly fine, you need to know when your personal peak time is so that you can make use of it.
Getting into a flow state is a whole lot easier if you feel energized and motivated.
If you’re a morning person, being in a flow state will be easier right after getting up rather than late at night.
Being aware of your biological peak time and using it to your advantage can make your life a lot easier.
How to do it:
If you’re not aware of how your performance changes throughout your days, you can figure it out by analyzing your energy levels for a few days.
Set a timer on your phone that reminds you to take notes about how you feel every 60 minutes.
If you do that for a few days, you’ll realize that you feel more energized and productive at certain times of the day.
Create a mental trigger
Finally, if you want to experience the flow state regularly, it makes sense to create a mental trigger, a routine that will help you get into the zone with ease.
By repeating that mental trigger frequently, you’ll tell your brain that this trigger is a signal for getting into a flow state and producing great work.
Over time, you’ll get used to it and entering the flow state will become easier.
How to do it:
You can, for instance, listen to a specific song or do a breathing exercise right before sitting down and starting a work session.
But you can also watch a short video, have a look at your vision board, or do anything else that reminds you of why you want to give your best.
My personal trigger is my sense of smell: Before starting a work session, I put energizing essential oils such as peppermint into my diffusor and turn it on.
On a biological level, we’re all wired to experience flow states. Yet, we often unlearn it because of the daily distractions we face.
But practice makes perfect and if flow states are new to you, it might take a while to figure out how to best make use of them in your day to day life.
What to avoid:
- Instant gratification
- Tasks that are too easy or too hard
- Being accessible during important work sessions
- Forcing yourself to perform well outside of your biological peak time
What to do:
- Focus on the long term gains
- Be clear about your goals and your why
- Focus on tasks and projects that match your skills
- Create a feedback loop
- Organize your mind
- Stay hydrated
- Make use of your biological peak time
- Create a mental trigger and use it before starting your work session
To live a fulfilled life, eliminate being influenced by external rewards.
Instead, focus on things that spark your interest and allow you to perform at your best. These are the things that will help you get into a flow state as often as possible. And as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi states in his book Flow:
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
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