FEATURE ARTICLE: “Achieving a State of ‘Flow’ at Work”

Do you ever feel like your mind is a million miles away? You can watch someone in a meeting who is “somewhere else,” and they have a far-away, glassy look to the eye. You know they are not hearing a word of what is being said. They may be with you physically, but their minds are somewhere else, thinking about some meeting, worrying about that errand, or trying to figure out what someone meant by a passing comment. 

Contrast that with a time you were so immersed in an activity that time just stood still? Your stomach suddenly growls, and you look up at the clock to discover you worked right over your lunch hour and didn’t notice! You were totally immersed in what you were experiencing or doing. What are the benefits of this extreme focus?

• Output is increased. You simply get more done when you are 100% attuned to your task. You’ll get more letters written and more projects completed
• You perform optimally and do your best work. If you are giving your total attention to something, the quality will be better. Isaac Newton said, “If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient attention than to any other talent.”
• The time invested in projects is decreased. If you don’t feel like doing something in the first place (like paying bills), wouldn’t you rather have it over in an hour instead of stretching it out over three? 
• Less rework. Your focus reduces the time it would have taken you to correct the mistakes and omissions that are a byproduct of inattention.
• Peace of mind is enhanced. There is an old legend about a man who travels the world searching for the meaning of life. One day he climbs a high mountain to a monastery to get the advice of a monk who is reputed to be the wisest man on earth. When asked for the secret to happiness, the monk replies simply, “DO whatever you’re doing.” 

What are some of the characteristics of the non-flow state?

 Continually stopping one task and starting another
 Not establishing a goal or “end” state
 Constant disruptions and interruptions, which make it difficult to concentrate
 Feeling overwhelmed
 Low energy period 

What are some characteristics of the flow state?

 A vested interest in the outcome
 A strong belief that you can and will accomplish your goal
 Total focus, with no interruptions
 High energy period
 Passion/fun/enjoyment
 Proper environmental conditions (temperature, smells, noise)
 Minimal effort required (low learning curve)

How do you achieve this wonderful state of flow and become fully present-focused? 

• Master your job. Research shows that your ability to experience flow is related to your mastery of the mechanics of your job. The more unfamiliar you are with your work, the harder it is to achieve. Just as learning to drive was at first a conscious behavior, when mastered, it became subconscious. If you’re on a learning curve in a new activity, it will be harder to achieve intense focus. The more you learn the job, the better your ability to concentrate and “let go.”

• Prepare for and expect to achieve focus. Set your mind properly. Consciously, willfully decide that you are going to concentrate. Have a positive attitude going into the task. Prepare your materials in advance of getting started and have what you need at your fingertips. 

• Clear your desk. Do your piles talk to you? “Do me!” “Don’t forget me!” Clutter can be psychologically distracting. You will focus better on what’s in front of you if you don’t have ten other things surrounding you. Clear the piles, so everything is out of your line of sight except the single thing you’re working on. 

• Set aside some time. Estimate how long the task will take and schedule an appointment with yourself on your calendar. Total absorption is very relaxing. It’s splitting your attention—between what you’re currently doing and what you have to do next—that’s exhausting. When you become focused on the task of the moment, time seems to fly, and you get the job done easier and faster.

• Ensure no interruptions. The ability to work uninterrupted is very important to devote your complete attention to an activity. Having privacy will help you achieve a state of flow. Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister, co-authors of Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, claim reaching a state of flow requires at least 15 minutes of ramp-up concentration. People are especially sensitive to interruptions during this time. When people are disrupted, they can’t go right back in. They require an additional 15 minutes of time to get started again. This leads to increased frustration and reduced productivity. Close your door if you have one, or leave your office and retreat to an empty office where no one can find you.

Take each step deliberately and with full attention. Strive to be “in the moment.” When you read a book to your child, really READ a book to your child. Don’t be focused on all the to-dos that you must do when you’re finished. Be present and available and in the now for those people and tasks you care about.

Make it a productive day!

© Copyright 2004 Laura Stack, MBA, CSP. All rights reserved. Portions of this newsletter may be reprinted in your organization or association newsletter, provided the following credit line is present:

"Laura M. Stack, MBA, CSP, is "The Productivity PRO,"® helping people leave the office earlier, with less stress, and more to show for it. She presents keynotes and seminars on time management, information overload, and personal productivity. Contact her at 303-471-7401 or [email protected]."