Getting in the Zone: Four Ways to Help You Master the Concept of FLOW

“There is one quality that one must possess to win, and that is definiteness of purpose, the knowledge of what one wants, and a burning desire to possess it.” – Napoleon Hill, American motivational writer.

Time flies when you’re having fun—and it also flies when you’re so totally focused on something that nothing else interests you, and making steady progress seems almost as easy as breathing. Athletes call it being “in the zone,” a term that’s percolated down into the working world as well. No matter what you do, you’ve probably experienced times when, whether working alone or in a group, you got so engrossed in your work that the next time you looked up, hours had passed. You’d lost track of time. While this can have negative repercussions—such as forgetting to eat lunch—it’s typically a good thing, because it shows your interest in and devotion to your work.

Psychologists call this state of mind “flow.” It’s a highly focused burst of concentration and high competence we all wish would be the rule rather than the exception. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “the grandfather of flow,” first proposed the concept as part of his work on the relationship between work and attention; he defined it as “the psychology of optimal experience.” In addition to psychologists and sports specialists, his research has been eagerly accepted and applied by marketers, salespeople, and those like me who study productivity.

There’s no doubt that flow, being on a roll, or being in the zone can all lead to high performance—if you’re flowing in the right direction. Flow can be an awesome tool, so let’s look at four things you can do to harness it. Each may require some effort to master, but it’s worth it, because each is a valuable achievement in and of itself. And when you combine them, their effects will combine to almost inevitably produce flow.

  1. Focus. Completely immerse yourself in the task. Cut yourself off from distractions (internal and external). Turn off the cell phone, email alerts, and close your door, with a note that says “Disturb only in emergencies.” Decide to concentrate on the business at hand.

  2. Limit yourself to one task. This should follow from the previous tip, but it must be emphasized: DO NOT try to multitask. Do nothing but the task you’ve selected. There’s no better way to ruin flow than to try to flip from one task to another repeatedly. If you think of something, don’t do it—write it down and get right back to the original task. It typically takes 15 minutes or more just to fall into the kind of focus that leads to flow, so don’t break your concentration!

  3. Optimal Challenges are a must, especially for people new to flow. An optimal challenge is a task where your reach just barely exceeds your grasp; your skill level and the challenge are fairly well-matched. Too much of a challenge, and you’ll feel anxious and out of control; too little challenge will bore you. So find the Goldilocks Zone, and go for it. For many of us, just learning to get into the “flow” represents an optimal challenge!

  4. Well-defined goals are crucial. If you can’t see the target, then how can you aim at it? Before you start, sit down and decide where you’re going, how you’ll get there—have a roadmap. Before I sit down to write, I have my research done, and everything organized, so I know what section I’m working on. All significant tasks have goals to achieve. Even if the task is just to write a single paragraph describing your job, that’s a goal. If you feel overwhelmed or know the task will take a long time, then set multiple mini-goals to complete. Stay the course, and you’ll reach the final goal in time. A clear goal focuses you, helps you ignore the insignificant, and leaves no room for divided attention.

Keep on FLOWing

When you’re new to the FLOW technique—even as you’re still sharpening your individual skills—I recommend you try it for short periods until you get the hang of it. The Pomodoro Method fits perfectly here. Set a timer for 15 minutes, then get to work. If you’re in the flow by the time it goes off and can continue, do so until you emerge on your own. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll find it easier to fall into flow, and your brain will find it easier to remind you it’s time to snap out of it.

About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on productivity and performance. Funny, engaging, and full of real life strategies that work, Laura will change mindsets and attitudes so your people can maximize productivity, strengthen performance, and get the job done right. Her presentations at corporate events, sales kick-off meetings, and association conferences help audiences improve output, increase speed in execution, and save time in the office. Stack has authored seven books, including her newest work, Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time (Jan. 2016). To have Laura Stack speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401, email, or CONTACT US.

Here’s what others are saying:

“Laura Stack’s session with a group of our seasoned operations managers was eye-opening. We all learned new ways to be more productive with the tools we already have. I’ve never seen each of our seasoned, experienced operations managers so engaged in a session. Many of our senior and mid-level leaders were wowed by what they learned and have already begun using the new techniques with their teams.”
—Mary Pawlowski, Learning Design, Piedmont Natural Gas

“What I enjoyed most about your presentation was that it was not only engaging but also practical in application. I’ve read everything from Covey’s system to “Getting Things Done,” and you presented time management in a way that is the easiest I’ve seen to digest and apply. Thank you for helping our system today!”
—John-Reed McDonald, SVP, Field Operations, Pridestaff

“Laura is an incredible speaker who takes practical information to improve productivity and efficiency and makes it interesting and fun! She has a great sense of humor and completely engaged our corporate and sales team. Laura motivated everyone to take steps to make their lives more productive and efficient.
—Molly Johnson, Vice President Domestic Sales, Episciences, Inc.

“Ms. Laura Stack’s program received the highest scores in the 13-year history of the Institute for Management Studies (IMS) in Cleveland! From the 83 participants, the workshop received a perfect 7.0 for “Effectiveness of the Speaker” and 6.8 for “Value of the Content.” Managers especially valued learning about task management, how to minimize interruptions, organizing with Outlook, prioritizing, effectively saying ‘no,’ how to set boundaries, and recognizing self-imposed challenges to time management.”
—Don Gorning, Chair, Institute for Management Studies Cleveland