Imagine you are hiking down one of your favorite slopes. Conditions are perfect. You are entirely focused. You know precisely how to move at each moment. There is no future, no past. There is only the present. You are completely immersed in the experience, not thinking about or distracted by anything else. Your ego dissolves, and you become part of what you are doing.
This is the kind of experience Bruce Lee described with his famous “Be water, my friend.”
The opposite can also happen. As the quip attributed, Einstein goes, “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl fo, an hour, and it seems like a minute. That is relativity.”
The funny thing is that someone else might enjoy the same task, but we want to finish as quickly as possible.
These questions are also at the heart of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research into the experience of being completely immersed in what we are doing. Csikszentmihalyi called this state “flow,” and described it as the pleasure, delight, creativity, and process of being completely immersed in life.
To achieve this optimal experience, we have to focus on increasing the time we spend on activities that bring us to this state of flow, rather than allowing ourselves to get caught up in activities that offer immediate pleasure—like eating too much, abusing drugs or alcohol, or stuffing ourselves with chocolate in front of the TV.
As Csikszentmihalyi asserts in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, “Flow is the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
It is not only creative professionals who require high doses of concentration that promote flow. Most athletes, chess players, and engineers spend much of their time on activities that bring them to this state.
According to Csikszentmihalyi’s research, a chess player feels the same way upon entering a state of flow as a mathematician working on a formula or a surgeon operating. Csikszentmihalyi analyzed data from people around the world and discovered that flow is the same among individuals of all ages and cultures.
If you often find yourself losing focus while working on something you consider essential, there are several strategies you can employ to increase your chances of achieving flow.
The Seven Conditions for Achieving Flow
Knowing what to do
Knowing how to do it
Knowing how well you are doing
Knowing where to go (where navigation is involved)
Perceiving significant challenges
Perceiving significant skills
Being free from distractions.
Schaffer’s model encourages us to take on tasks we have a chance of completing, but that are slightly outside our comfort zone.
Every task, sport, or job has a set of rules, and we need a set of skills to follow them. If the rules for completing a task or
achieving a purpose are too basic relative to our skillset, we will likely get bored.
If, on the other hand, we assign ourselves a task that is too difficult, we won’t have the skills to complete it and will almost certainly give up—and feel frustrated, to boot.
The ideal is to find a middle path, something aligned with our abilities but just a bit of a stretch, so we experience it as a challenge. This is what Ernest Hemingway meant when he said, “Sometimes I write better than I can.”
We want to see challenges through to the end because we enjoy the feeling of pushing ourselves. Bertrand Russell expressed a similar idea when he said, “To be able to concentrate for a considerable amount of time is essential to difficult achievement.”
Add a little something extra, something that takes you out of your comfort zone.
Even doing something as simple as reading means following specific rules, having certain abilities and knowledge. If we set out to read a book on quantum mechanics, for specialists in physics without being specialists in Physics ourselves, we’ll probably give up after a few minutes. On the other end of the spectrum, if we already know everything a book has to tell us, we’ll get bored right away.
However, if the book is appropriate to our knowledge and abilities, and builds on what we already know, we’ll immerse ourselves in our reading, and time will flow.
Video games—played in moderation—board games, and sports are great ways to achieve flow because the objective tends to be very clear: Beat your rival while following a set of explicitly defined rules.
Unfortunately, the objective isn’t quite as clear in most situations.
In business, the creative professions, and education alike, it’s important to reflect on what we hope to achieve before Starting to work, study, or make something. We should ask ourselves questions such as:
What is my objective for today’s session in the studio?
How many words am I going to write today for the article coming. out next month?
What is my team’s mission?
How fast will I set the metronome tomorrow in order to play that sonata at an allegro tempo by the end of the week?
*Having a clear objective is important in achieving flow, but we also have to know how to leave it behind when we get down to business. *Once the journey has begun, we should keep this objective in mind without obsessing over it.
As soon as you take these first small steps, your anxiety will disappear and you will achieve a pleasant flow in the activity you’re doing. Getting back to Albert Einstein,” a happy man is too satisfied with the present to dwell on the future.”
|Vague Objective||Clearly Defined Objective and a Focus on Process||Obsessive Desire to Achieve a Goal While Ignoring Process|
|Confusion;time and energy wasted on meaningless tasks||Flow||Fixation on the objective rather than getting down to business|
|Mental block||Flow||Mental block|
This is perhaps one of the most significant obstacles we face today, with so much technology and many distractions. We’re listening to a video on YouTube while writing an e-mail, when suddenly a chat prompt and we answer it. Then our smartphone vibrates in our pocket; just as we respond to that message, we’re back at, logging on to Facebook.
Pretty soon thirty minutes have passed, and we’ve forgotten what the e-mail we were writing was supposed to be
Sometimes, this happens when we put on a movie with dinner and don’t realize how delicious the salmon was until we re-taken the last bite.
We often think that combining tasks will save us time, but scientific evidence shows that it has the opposite effect. Even those who claim to be good at multitasking are not very productive. In fact, they are some of the least productive people.
Our brains can take in millions of bits of information but can only actually process a few dozen per second. When we say we’re multitasking, what we’re really doing is switching back and forth between tasks very quickly. Unfortunately, we’re not computers adept at parallel processing. We end up spending all our energy alternating between tasks, instead of focusing on doing one of them well.
Concentrating on one thing at a time may be the single most important factor in achieving flow.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, in order to focus on a task we need:
To be in a distraction-free environment
To have control over what we are doing at every moment
Technology is great, if we’re in control of it. It’s not so great if it takes control of us. For example, if you have to write a research paper you might sit down at your computer and use Google to look up the information you need. However, if you’re not very disciplined, you might end up surfing the Web instead of writing that paper. In that case, Google and the Internet will have taken over, pulling you out of your state of flow.
It has been scientifically shown that if we continually ask our brains to switch back and forth between tasks, we waste time, make more mistakes, and remember less of what we’ve done.
Several studies conducted at Stanford University by Clifford Ivar Nass describe our generation as suffering from an epidemic of multitasking. One such study analyzed hundreds of students’ behavior, dividing them into groups based on the number of things they tended to do at once. The students who were the most addicted to multitasking typically alternated among more than four tasks; for example, taking notes while reading a textbook, listening to 2 podcasts, answering messages on their smartphone, and sometimes checking their Twitter timeline.
Each group of students was shown a screen with several red and several blue arrows. The objective of the exercise was to count the red arrows.
At first, all students answered correctly right away, without much trouble. As the number of blue arrows increased (the number of red arrows stayed the same; only their position changed), however, the students accustomed to multitasking had serious trouble counting ‘the red arrows in the time allotted, or as quickly.as the students who did not habitually multitask, for one very simple reason: They got distracted by the blue arrows! Their brains were trained to pay attention to every stimulus, regardless of its importance, while the brains of the other students were trained to focus on a single task—in this case, counting the red arrows and ignoring the blue ones.
Other studies indicate that working on several things at once lowers our productivity by at least 60 percent and our IQ by more than ten points.
One study funded by the Swedish Council for Working Life and Social Research found that a sample group of more than four thousand young adults between the ages of twenty and twenty-four who were addicted to their smartphones got less sleep, felt less connected to their community at school, and.were more likely to show signs of depression.
|Concentrating on Single Task||Multitasking|
|Makes achieving flow more likely||Makes achieving flow impossible|
|Increase productivity||Decrease productivity by 60 percent (though it doesn’t seem to)|
|Increase our power of retention||Makes it harder to remember things|
|Make us less likely to make mistakes||Makes us more likely to make mistakes|
|Helps us feel calm and in control of task at hand||Makes us feel stressed by the sensation that we’re losing control, that our tasks are controlling us|
|Causes us to become more considerate as we pay full attention to those around us||Causes us to hurt those around us through our “addiction” to stimuli: always on social media….|
|Increase creativity||Reduce creativity|
What can we do to avoid falling victim to this flow impeding epidemic? How can we train our brains to focus on a single task? Here are a few ideas for creating a space and time free of distractions, to increase our chances of reaching a state of flow
Don’t look at any kind of screen for the first hour you’re awake and the last hour before you go to sleep.
Turn off your phone before you achieve flow. There is nothing more important than the task you have chosen to do during this time. If this seems too extreme , enable the “do not disturb” function so only the people closest to you can contact you in case of emergency.
Designate one day of the week, perhaps a Saturday or Sunday, a day of technological “fasting,” making exceptions only for e-readers (without WiFi) or MP3 players.
Go to a café that doesn’t have Wi-Fi.
Read and respond to e-mail only once or twice per day. Define those times clearly and stick to them.
Try the Pomodoro Technique: Get yourself a kitchen timer (some are made to look like a pomodoro, or tomato) and commit to working on a single task as long as it’s running. The Pomodoro Technique recommends 25 minutes of work and 5 minutes of rest for each cycle, but you can also do 50 minutes of work and 10 minutes of rest. Find the pace that’s best for you; the most important thing is to be disciplined in completing each cycle.
Start your work session with a ritual you enjoy and end it with a reward.
Train your mind to return to the present when you find yourself getting distracted. Practice mindfulness or another form of meditation, go for a walk or a swim whatever will help you get centered again.
Work in a space where you will not be distracted. If you can’t do this at home, go to a library, a café, or, if your task involves playing the saxophone, a music studio. If you find that your surroundings continue to distract you, keep looking until you find the right place.
Divide each activity into groups of related tasks, and assign each group its own place and time. For example, if you’re writing a magazine article, you could do research and take notes at home in the morning, write in the library in the afternoon, and edit on the couch at night.
Bundle routine tasks—such as sending out invoices, making phone calls, and so on—and do them all at once.
While there are plethora of tools and apps, that boast of increasing productivity, nothing comes closer to having a scheduling tool. An appointment scheduling tool has major productivity benefits. We have spent a huge chunk of time studying productivity and creating a tool that would save you email back and forth and hassle of scheduling. It also prevents unnecessary interruptions to the flow state of mind, which you achieve when you don’t have to deal with minor distractions. Give our scheduling tool a try, we would love to hear from you. |
What do Japanese artisans, engineers, Zen philosophy, and cuisine have in common? Simplicity and attention to detail. It is not a lazy simplicity but a sophisticated one that searches out new frontiers, always taking the object, the body and mind,or the cuisine to the next level, according to one’s ikigai.
As Csikszentmihalyi would say, the key is always having a meaningful challenge to overcome in order to maintain flow.
The last thing Einstein wrote before closing his eyes forever was a formula that attempted to unite all the forces of the universe in a single theory. When he died, he was still doing what he loved. If he hadn’t been a physicist, he said he would have been happy as a musician. When he wasn’t focused on physics or mathematics, he enjoyed playing the violin.Reaching a state of flow while working on his formulas or playing music, brought him endless pleasure
Many such artists might seem misanthropic or reclusive but what they are really doing is protecting the time that brings them happiness, sometimes at the expense of other aspects of their lives. They are outliers who apply the principles of flow to their lives to an extreme.
Another example of this kind of artist is the novelist Haruki Murakami. He sees only a close circle of friends, and appears in public in Japan only once every few years,
Artists know how important it is to protect their space, control their environment, and be free of distractions if they want to flow.
But what happens when we have to, say, do the laundry, mow the lawn, or attend to paperwork? Is there a way to make these mundane tasks enjoyable?
Csikszentmihalyi calls this microflow.
We’ve all been bored in a class or at a conference and started doodling to keep ourselves entertained. Or whistled while painting a wall. If were not truly being challenged, we get bored and add a layer of complexity to amuse ourselves. Our ability to turn routine tasks into moments of microflow, into something we enjoy, is key to our being happy since we all have to do such tasks.
Even Bill Gates washes the dishes every night. He says he enjoys it—that it helps him relax and clear his mind and tries to do it a little better each day, following an established order or set of rules he’s made for himself: plates first, forks second, and so on.
It’s one of his daily moments of the microflow.
Richard Feynman, one of the most influential physicists of all time, also took pleasure in routine tasks. When he didn’t have something important to do or needed to rest his mind, Feynman dedicated himself to microflowing— Say, painting the office walls.
Training the mind can get us to a place of flow more quickly. Meditation is one Way to exercise our mental muscles. There are many types of meditation, but they all have the same objective: calming the mind, observing our thoughts and emotions, and centering our focus on a single object.
The basic practice involves sitting with a straight back and focusing on your breath. Anyone can do it, and you feel a difference after just one session. By fixing your attention on the air moving in and out of your nose, you can slow the torrent of thoughts and clear your mental horizons.
Life is inherently ritualistic. We could argue that humans naturally follow rituals that keep us busy. In some modern cultures, we have been forced out of our ritualistic lives to pursue goal after goal in order to be seen as successful. But throughout history, humans have always been busy. We were hunting, cooking, farming, exploring, and raising families—activities that were structured as rituals to keep us busy throughout our days.
But in an unusual way, rituals still permeate daily life and business practices in modern Japan—Confucianism, Buddhism, and Shintoism—are all ones in which the rituals are more important than absolute rules.
Rituals give us clear rules and objectives, which help us enter a state of flow. When we have only a big goal in front of us, we might feel lost or overwhelmed by it; rituals help us by giving us the process, the substeps, on the path to achieving a goal. When confronted with a big goal, try to break it down into parts and then attack each part one by one.
Focus on enjoying your daily rituals, using them as tools to enter a state of flow. Don’t worry about the outcome—it will come naturally. Happiness is in the doing, not in the result. As a rule of thumb, remind yourself: “Rituals over goals.”
The happiest people are not the ones who achieve the most. They are the ones who spend more time than others in a state of flow.
After reading this article, you should have a better idea of which activities in your life make you enter flow. Write all of them on a piece of paper, then ask yourself these questions: What do the activities that drive you to flow have in common? Why do those activities drive you to flow? For example, are all the activities you most like doing that you practice alone or with other people? Do you flow more when doing things that require you to move your body or just to think?
If you don’t, keep searching by going: deeper into what you like by spending more of your time in the activities that make you flow. Also, try new things that are not on the list of what makes you flow but are similar and curious about. For example, if photography is something that drives you into the flow, you could also try painting; you might even like it more! Or if you love snowboarding and have never tried surfing.
Flow is mysterious. It is like a muscle: the more you train it, the more you will flow.
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