‘Flow’, as defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is that state when we are completely focused on what we are doing. Time seems to either slow down or speed up (both in a good way), and what we are doing feels both effortless and rewarding.
The more I work with people who are stressed and close to burnout, the more I realise that, while rest is of course vitally important, maybe equally important is the way we are actually working.
People who are stressed out are generally not in flow while they work. Instead, they are motivated by fear and anxiety. They might be the kind of people who leave everything until the last minute so that the adrenalin rush of the deadline gets them through. Alternative, they may be constantly second guessing the quality of what they’re doing, or worrying about whether other people will judge it as good enough.
Working in that kind of threat-based way is emotionally and physically exhausting in a way that perhaps working exactly the same number of hours, but in a more flow based state is not.
How can we get more flow into our working lives?
Ultimately, we have to start to recognise, challenge and undo the programming that leads us to fall into a threat-based approach to work. This often forms a significant part of the work I do with clients.
However, there are also positive steps we can take to encourage a state of flow.
Flow is very much about being focused, and we can help ourselves to get into the state by removing distractions. These might be external distractions, like emails pinging away, or people interrupting us, or they might be internal distractions, like thoughts about other things we have to do, or what we said to someone yesterday.
For the external distractions I strongly recommend setting aside a decent block of time to focus on one thing, and turning off all notifications. If you work with others, let them know you don’t want to be distracted, block out the time on the calendar. If you feel resistance to this, ask yourself why. Is it because you feel anxious what others will think, or feel, or is it a way of avoiding a task you’re worried at some level you might not be able to do? Being able to identify the resistance like this, is the first step towards getting past it.
For internal distractions, it’s about being aware of the thoughts as they arise, and then letting them go. Sound familiar? Yes, we’re back to mindfulness. The more you train your mind to do this, the less easily distracted you will become in general. This is why a regular meditation practice can be really powerful, as it literally rewires your brain. You can also keep a little notepad or similar to write down thoughts that pop in that you don’t want to forget. I slap mine on a post-it note and put it on my board to look at later.
For flow it’s also important to have the right level of challenge. Too little and you’ll be too bored to be absorbed, too much and you’ll want to give up and feel anxious. Part of this level of challenge is about how much you are trying to do. Work on getting better at estimating how much time you need for a task, and check back later against your estimates. If you have a really big job to do, break it down into what can realistically be achieved in say a 2 hour slot (or maybe 4 pomodoros). If the task itself is too easy, then see if you can do it a little more quickly, and make that the challenge. Or, if it’s too hard, break it down further and/or get some help or advice.
Pick a good time of day for you. For most people their optimum time to work tends to be the morning. Save that time for flow work, and protect it from being nibbled away at.
And, finally, before you start flow work, develop a little routine that signals to your brain that it needs to get into flow gear. This might be 5 minutes meditation, or a quick stretch, or putting on a certain piece of music if you like working to music. Do the same thing every time and it will help to train your brain to switch into flow mode.