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Flow, Validation, State and Productivity

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Flow, Validation, State, Productivity

One of the most common questions when it comes to productivity and time management is “How can I get in flow?”.

What people are talking about here is that state of peak performance – those times when you’re working or enjoying something, and time has this stillness to it… and you’re enjoying what you’re doing so much that time literally flies by – and an incredible amount of work gets done.

There are many ways to harness flow, and we want to talk about a couple in this article – namely our state, and how we validate our sense of self, and how this relates to flow – and productivity.

We’re going to go a bit deep in this article, and talk about our locus of control, validation and the ego. Let’s get to it.

Quick Summary

  • A definition of state and why it matters.
  • Internal and external validation and why it matters.
  • How to apply this to exercise state control and find flow.

State and Why it Matters

The idea of finding “flow” is actually a subset of a lager idea – finding and accessing different emotional states.

Our “state” is shorthand for saying our emotional, physiological and mental state – the snapshot of our emotions, mind and body at any given time. Our state matters because how we feel in our bodies and mind at any given time has a huge impact on how we’re able to interact with the outside world.

As a really simple example, as I started writing this article there was construction going on in my building – lots of noise, lots of drilling, lots of hammering. The walls even shook a little (it’s Asia). Of course with all this noise going on, my state took a dip. I found the sounds irritating, annoying and ultimately distracting. Could I sit down and write a quality article while listening to all this? Probably not. So I grabbed my notebook and headed down to the pool. It looks like this:

Jumpstarting Poolside

Jumpstarting my brain poolside.

Much quieter, with a nice and cool breeze and no construction noise. My emotional state took an upswing and closer to where it needs to be to write a great article.

In visual terms, this is how our state works:

Forces, State, Ability, Flow

How forces effect your state, ability and productivity.

Our state is determined by both internal and external forces. And in turn, our state colours our focus and ability to do things – hence our productivity.

The logical conclusion of this is that the more control we have over the aforementioned internal and external forces (or our mental interpretation of them), the better we can control our state, and the better we can self-motivate, access flow and get things done.

This is why the ability to control or change your emotional state is so important.

Forces and Validation

There are many forces out there that impact our state, but one of the most important is the concept of validation. These are the forces that directly effect our emotions, identity, sense of self and ego. In our work here at Asian Efficiency we’ve found that how someone validates their sense of being is a huge indicator of their ability to be productive on a consistent basis.

Why validation? That’s what they call it in psychology and the behavioral sciences. It’s essentially a rapid check between our ego and our internal values, and the external environment that tells us if a given action or situation is making us feel “good” or “bad”.

Let’s look at the different forms that validation comes in.

External Validation

You may have heard or been told that being externally validated is a bad thing.

Well, the truth is that everyone is effected to a certain degree by external forces. The example of construction noise from above is one simple example – no matter my degree of mental fortitude, a loud noise is a loud noise, and something that I am evolutionarily bound to pay attention to and focus on. In fact, part of our biological basis for survival is paying attention to the external, the things that are going on around us.

Now over time, it is possible to train yourself through repeated thought and behavioral conditioning to ignore certain external cues. For example, people who live in a large city probably don’t notice the traffic and bustle outside their window at night anymore. This means that it is very possible, over time, to learn to be less dependent on external forces and validation for our sense of self and being (and thus exercise better internal control over out emotional states – and flow).

Busy Street at Night

If you live in a big city, you’re probably used to the noise.

The problem lies in those for who their primary sense of living, being, purpose and identity is tied up in external events and forces. Two good measures for this are:

  1. Life is fairly bland apart from the large, external events that enter our lives at random intervals through no circumstance or action of our own. e.g., people who live Christmas to New Year to Valentines’ Day to birthday to major event to major event.
  2. Where we engage in celebrity worship beyond simple appreciation. Where the highlights of one’s life start to become sporting events, music concerts and gurus speaking on stage – where we place importance in someone else’s identity more than we place in our own.

Further modern-day extensions include:

  • People who live off feedback from social media on a daily basis, and let it govern their emotional state and sense of being.
  • People who live through video games, where “achievements” in a virtual world have no relation to what is happening in the real world right now.
  • People who have to adopt a cause to motivate themselves.

The problem with using external validation this way is that it quashes our sense of self, our identity, our code of living and the very concept of us being individuals.

Now this is not to say that this is all bad – we all participate in the above from time to time to varying degrees. And yes, it’s controversial – especially if you consider that most of the world’s population is wired as above (Asian Efficiency readers, probably not so much) – to seek our external sources of validation and use it as the basis for their sense of being.

When we talk to readers, friends or people who ask about this, we like to say that a simple test is to see if their primary means of validation is external or internal. There is absolutely nothing wrong with riding the highs of the positive feedback you get from the world at large – so long as you are not entirely dependent on external feedback for your sense of self and your emotional state.

Internal Validation

Let’s look at the flip-side – internal validation.

Being primarily internally validated is about having a strong internal locus of control (feeling that you are in control), and a refined ability to control your own state.

How do you know if you are internally validated?

Ask yourself this – when you watch an event that whips the majority of people into a frenzy (sports, concerts etc), how excited do you get? Do you lose control and descend into a crowd mentality where you ride the ups and downs of the emotional energy at the event, or do you kind of sit back a little and just appreciate a brilliant performance?

It may not be politically-correct or popular to say, but having strong internal validation is the most efficient way to go about living – the highs don’t affect you as much, and neither do the lows. You are largely dependent on yourself for controlling your state, and thus your focus, your flow and your productivity.


Meditation is one way to internally control your state.

Applying State Control and Finding Flow

Now that we understand what state and validation is, let’s look at how to apply this.

To change our state, we have to rely on a combination of external and internal forces.

Some external examples include:

  • Music.
  • Exercise.
  • Food.
  • Environment.

Some internal examples include:

  • Meditation.
  • Goal orientation.
  • Shutting out the external.
  • Mental scripts and strategies.

There is no ideal way to go about this, and some external things are quite difficult to ignore.

At Asian Efficiency, we like to go with what works rather than what is idealistic. And for state control, this means:

  • Riding the good external. When people give you props or compliment you, take it. Appreciate their words and use them to push yourself forward. This includes getting what you can out of inspirational talks (like TED talks) and events, and when they arise, taking the big sources of pain that the outside world inflicts and using that is motivation (e.g., work deadlines).
  • Ignoring the bad external. Don’t ever let your state or sense of being be controlled by the opinions of others, no matter who they are. Ignore people who try to criticize, put you down or otherwise not appreciate you. Sure, take genuine feedback into consideration – but assess its impact on your emotional state too.
  • Increase control over the internal. This is done through experience. This means making more active decisions about how you feel at any given moment, and doing things without the input or permission of others (you can always ask for forgiveness later). Also known as being proactive.

Next Actions

  1. Identify 2-3 external forces that boost your state – music and exercise are great places to start.
  2. Identify one thing that you are going to practice internal state control in. It is best if it is something you are doing where others (or society at large) disapprove somewhat (e.g., going to gym first thing in the morning or eating healthy). Practice it, and watch your ability to tap into better states and focus skyrocket.
  3. Develop a strategy for mitigating the effects of bad external forces – by changing environment or focus or action.

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Posted by Daniel  | April 22, 2013 at 11:49PM | Reply

Flow is a dangerous thing. While it can positively affect your productivity, it can also lull you into a false sense of productiveness where you don’t actually expend the effort you need to get your work done. Cal Newport, a theoretical computer science professor at Georgetown University wrote an interesting series of articles on this. Here’s one of them:

Of course, that doesn’t mean that becoming lost in your work is a bad thing, but one must also be cogent of maintaining effort.

Thanks for the article!

Posted by Aaron Lynn  | April 24, 2013 at 2:58AM

Interesting reads Daniel, thanks for that. I think that if we line up clear outcomes beforehand that mitigates a lot of the problems of flow potentially lulling us into thinking we’re being productive while we’re not (kind of how email works). I think in the case of Cal Newport he’s talking about skill improvement, which I suppose is harder to measure in terms of outcomes as it’s a continual progression in small increments.

Posted by Brett Nord  | April 22, 2013 at 8:39PM | Reply

Well said Doug. Thanks for the reminder of that book. Another great article AE team.

Posted by Doug Gabbard  | April 22, 2013 at 6:52PM | Reply

What flow is and how one reaches it is most thoroughly answered in the first four chapters of Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The short ansswer for getting into flow is to be engaged in a challenging, goal-directed task that provides instant feedback on your performance and for which your skills are adequate (but just barely).

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