“Wow, I cannot believe I finished organizing thousands of photos today.”
Time flew by when I was working on this. It felt like I got the work done in record time and when I looked at the clock, it was already dark outside. It was crazy how focused I was and nothing could have distracted me. Not even my favorite pug Soy Sauce could have distracted me (and gosh I love that dog.)
Have you ever experienced this?
It’s what most people call “being in the zone” or “in flow”. It’s hard to define at first but most of us, if not all, have experienced this. Imagine being able to be in the zone every day. How much more productive would you be? What would you be able to accomplish if you could do that?
Here are 5 ways you can achieve a flow state and get crazy amounts of work done in record time.
What is a flow state?
Before I reveal the secrets to achieving flow state, I want to make sure you know what a flow state is.
This term was coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. His lifework was to figure human performance and what it takes for people to achieve high performance.
Through his research, he created a term to describe being fully immersed in a task with “energized focus and full involvement“. This is what he called “flow”. In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he concludes that happiness is an internal state of being and not an external one. He concluded that people were their most creative, productive, and happy when they are in a state of flow.
When you are in a flow state, everything else around you fades away or is just a blur. You would often forget about yourself and the world around you. Some even forget to eat!
This happens to people like you and me, artists, and even athletes! Beyonce famously skipped meals because she was so focused on a movie project. Remember Neo from the Matrix when he was dodging the bullets? The flow state is just like that. Everything around you seems to go in slow motion because you are in the zone.
When you are fully immersed in the task at hand, you feel happy, creative, and productive. You no longer think about how boring a certain task is or how much you don’t like doing a task because when you are in the state of flow, you feel like you enjoy doing it.
This is true for me when I am writing, getting numbers for reports, working on transcripts, making soap, and when I am going through an online course.
What are the 5 ways to get into Flow State?
1. Create a flow state ritual
In order to achieve a flow state, you need to get your mind and body ready for it. You do this by creating a flow ritual that takes you through a few steps to align your mind and body to be ready for focus.
It’s just like warm-up you do before you start working out or playing tennis. You need to warm up your body before you put it through a lot of stress.
The same is true for focused work. You need a warm-up routine to get your mind and body ready to be performing at a high level.
That’s what a flow ritual is. So how create one?
Well, it’s different for everyone.
You can meditate, go for a short walk, make your favorite drink. Brooks does a 4-step ritual: refill water, journal, play his focus playlist, and then open the main app he is working on to fill up his main screen so that there are no other distractions.
Thanh, on the other hand, has a 3-step flow ritual: review to-do list, review calendar, and then make his green tea.
I have a 5-step ritual: freshen up, prepare my current favorite coffee (right now it’s Ethiopian coffee beans) or my oolong tea, refill my water bottle, put on my Bose QC35 headphones, and then play my focus music.
Once you have your ritual in place, it’s important that you follow through every time. You want to make it a habit to wire your brain into thinking that after you’re done with these steps, you are now ready to tackle the task you have set out to do that day.
So if you want to create your flow ritual, consider these things:
- Can you do it every single time before you start an important task?
- Does it take 10 minutes or less?
- Does it help signal your brain that work is about to start?
Based on experience, it shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes. Think of it as creating a ritual that you look forward to doing and whatever you need to do to get yourself ready to be productive that day.
2. Choose the ONE task that you will do
When you decide that you want to be in a flow state of mind, it’s important that you choose the ONE important task you will be working on. Having too many things to do will not allow you to focus on that ONE thing. The same is true when you have too many ‘priorities’ for each day. Pick one, work on it, finish it, then pick the next one to work on.
Better yet eat your frog, the process of working on your most important task for the day when you start your day. You can level this up by knowing what part of the day you are most productive. For most people, it’s the beginning of their day whether it’s early morning, late morning, afternoon, or even night time.
Take a look at your list and choose what’s the most important task you need to complete for the day (or series of days). Do not overwhelm yourself by thinking that you can focus on three different important things at the same time. That’s not going to happen.
Remember, multitasking is a big NO-NO when you are working on important tasks. It’s not even multi-tasking, the reality is you’re only task switching. It takes time to get back in the groove of things when you switch working from one task to another. You either make a lot of mistakes or not make significant progress on anything.
3. Make sure that ONE thing is challenging, but not too difficult
If the task is too hard and you dread doing it (just thinking about it stresses you out), you will have a hard time getting in the state of flow. On the other hand, if it’s too easy, it will also be too easy for you to get bored and get distracted.
Pick a challenging task that will also help you improve your skills. Some tasks will require a bit of research so it’s important to stay on track. But that’s the beauty when you are in a state of flow, you get to stay on track. And the next thing you notice, you’re done and you’ve learned a new thing or two.
When I am discovering a new soap recipe, I am always in the state of flow. I do my ingredient research, if I don’t have an ingredient, I look for alternatives that I have in my shop (the challenging part which I enjoy), then I start working on creating it. I always start after lunch so that I can continue working until dinner time. By the time the sun sets, I already have my new soap on my shelf.
I realize that sometimes we don’t have a choice of what our task is. It’s given to us. In that case, if the task is easy, try to come up with ways to make it more challenging – maybe try to do it in a different way, or gamify it. If the task is extremely challenging, try to break out the part that you CAN do and start there. Then you can expand or get help as you move through it.
4. Find the right time, place, and situation to work
When are you most energized? If you take note of how you spend your days, when do you usually schedule important tasks that you need to work on every day? Come to think of it, this is the time frame when your brain capacity is also at its peak. Just like our muscles, it can only do so much every day. So find out when your mind is energized or pumped to so important focused work and pencil it in your calendar.
Next, find a place where you can work in peace and with no distractions. There are a lot of distractions you have control over like notifications, hunger, and thirst to name a few. You can always turn off your notifications (I put my phone in airplane mode, those close to me know who to contact for emergencies), you can make sure you have food and water readily available wherever you decide to work. On my end, I don’t work with an empty stomach. But if I’m in between meals, I always have my electrolyte drink within reach.
Finally, put yourself in the best situation where you can work in a flow state. It could mean putting on your focus music (don’t pick music with words, even instrumental versions of music with words–you will end up singing in your head or thinking about what the words are), hanging a DND sign on your office door, or if you’re like me and you work from home, closing my office door means I am doing focused work and I should not be disturbed. If there are scheduled deliveries for the week, I always have cash readily available downstairs so that no one will disturb me to ask for some cash to pay the delivery person.
Your goal is to isolate yourself so that when you do get into a flow state, you will stay in that state until you are done.
I always feel the most energized to do work between 9PM to 11PM (I work night shifts) and my perfect place is my home office. I have control over distractions (people included) and I can work continuously without interruptions.
How about you? Can you think of a time and place where you can do this?
5. Set a deadline and use a Pomodoro timer
When you are in a flow state, you want to give your brain a rest to rejuvenate. It also gives you a ‘deadline’ as to when to end your flow state. Setting a deadline means that you are telling yourself you need to get things done after a certain time will pass. The Pomodoro Technique is a great tool to use for this. FYI, I am currently using a Pomodoro timer while I am writing this blog post.
The Pomodoro Technique is something we have introduced to more than 13,000 Asian Efficiency customers to help them finish their tasks and ultimately their project.
If you are not familiar with the technique, the gist of it is to set a timer for 25 minutes. When the timer starts, you only focus on the single task you identified earlier. After the 25 minutes is done, you take a short break of 5 minutes. Flow state sessions would usually take at least 4 Pomodoros. So that’s 4 25-minute work intervals with a 5-minute break in between. After your 4th Pomodoro, you take a longer break of about 15 to 25 minutes.
You can learn more about the Pomodoro Technique in this blog post.
At this point, I am on my 3rd Pomodoro but after I take my last short break, I will continue since I still need to review. Then I’m done! But who knows, later today, when I feel that I still have the mental energy, I will go through these steps again and accomplish my next important task for the day.
Those are our 5 actionable steps to help you go into a state of flow and how to stay there. You can start planning!
Find out what your flow state ritual is, make sure to document it. Once you have your ritual in place, decide on the one important task you will work on.
Follow the rest of the tips that we have outlined above and most importantly, keep practicing.
If at first you don’t succeed, don’t give up. It’s okay. Continue to work on your flow state until you get it right.