The kids want your attention. The cat wants to be fed, and your partner is having a very loud phone conversation. How on earth can you get into the flow state in this environment? HRM asks an expert.
In his seminal New York Times op-ed, Psychologist and Podcaster Adam Grant talks about how the cure for languishing – not suffering but not thriving either – could be found in something called the ‘flow state’.
“Flow is that elusive state of absorption in a meaningful challenge… where your sense of time, place and self melts away,” Grant writes.
When you’re in the flow state, work feels easy. You become more productive and the serotonin you gain from getting stuff done, combined with the sense of effortlessness felt about your work, makes you happy. It’s a utopian work mindset, but it’s not easy to achieve.
It can feel even more elusive when you’re working from home, surrounded by distracting housemates, children, pets or neighbours who decided to do renovations in the middle of lockdown (hey, I’m trying to focus here!).
Christian Swann, Associate Professor at Southern Cross University, studies the psychology of high performance in sport. He has interviewed athletes in several sports to find out how flow state affects them.
While working on a presentation isn’t exactly the same as running a marathon, there’s a lot of crossovers between the physical and mental flow states, says Swann.
“When you’re in a flow state, exercise can feel a lot less physically demanding… It’s a feeling of effortlessness and confidence,” he says. The same goes for mental flowstate.
Clutch vs flow state
Swann’s research shows that there are two ways to be ‘in the zone’. The first is what we’ve discussed so far, the flow state, and then there’s ‘clutch state’ which is a more forced approach to deep work.
Clutch state can happen when you’re working to a strict deadline or trying to beat a personal best, to speak in Swann’s sports terms. While flow state is considered exploratory, clutch state is about the outcome of your effort, i.e. pushing yourself to finish on time.
It also tends to accompany a sense of urgency, which is why clutch states often occur right before the end of the day or just before the finish line in a race.
This article will focus on flow state since it’s the more elusive of the two, but the advice would also pertain to clutch states in some instances.
How to get into the flow state
- Pick the context
There are certain contexts when flow is going to be impossible, says Swann. If you’re under the pump or rushing to get something done, you might get into a clutch state, but you’re not going to experience the flow state.
The first step is to structure your work day in a way that ensures you’ll experience the least amount of pressure. This might include where you work or what time you work.
“I often try to do my creative work first thing in the morning before meetings because then there’s less pressure on me to get things done for the end of the day,” says Swann.
He also suggests picking a time when you feel comfortable to get into deep work. If you’re a parent this might be a moment when your kids don’t require your supervision. Or perhaps it’s before lunch to avoid post-consumption narcolepsy.
“Flow is that elusive state of absorption in a meaningful challenge or a momentary bond, where your sense of time, place and self melts away.” Adam Grant, Psychologist and Podcaster.
- Set your goal
In the workplace, we tend to set ourselves specific and time sensitive objectives – that’s the crux of SMART goals, right? Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time bound.
This approach can be helpful when you have a time sensitive project with a particular desired outcome. However, in Swann’s experience, specific goals don’t lend themselves well to a flow state, which relies on a sense of exploration.
If I set a goal to sit down and write 1000 words, I’m going to spend my time checking the word count to see how far I’ve gotten rather than letting the words come at their own pace.
Instead, Swann says to set yourself an open-ended goal.
“It’s not saying, ‘I’m going to write X amount of words’, it’s saying ‘I’m going to sit here and let my thoughts flow and when they run out I’m going to look at what I’ve got and see where I go from there’,” says Swann.
“Trying to capture that exploratory component is key for flow.”
- Look out for distractions
Some people prefer absolute silence to get into a flow. Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World and the person who coined the term ‘deep work’, went so far as to suggest checking yourself into a hotel room to eliminate distractions.
Unfortunately, many distractions are out of our control. Luckily, Swann’s research has found that not all distractions are bad distractions. In fact, there is such a thing as positive distractions, he says.
“If an email hits my inbox that’s about something really urgent or important then I’ve got no choice but to prioritise that, and the flow is gone,” says Swann.
“But if it’s my border collie who is bringing over a toy and wants to play for a bit, then I can do that for a couple of minutes and not lose the flow because it’s not related to work.”
These moments can be complementary to your workflow. For Swann, playing with his dog encourages that playful and exploratory mindset needed to maintain the flow state.
Professional athletes use positive distractions (or as Swann jokingly calls them ‘border collie breaks’) to improve their performance. Here is a quote from a climber Swann interviewed for his research:
“It was horrific weather and that is a good distraction… I would say it is very easy to get into a flow when you have distractions other than the main stress of climbing which is the fear of falling… when you have other distractions outside of the main task at hand.”
“We interviewed a professional golfer who played in one of the majors. He was in the final round, he knew he was in flow and performing awesomely,” says Swann “To try and avoid being disrupted, he told his caddy not to talk to him about anything to do with golf.”
In a work context, it’s easier to get into a flow state when emails aren’t pinging to remind you of all the things you need to get done. It’s about reducing the stress of the situation by essentially not thinking about it. Instead focus on putting one foot in front of the other or writing one word at a time.
If you can, try to turn off stressful distractions, such as email or news notifications. If you do become distracted, don’t worry, you can make a note of what you were working on to return to, and let yourself be momentarily distracted.
You could try the ‘read-to-resume’ approach, note which stage you are at and what you plan to do when you resume the task, before you step away to play with your border collie.
HR’s tips for deep work
HRM asked the AHRI Members Lounge for advice for getting into a flow state. Here are some of their tips:
- Put on music – Try instrumental music or lyrics in a language you don’t speak, so you can avoid singing along to the lyrics.
- Create a mental cure – One HR professional said using her diffuser works as an external prompt to alert her brain that it’s ‘zone time’.
- Write a ‘can do’ list – rather than a ‘to do’ list, so assess what’s possible to achieve within the day and only include those tasks on your list.
- Caffeinate – have a coffee right before you intend to get into the flow state, but don’t go overboard. The benefits of caffeine taper off after two cups of coffee.
- Choose one task at a time – Don’t try to split your attention. Work in short bursts to encourage that serotonin to flow when you get a sense of achievement from each completed task.
Getting into the flow state is harder in lockdown, even when you’ve followed the steps above. So don’t forget to be kind to yourself. You may need to adjust to lockdown (again) before flow can happen and that’s ok. You’ll get there eventually.
Are your employees struggling to re-adjust to working from home?
The AHRI COVID-19 information hub has some great facts sheets and on-demand webinars on this very topic.
How do you get into the flow state? Let us know in the comments.