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Last Updated on September 9, 2021

How the Flow State Helps You Stay Productive and Concentrate

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How the Flow State Helps You Stay Productive and Concentrate

Imagine being totally immersed in an optimal state of consciousness, giving your fullest attention to an activity or task through improved focus and concentration, and heightening all aspects of your performance in the process. Your mind declutters and the noise of your environment fades away, placing you in a non-distracted zone known as the “flow state,” which creates a sense of uninterrupted fluidity between mind and body.

For those who struggle to concentrate or stay focused, this sounds like heaven.

The flow state is also known simply as “flow,” or colloquially in sports as “in the zone” or “on a roll.” Surprisingly, you don’t necessarily have to be LeBron James, a super yogi, or a psychology guru to achieve it.

Whether you’re an athlete, an artist, or just a regular person engaged in a simple day-to-day task, with the right know-how, the flow state can be achieved, making it easy to lose track of time and be fully engaged. It may not quite be heaven, but it’s close enough for the easily distracted.

For many of us, focus and concentration have fallen prey to an onslaught of distractions and stimulation, some of which are deliberately engineered to capture our attention. This leaves us with little to no uninterrupted time to focus and concentrate, causing us to feel overwhelmed and helpless.

However, learning how to improve our focus and concentration by getting into the flow could be a silver bullet for the unrelenting distractions.

What Is a Flow State?

Put simply, a flow state is a mental state in which you perform an activity while being fully immersed. You’ll know when you’re in a flow state as you’ll feel focused, energized and involved. And most importantly — you’ll enjoy what you’re doing!

Try now to think of something you really don’t like doing…

Perhaps creating reports at work or preparing your tax returns.

When you attempt to do something you don’t enjoy you’ll struggle to get started and struggle to get finished. In most cases, you’ll probably find countless reasons to procrastinate.

Now think of something you really enjoy doing…

Perhaps walking your dog or playing a musical instrument such as a guitar or a piano.

When you do something you love, you’ll find it almost effortless. You’ll also have no problem getting started and no problem continuing.

The difference is like night and day. Without a flow state, you’ll be like someone trying to walk through a muddy field — they’ll be slow and get constantly bogged down. With a flow state, you’ll be like an elite sportsperson who excels at their game but makes it look easy.

Characteristics of a Flow State

According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi[1], who recognized and named “flow,” the concept has 8 main characteristics:

  1. Complete concentration on the task
  2. A feeling of control over the task
  3. Effortlessness and ease
  4. Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback
  5. A balance between challenges and skills
  6. The experience is intrinsically motivating and rewarding
  7. Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down)
  8. Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination

As a result of its positive characteristics, flow psychology has several benefits.

Research conducted by Harvard professor Teresa Amabile revealed that people who have the experience of flow report higher levels of productivity and creativity for up to three days[2]. However, these are just two of the many benefits.

The Benefits of Flow Immersion

The benefits of flow states don’t just stop at productivity; you can also expect to reduce your stress and boost your happiness. Here is a sampling of how it can benefit you:

Improve Concentration

The ability to focus deeply minus distractions leads to higher output and quality work. When in a flow state, concentration becomes so laser-focused that everything else seems to fall away.

When in flow, your body and mind are in unison and know what to do without having to consciously think about it.

Eliminate Distractions

While in flow, the distracting emotions that usually cloud our minds, such as stress, worry, self-doubt, and lack of confidence, take a back seat.

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Improve the Ability to Cope

Emotion regulation, a crucial skill when coping with negative emotions and memories, is directly connected to focus, one of the prerequisites of flow.

Flow directs our focus outward on the task at hand, instead of inward on our worries, fears, and frustrations.

If you know how to tune out negative distractions and focus on solving problems, you’ll get better at handling and moving on from major setbacks.

Create Happiness

Flow is said to be one of the most productive and happiest states that humans can be in.

Being fully immersed in a challenging task and feeling at one with it brings a general sense of well-being and a lasting sense of happiness and fulfillment.

Engage in a Positive Experience

The pleasure that comes with being deeply engrossed in something of significant interest or passion is said to result in an intrinsically positive experience.

Enhance Learning

Because it releases dopamine, flow enhances learning. Dopamine goes beyond providing a temporary high. It also heightens attention and decreases distractions, helping to raise our awareness.

Heighten Performance

One study[3] found that top executives who practice getting into the flow report being five times more productive.

Another study done by Harvard Business school reveals that creative teams are more creative and productive even a day after being in the flow.

According to scientists, the flow of our brain waves shifts from the beta waves of concentration to the alpha waves of rest and relaxation and the theta waves that occur during meditation. Theta waves are said to be prerequisites for moments of insight and the gateway to creative genius.

Improve Productivity in the Workplace

Due to its powerful influence, flow can be a major source of inspiration for employees to perform at their peak.

According to scientific research, the average employee switches tasks every three minutes. Due to the resulting “attention residue,” whenever an employee gets distracted, it takes an average of 25 minutes to regain full attention on the task at hand[4].

Consistently entering a flow state can facilitate employees to increase focus, which will lead to higher productivity and better work. This is music to the ears of not only employers but employees as well as it can ultimately lead to significant advancement in a career.

However, knowing how to improve focus and concentration using flow takes some effort. It is a delicate process that you won’t master by simply reading about it.

Now, here is a breakdown on how to improve focus and concentration by getting into a flow state of mind.

How Long Does a Flow State Last?

While there is no hard and fast rule for how long it takes to get into a flow state, most people report a time of around 30 minutes. Some people will reach a flow state quicker than this — others will take longer. It really depends on the person and on the task at hand.

However, one essential of getting into a flow state is to make a start!

If you’re prone to procrastination you’ll be prone to being slow to get into a flow state.

The good news is — without distractions or interruptions — most people can stay in a flow state for several hours. Of course, you shouldn’t try to work constantly during this time. Instead, aim for a 10-minute break every 90 minutes. This will give your eyes and brain a much-needed rest without destroying your flow state[5].

How to Get Into a Flow State

Getting into a state of flow sounds great in theory, but mastering the skill of repeated immersion in flow is not easy.

You won’t achieve a state of flow in every attempt, but you can prime your environment and yourself for flow so that you experience it more often.

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1. Have Clear Goals, Outcomes, and Expectations

Your mind will struggle to achieve optimum concentration and focus if you lack clarity about what you want to accomplish.

If there’s no clear outcome, you won’t know exactly when you’re finished with your task. This will breed mind-wandering and procrastination and encourage quitting and switching to easier tasks.

American philanthropist Tom Steyer said it well:

“Clarity of vision is the key to achieving your objectives.”

I’m sure you’ve noticed in your life that when you know exactly what you want — you’ll tend to find a way to get it. And conversely, if you lack clear goals and dreams, I’m sure you’ve found yourself drifting aimlessly in life.

Of course, goals don’t always have to be big ones.

For example, a daily work goal might be something as simple as ensuring that you always check your inbox once every couple of hours.

From my experience of coaching people in success techniques, once you start to build a habit of using goals, you won’t want to go back. That’s because goals are an incredibly powerful way of giving you an abundance of focus and motivation. Just think of when you’ve wanted that dream house or car. You did research; you sacrificed your time and money; and you kept yourself in a flow state until you achieved your goal.

Learn how to set clear goals in this guide: A Complete Guide to Goal Setting for Personal Success

2. Warm Up

Create a habit of warming up both physically and mentally before you get started on a task or project. This might involve meditation, yoga or a strenuous run in the park. The trick here is to make your chosen activity a ritual. Something that you always do before tackling your tasks.

Try it for yourself, and you’ll see just how much this helps you to get into a state of flow.

3. Work on One Very Specific Task

Just like the goal, if you lack clarity on exactly what you are going to work on, it will be very difficult to enter a state of flow. You will either switch between multiple tasks too quickly or get distracted much more easily – both are serious detriments to achieving flow.

Multitasking might sound like the ideal way to get things done, but science shows otherwise.

For instance, a recent academic study found that just 2.5% of people are able to multitask effectively[6]. For the other 97.5%, it was far more productive for them to focus on completing one task at a time. In other words, flow psychology strongly suggests you should say goodbye to multitasking and hello to focusing on one task at a time.

4. Eliminate All Distractions and Avoid Interruptions

Research says external distractions must be eliminated to reach a flow state.[7]

Each time you get pulled away from your focus, you’ll be taken further away from flow.

It’s vital that you devote all of your concentration and undivided attention to the task at hand. You can only get into flow when you’re able to keep your focus and concentration for at least 10-15 minutes.

External Distractions

Although it might sound obvious, external distractions can prevent you from getting into a flow state or interrupt your flow state once you get into one.

Because of the risks of losing your flow state, if you’re working on a high-priority task or a creative one, then try to ensure that you’re not distracted by external circumstances.

Turn off your phone, television, and other devices in your work environment that might distract you from the task at hand.

Try to set aside a time and move to a quiet environment that is conducive to “deep work,” where you won’t be interrupted or distracted.

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Say for example you’re working in an open-plan office and you need to focus on creating a PowerPoint presentation. For the first 30 minutes, you have zero distractions and you find that you quickly get into a hyper-focused state where ideas come to you instantly. However, and unfortunately for you, a colleague interrupts you to ask you an unimportant question. Immediately your flow state is broken. Even though the interruption was only for a few seconds, it could take you minutes to get back into the flow.

Internal Distractions

What are internal distractions?

Essentially, they are our thoughts and doubts that creep into our minds and stop us focusing on our tasks. These internal distractions can ultimately prevent us from achieving our goals.

To give you an example of this, let me tell you about a time when I was struggling to focus.

It was when I first set up Lifehack, and I had so many ideas of how to progress the company that I found it hard to concentrate on the essential tasks such as writing content and promoting the website. My mind was literally so full of ideas that I found my thoughts drifting endlessly from one idea to another.

Now, while it’s certainly important to have ideas; it’s also important to be able to focus on the work in front of you.

I was able to break out of this mind trap by allocating 10 minutes each morning to thinking about my ideas and jotting them down. I then put them aside until the next day. This allowed me to be laser-focused on my writing and marketing.

By making this change, I was able to eliminate this particular internal distraction and massively boost my productivity.

You’ll also need to eliminate internal distractions. Stress and an overwhelmed mind will make it very hard or even impossible to get into a flow state.

Eliminating all or most distractions will protect you from being disrupted and allows you to enter a state of deep focus and concentration, which is one of the most important elements of flow.

5. Do Something You Love

The easiest way to get into flow is to do something you love that is intrinsically rewarding. It will satisfy your mind’s craving for something challenging but doable.

If you do what you love to do, you’ll find it easy and enjoyable.

Of course, when it comes to doing something you’re not so keen on — perhaps cleaning your home — then you should look to see how you can make this enjoyable. For example, make your cleaning time pleasurable by listening to music that inspires and moves you.

6. Identify Your Peak Productive and Creative Times

Another technique to help you get into the flow is to work when your energy levels are at their peak. This can be as simple as knowing that you’re an early bird or a nighthawk.

If early is your thing, then aim to do your priority tasks in the morning when you’ll have your most energy and drive.

If you’re a late sleeper, then you’ll likely find that your energy levels are at their highest in the afternoon or evening. Choose these times to tackle your important tasks.

Identify the times where your mind most naturally functions at peak performance. For many people, the morning after a good night’s sleep is the most productive. Focusing on the day’s main task during these times will make flow easier and more effective.

7. Create a Ritual

Try to create a series of actions that you do every single time you’re about to begin a task that requires you to enter a state of concentration.

This could be anything that helps, such as meditation or stretching. Whatever the activity, it will trigger your brain to get ready for what’s about to begin.

8. Focus on the Process, Not the End Goal

While having goals and a specific task are crucial, getting into the flow also requires enjoying the journey and not just fixating on the outcome.

Try to allow yourself to simply live in the present moment without worrying too much about the end product of your efforts. This will allow the experience to be pleasurable, which will encourage you to do it more often.

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Bonus: How To Master a Flow State

Let’s turn now to some easy but seldomly used techniques that will enable you to become a master at entering and staying in a flow state.

Listen To Music While You Work

Another simple but super-effective technique for getting and staying in a flow state is to listen to music while you work.

Not just any music though.

The secret here is to find music that motivates you but does not distract you.

Typically, this would be instrumental music such as classical or ambient. The reason for this is because instrumental music is free from words, which means that your brain doesn’t have to spend anytime trying to interpret and understand them. It also means that you won’t interrupt your thoughts by trying to sing along with songs!

The other thing to consider with music for productivity, is to match the tempo to your work requirements. For example, if I need to power through some projects then I’ll choose some upbeat music that can perk me up and keep me going. However, if I want to be more creative and reflective, then I’ll pick music that is more relaxing. I may even just choose to listen to nature sounds if I want the minimum of distractions.

My recommendation is that you test out various music styles and tempos to see what works for you best. You’ll also want to play with the volume, as again, this can make a huge difference to your motivation and focus. You’ll probably find loud music more motivating than quieter music, but you need to find the right balance, as loud music can also be more distracting.

Stay Hydrated

My final suggestion to help you become a flow state master is to make sure you’re always hydrated.

Even mild dehydration can lead to a depressed mood, headaches and an inability to concentrate[8]. This is on top of physical effects such as fatigue, dry mouth, dizziness, weakness and heart palpitations.

Fortunately, keeping yourself hydrated is simple to do. Just ensure you’re drinking at least 2 liters of water throughout your day. Personally, I have a glass of water upon rising and a glass of water just before I go to bed. I also take a water bottle into work and when I exercise so I can keep myself hydrated at all times.

Of course, drinking water is just one part of staying hydrated. You can also boost your hydration by eating fresh fruits and vegetables. You could make yourself a nutritious and hydrating green smoothie, for example.

Staying hydrated is such an important topic that I urge you to click through to read our article: Get Hydrated, Get Productive: How Water Helps Your Performance at Work

Final Thoughts

When you get into the habit of engaging and concentrating on your tasks, you’ll also get into the habit of working in a flow state.

This will supercharge your productivity as well as making your work and life easier and more enjoyable. In fact, you can expect to have more time on your hands for hobbies and spending time with family and friends.

As a flow state master, you’ll no longer be concerned about meeting deadlines, as you’ll be able to get your work done in time — and in most cases — ahead of time.

It may take a little adjustment to the way you normally work, but it’ll definitely be worth it.

Getting into the flow is a powerful practice that can pave a pathway to achievement and personal improvement. Mastering it is also a great way to learn how to improve focus and concentration, which is essential to achieving goals in life.

However, like every skill, it’s going to take intent and practice to master. We hope these tips will help you to go with the flow and develop the laser-like focus that will improve your performance on the job or in your daily life.

More Productivity Tips

Featured photo credit: ConvertKit via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

What Is Procrastination and How to Stop It (The Complete Guide) Feel That Life Is Meaningless? Here’s How to Find Meaning How Self Care Can Help You Live Your Best Life The Careful Art of Delegation: How to Delegate Effectively How the Flow State Helps You Stay Productive and Concentrate

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Published on October 22, 2021

The Flowtime Technique: A Pomodoro Alternative

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The Flowtime Technique: A Pomodoro Alternative

Today, there are countless productivity techniques that claim to help you work at peak efficiency. Among them, few are more widely known and widely used than the Pomodoro Technique. It’s a time management system that suggests that you break down your work tasks into 25-minute chunks and take breaks in between them.

The idea revolves around the notion that most people begin to lose focus after 25 minutes of continuous work and will need a reset to remain productive. But there’s a problem with that idea: no two tasks are the same. And for that matter, neither are any two people! That means a one-size-fits-all productivity system can’t possibly be the best fit for everyone.

But there’s an alternative that provides more flexibility and allows you to customize it for your specific use cases. It’s called the Flowtime Technique, and here’s everything you need to know to use it and start getting more done.

What Is the Flowtime Technique?

The Flowtime Technique, while not as well-known as the Pomodoro Technique, has been around for some time. In many ways, it’s a direct descendent of Pomodoro. It’s the brainchild of Zoe Read-Bivens, and she thought it up as a means of dealing with some of the shortcomings she experienced while using the Pomodoro technique.[1]

She found that sticking to 25-minute work segments often interrupted her flow—the feeling of being immersed in a particular task—and ended up harming her productivity rather than enhancing it. To fix the problem, she sought to create a system that retained the beneficial aspects of the Pomodoro Technique while allowing her to get into a positive flow and stay there.

The Basics of the Flowtime Technique

To start using the Flowtime Technique, the first thing you’ll need to do is create a timesheet to help you manage your daily activities. You can do this with a spreadsheet or by hand, whichever you find most convenient. At the heading of your timesheet, include the following column headings:

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  • Task Name
  • Start Time
  • End Time
  • Interruptions
  • Work Time
  • Break Time

Your timesheet will be the primary way you track your daily tasks and establish a flow that works best for you. Once you have it set up, here’s how to use it:

1. Choose a Task

To get started, choose a task you wish to get done. It should be specific, and something you can reasonably complete in the amount of time you have. In other words, don’t choose a task like “paint my house.” Choose something like “paint the front door of my house.” If you select a task that’s too broad, you’ll have difficulty sticking with the work. So, try and break down what you’re doing into the smallest manageable pieces.

2. Begin Working on Your Task

The next step is to start working on your task. Begin by listing the task you’re going to work on in the appropriate field of your timesheet. Then, list the time you’re starting work. Once you’ve gotten started on your task, the only rule you must observe is that there is no multitasking allowed. This will help you to focus on what you need to get done and minimize any self-imposed distractions.

3. Work Until You Need a Break

You may then keep working on your listed task for as long as you like. If you feel yourself getting fatigued after 15 minutes, take a break. If you get into a productive groove, lose track of the time, and end up working for an hour straight, that’s fine, too.

The idea is to get to know your own patterns and work in segments that fit you best. If you don’t focus well on certain tasks, work on them for shorter durations. If you get absorbed in other types of tasks, maximize your output by working for as long as you feel capable of staying focused.

You’ll likely find that the longest period you’ll be able to sustain is around 90 minutes or so. This corresponds to your Ultradian Rhythm, which are the alternating periods of alertness and rest that our brains experience throughout the day.[2]

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There are plenty of case studies that demonstrate how taking regular breaks improves productivity. It’s one of the reasons that mandatory breaks are a part of the Pomodoro Technique. But there’s evidence that the less-structured Flowtime approach to breaks works just as well. One technology company that recently directed its employees to take breaks every hour as they saw fit saw productivity levels rise by 23%—with no mandate required.[3]

4. Take an Appropriate-Length Break

When you decide you need to take a break, go ahead and do so. Just make sure to write down your stop time on your timesheet in the right place. You can take a break that’s as long or short as you like, but don’t abuse the privilege. Otherwise, it won’t be long until your breaks eat up the majority of your time.

As a general rule of thumb, try taking a five-minute break for each 25-minute work period, and increase your break time proportionally for longer work periods. You should use a timer to make sure you get back to your task in the right amount of time. And when your break ends, don’t forget to record the time you’ve resumed work and list the length of the break you took.

5. Record Distractions as They Happen

While you’re working, there are always going to be times when you’ll get distracted. It may come in the form of a phone call, an urgent email, or even the urge to use the bathroom. When these things happen, record the occurrence in the interruption column on your timesheet. Do your best to keep distractions short, but don’t try and block them out.

The reason is that you’re unlikely to succeed and sometimes, the things that distract you will be a higher priority than what you’re working on. So, it’s important to deal with distractions as you see fit instead of trying to simply work through them.

6. Repeat Until Your Work Is Complete

All you have to do next is to repeat the steps above until the tasks you’re working on are complete. As you complete each task, be sure to record your final stop time. If you wish, you can calculate your total work time (and fill it in) when you finish a task, or you can do all of the math at once at the end of the day.

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All that matters is that you don’t leave any gaps in your time tracking. Your timesheets, once complete, will become an asset that improves your ability to create a work schedule that maximizes your daily output.

What to Do With Your Timesheets

Although the act of recording your work periods and break times will help you remain on-task each day, there’s another important reason you’re doing it. It’s that your timesheets will gradually begin to reveal to you how to craft an ideal daily schedule for yourself.

So, at the end of each week, take some time to compare your timesheets. You may see that certain patterns begin to emerge. For example, you might notice that your longest work periods typically occur before lunch or that there are specific parts of your day that tend to be filled with distractions. You can use this information to plan subsequent days more effectively.

In general, you’ll want to cluster your most important tasks at your most productive times. So, if you are reviewing detailed property records, for example, you can set aside time to do it when you know you’ll be able to focus without interruption.

Conversely, you should schedule less critical work at the times when you’re most likely to be interrupted while working. So if you need time to respond to emails or return phone calls, you’ll know just when to do it. This will not only make you more productive but will also eliminate mistakes in your work.

Key Similarities Between Flowtime and Pomodoro

If you’re familiar with how the Pomodoro Technique works, you may have noticed some similarities with the Flowtime Technique. As we’ve discussed earlier, this is intentional. The Flowtime Technique is specifically designed to retain three critical features of the Pomodoro Technique, which are:

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1. Precise Time Tracking

One of the reasons that the Pomodoro Technique is so effective for many people is that it creates a rigid system to facilitate time tracking. By having to split your work tasks into 25-minute segments, you become acutely aware of the tasks you have in front of you and how you’re using your time. That alone helps you to avoid wasting precious work time because you have to account for every minute. The Flowtime Technique provides this benefit, too.

2. Eliminating Multitasking

With the Pomodoro Technique, you have to choose a task to work on and use a 25-minute timer to measure each work period. This does an excellent job of keeping you on-task because you know from the moment you set the timer what you’re trying to accomplish, and you’re therefore not likely to stray onto another task.

Even though you don’t need to use a timer with the Flowtime Technique, the very act of writing down your task accomplishes the same task. Because you know you’ll be tracking your time spent working on a particular thing, you’ll tend to stick with your task until it’s complete or time for a break.

3. Facilitating Breaks

One of the biggest killers of productivity is exhaustion, and there’s plenty of data to prove that taking breaks is essential to maintaining peak work performance. That’s the real secret to the Pomodoro Technique’s successful reputation—it makes breaks mandatory and unavoidable.

The Flowtime Technique, by comparison, also insists you take breaks. It just doesn’t force them upon you until you’re ready to take one. In that way, some additional self-discipline is required to succeed using the Flowtime Technique. But if you can obey a timer, there’s no reason you can’t learn to obey the signals your body sends you when it needs a time out.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, you may find success using the Pomodoro Technique. There’s a reason it’s so popular, after all. But if you’ve been using it for some time and find yourself straining against its rigid structures, you’re not alone. So, consider giving the Flowtime Technique a try for at least a week or two. You may find it’s a much better fit for your work style and that you get even more done than you ever have before.

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Featured photo credit: Fakurian Design via unsplash.com

Reference

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