You know what it feels like to be completely engaged in a task. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term flow to describe this state. Flow is crucial to performing any intellectual task. But how do you achieve it?
Hack Your Tasks
You won’t get flow with the carrot or the stick. External pressures are unlikely to really engage you with your task. If you want to get into a state of flow you should modify the tasks themselves. Making your tasks more engaging may seem to make them slightly less efficient, but the gain in your own efficiency through flow will be worth it.
Here are a couple ways to make your tasks more engaging:
1) Add Challenge
Hitting flow is about reaching that sweet spot in challenge level between frustration and boredom. Great games know how to hit this spot to keep you engaged for hours. Why not do this with your work?
A great way to add more challenge to a boring task to increase your interest is to place a time-limit. Giving yourself less time to do a task may seem to sacrifice quality, but often it actually increases it. A time limit can force you to focus while doing your task so that you aren’t sloppy.
2) Add Variety
Try doing your activity in a new way. See if there is a different method for solving the same problem and try that. Having routines can keep you productive, but if you are starting to procrastinate, try switching things up to make it more engaging.
Variety is a great way to spice up boring tasks. Cutting the grass, folding laundry, cleaning or doing simple paperwork don’t inspire a lot of abstract thought but need to get done. By forcing yourself to do them a different way you can re-engage your focus on the task.
When mopping I sometimes change the pattern for how I clean the floor. This rarely adds much time to the act of cleaning, but it can cut hours away from procrastination. Efficiency is less important than finishing and sometimes the energy you get from being engaged in the task speeds your progress.
3) Add Creativity
Forcing out creativity is a good way to make boring tasks more engaging. I’ve written articles with different styles or constraints to make the process more fun. Adding extra constraints can take a boring task and make it an activity that truly gets you to think.
Extra constraints may seem to reduce the quality of your work, but just like more challenge and variety they can often increase the quality. With information work, creativity is the most valuable asset. Whether you are writing code, designing a logo or finishing an article, it isn’t the bits, pixels or words that make the difference, but the quality of the ideas behind them.
Creative constraints should work with your task rather than against it. If you were designing a new image in Photoshop, a constraint could be to only use certain tools when creating the image. This kind of artificial limitation doesn’t just engage you more with the task but it can create a unique style that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.
Suggestions for Task Hacking
There are endless possibilities for how you can modify your tasks to make yourself more productive. Here are a few suggestions:
- Chores – Try cutting the grass in a circular pattern.
- Writing – Make all your subtitles for your article rhyme.
- Programming – See if you can solve a problem in less than twenty lines of code.
- Cooking – Try making a meal without any butter or oil.
- Shopping – Make an estimate of your purchase total and try to be within 5$ of that amount when you check out.
Making tasks more difficult or more creative is counterintuitive. It seems like this process would make you less productive, not more. But considering how infrequently most people enter into a state of flow, there is plenty of space for improvement. Hacking your tasks turns them into a game you want to play.
Scott Young is a University student who writes about personal development, productivity and goal setting. Some of Scott’s popular articles include: Habitual Mastery, Double Your Reading Rate and How to Ace Your Finals Without Studying. You can get his free e-book on Holistic Learning here