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Achieve Flow by Hacking Your Tasks

Achieve Flow by Hacking Your Tasks
Hack Saw

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:

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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

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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

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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

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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

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Last Updated on July 8, 2020

3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

This is why setting priorities is so important.

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3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

1. Eat a Frog

There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

2. Move Big Rocks

Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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3. Covey Quadrants

If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

  1. Important and Urgent
  2. Important and Not Urgent
  3. Not Important but Urgent
  4. Not Important and Not Urgent

    The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

    Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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    You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

    Getting to Know You

    Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

    In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

    These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

    More Tips for Effective Prioritization

    Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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