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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 August 20, 2019

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

Curiosity

Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

Patience

Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

A Feeling for Connectedness

This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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1. Research

Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

Learning the Basics

Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

Hitting the Books

Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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Long-Term Reference

While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

2. Practice

Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

3. Network

One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

4. Schedule

For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

Final Thoughts

In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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