The lack of focus is becoming a global epidemic. And productivity sounds suspiciously dishonest on the internet. Online, hundreds of apps and experts exist that promise monumental results but only if you buy their course or subscribe to their never-ending stream of products. All these tools oath to upgrade your body and mind so you can magically stop watching YouTube videos and become a newer, somehow improved version of yourself. But we all know that these are just marketing gimmicks. Becoming more effective requires nothing else but attuning your mind to the flow state.
In the 1970s, after conducting a series of interviews with various artists, Mihaly Csikszentmihályi, the person who coined the term flow, concluded that these creators, when they work, enter a magical state of deep concentration that was later called the flow state.
These artists got so lost in what they did that they forgot to eat food, drink water, and even rest. And in no way this meant that these people were forced to execute the task they were doing. Тhey, themselves, sought to enter this deep focused condition. For them, it was the best part of their lives.
Nowadays, we’re witnessing a shift of focus. Instead of concentrating on projects that are important for us, such that require full commitment, we prefer to let others entertain us. When something is not stimulating enough, we simply hop to the next channel. And since everyone is trying to hook us to their story, new sources of entertainment are not hard to find. Shows and “important” news stories all around us. Trying to hold our attention for as long as they can so they can make a profit from it. And we’re not even resisting. We’re looking forward to these distractions and we welcome them in our lives.
As time progresses, life takes us in one of these two ways: We either realize that the constant alerts that are demanding our attention are wasteful and not contributing to our end goal. Or, we choose to live in oblivion and follow the norms set by our society – always trying to be entertained.
If you’ve reached the point of a mental breakdown caused by the never-ending updates and sound bites, here you’ll find ways to shift your mind from overly distracted to inner focused.
In this post, I’ll explain how you can enter the famous flow state, also known as being in the zone, that will help you create more, not consume more. And also, illustrate how you can stay in this hyper-focused state for an extended period of time.
What is The Flow State?
On the surface, the flow state seems like this ultimate productivity hack that will help you do mind-bending work that will lead to unbelievable profits.
And while the state of flow does increase efficiency, it’s more about being in love with doing something. Immersing yourself in a particular task that eventually leads to a sense of ecstasy.
In an interview, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes flow as follows: “Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”1
You get in the zone not because you’re able to focus thanks to the life hacks and productivity tools that were recommended by some internet gurus. You’re able to focus because what you’re doing, the actual activity you’re participating in, is something that brings you joy and awe.
This is something I believe a lot of people are confused about.
You don’t focus on the tools and you are careless about all the tactics. You are able to concentrate because you love what you’re doing. And, eventually, you’re happy to devote large parts of your day to this particular activity. The task itself brings you joy, positive feedback, and satisfaction as you make progress. You don’t force yourself to do the work and you don’t need someone else to remind you about this. You’re looking forward to the moment where you’ll have the time to work – for example, write, exercise, play music. And when the working session begins, the actual activity is satisfying enough for you to stay immersed in what you do.
For you particularly, dear reader, this means that if you want to enter the so desirable flow state, you first must find an activity that feels so interesting to your persona, that for a short period of time, nothing else will matter.2
Why Entering Flow State is Important?
Apart from making monumental progress towards a particular project, probably quitting your boring job, and living a nomadic life, you also get to experience daily doses of true joy because of the work you do.
In an information-rich world, learning to properly manage your attention is the best thing you can do to preserve your sanity. And, even at times, feel good about your life.
After all, if you positively respond to all the requests that come your way, you click on all the ads, and you follow all recommended people and products by the algorithm, you’ll never have time for yourself. You will never have time for anything other than making others happy. The things you want to do will be left for another day. A day that will never come. Your attention will always be focused outwards – satisfaction based on what everyone else requires of you – instead of inwards – satisfaction based on what you really want to do.
This outer focus directly contradicts with what your body wants for itself – to survive, thrive, and express its true best self.
How to Enter the State of Flow?
To get in the zone, the state of deep focused concentration you first need to find a task that interests you a lot. But more importantly, is meaningful to you. As you can imagine, here we are not talking about playing video games or binge-watching shows, it’s about work that is cognitively demanding and at the same time intriguing.
In the seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csíkszentmihályi describes the state of ultimate happiness as pursuing an activity where you constantly increase the difficulty.
The following graph explains how this can be achieved:
When you first start doing something, say you want to become a musician and you decide to learn to play the guitar, you have no skills whatsoever. Even holding the instrument is something that interests you. Your eagerness to learn more makes the whole experience joyful. This is stage A1.
Over time, when you get better, you either get bored if you continue to play the same tunes (A2). Or, you start to feel lost, anxious, because you realize how little you know and how vast the guitar knowledge-base is (A3).
The best course of action is to increase the difficulty by just a bit. Refrain from trying complex songs and techniques. Or in other words, you should try songs that are a little above your comfort zone. This the stage you want to be in all the time – A4 presented on the graph.
Because what happens if you try something complicated?
Your brain realizes that the gap between what you know now and what you need to know is too big. This makes you feel anxious. Lost. Underqualified. You don’t want to wait years to learn something, after all, your body and mind both require constant doses of good feedback to keep functioning. That’s why it’s important to gradually increase the complexity if you want to continue doing what you’re doing. Otherwise, you will completely disappear from the graph and go do something else that feels rewarding (but a lot of times not productive).
On the other hand, if what you’re doing becomes boring at some point, you’ll stop getting positive stimuli. If this happens, you’re more likely to let your mind wander and also find other ways to get positive stimulators (social media, games, etc.).
The best strategy is to slowly push past your comfort zone. Face an opponent who is just a little more advanced than you. Try stuff that are somehow related to what you know yet offer new insights.
But that’s just part of the process to stay in the flow state.
Sadly, simply finding a slightly harder activity is not enough to keep you involved for prolonged periods. You also need to learn how to protect yourself from all the things that are fighting for your attention.
How to Remain In Flow State?
Here’s is how I define the state of flow: To pursue a single line of thought for an extended period of time. And to connect it to what I mentioned above, the thought itself should be, of course, related to an activity that you’re deeply in love with.
It might sound simple to keep your focus on a single line, but it’s not an easy feat.
There are two things you need to consider to properly manage your concentration: block internal and external distractions.
Block Internal Distractions
If we imagine that flow is indeed your ability to pursue one task without doing anything else, we can visualize it as follows:
However, at some point during your work, probably something you saw near you or when one conclusion leads to the next, a new thought will eventually morph in your brain that is a lot of times unrelated to what you’re doing right now:
In this situation, you have two options: 1) You can ignore this thought and get back to your task or 2) you can pursue this new line of thought.
This whole experience happens incredibly fast. For example, while reading this text you might get various thoughts in your brain that are probably totally unrelated to what we’re discussing here, “Should I buy the latest video game that my friend mentioned the other day?”; Or somehow related, “I need to go back to work. I should stop reading this. I know all about flow…”
Depending on what you decide to do, you’ll either ditch this article or continue to admire my fancy graphics.
If you decide to go with what new your mind created, you’ll stop doing whatever you’re doing or stop paying attention – which is actually worse. For example, if we’re talking with a friend and he’s explaining about his job but we’re thinking about our job, we’ll never hear what he’s actually saying. Probably, we’ll “wake up” in the middle of the conversation awkwardly nodding to his words. You’re physically there, “talking” to your friend. Emotionally though, you’re somewhere else.
This happens all the time also while you work.
If your phone suddenly buzzes, and if you decide to check what’s happening, the sound is basically the cue that sabotages your workflow.
To save yourself, to shield your mind from the numerous distractions, apart from muting your phone while you work on something important, you can ignore, or write down, the emerging thoughts the mind is constantly producing. When you write them down, you basically remove them from your system – i.e., you stop thinking about these things:
This is something that often happens to me while I write. Thoughts about things I forgot to do begin to absorb my brain at some point during my work. For example, returning a call or paying the bills. Sometimes the feeling is so strong that ignoring it doesn’t work – my mind constantly brings me back to this though. So, to get it out of my system and make sure that I don’t forget again, I write what’s on my mind. This way I know that it will be done. And more importantly, I can return to my task.
Block External Distractions
Distractions are all around. Every time someone interrupts your workflow, you need around 20 minutes to recover and get back to your state of inner concentration.[noyr]According to a University of California Irvine study, we need on average 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back on track with a task.[/note]
That’s why there are so many apps and articles about blocking social media, stopping your notifications, and handing your smartphone to a neighbor across the street.
Outside noise influences our inner noise and can completely alter the course of your life – or whatever you’re doing right now. You can be typing text in one moment and paying careful attention to the thoughts your mind has prepared for you, and in the next, you can start scrolling online like a madman, searching, for the best coffee mug because you saw a friend on social media holding a cute cup. Or simply put, a photo, even a thought, can destroy your focus.
Since working in a silo is often impossible – after all, we have jobs and a lot of us have kids that are like walking radio stations that often repeat the same thing – we need to do something to ensure that the work will be done and balance in the universe will be restored.
Here’s a list of things I do to protect myself from the outside world and ensure that I will stay in the zone when doing important work:
- Me time: I wake up at 5 AM for a reason. To have a quiet, uninterrupted morning with me, my thoughts, and a white piece of internet paper. Between 5 AM and 8 AM, I’m usually lost in my thoughts and nothing else is important for me. If you’re not a morning person and waking up so early is something you’d never do, scheduling a few hours away from the rest of the world is the most important thing you can do for yourself.
- Start working with a goal in mind: When I wake up, I know exactly what I’m going to do this particular morning. I don’t waste time thinking about my priorities. I set priorities the previous day. This is important because you’ll otherwise have a debate about what you should do now instead of actually doing something now.
- Remove all distractions: A lot of people talk about this online for a reason – it’s super important to work in a distraction-free environment if you want to get the job done fast. As explained above, if you want to keep your mind engaged and working on one particular task, you need to remove all the buzzing sounds. Turn off the phone. Prepare your desk. And tell your spouse and/or colleagues to leave you alone for a while.
- Headphones and music: If you’re a writer, and if you have problems concentrating, getting a pair of over-ear headphones is probably the best thing you can buy for yourself. Listening to music – particularly songs without lyrics – can significantly improve your ability to focus and or the quality of your work.3
- Support buddy: We stop progressing not because we don’t enjoy what we do, we reach a plateau or abandon a project because we stop receiving feedback about our work. For example, writing a book takes years. And if you want to write one, every time you sit to write, your mind will tell you that you’d have to wait years to receive some sort of outcome from this project. This can be soul-crushing. To fix this, to get regular results from what you do, and to essentially feel good about your work and yourself, find an accountability buddy. Someone who will keep you accountable for the work you do and also give you feedback about what you’re doing.
- Adjust the difficulty: Remember the graph I shared above? In which quadrant are you in? A1, A2, A3, or A4? Depending on your place, you’ll either have to reduce the difficulty or increase it. Even if you are currently in A4 state, you still need to adjust. This is a never-ending process. Making progress shouldn’t stop.
Some Closing Thoughts
Although the state of flow is most commonly associated with being in the zone, i.e. work really hard and don’t let distractions influence you, the core concept of this ultimate productivity hack is about something else entirely. We don’t seek to enter this magical place of productivity to get more done, we crave it because the work that becomes all-consuming at some point leads us to happiness.
Labor becomes passion. The task, no matter how hard, becomes the source of ultimate joy.
For a few precious moments, or hours if we’re lucky, we lose ourselves in our work. We forget about all of our problems, about the busy schedule, about the rent, the bills, what others want from us, and we commit, wholeheartedly, to an activity that satisfies our inner-self.
Nothing matters, only what we create.