Flow States: How To Maximize Your Productivity and Creativity

Photo by Jeremy Bishop

Have you ever been so into working on a project that you completely lost all sense of time? Maybe you sat down to collect research and thought 30 minutes had passed but when you checked the time, realized it's been 2 hours.

Have you ever found yourself doing something that felt really easy, but when you attempted it again later you’re shocked at how much effort it actually took? Perhaps you went for a nice long run around the neighborhood and felt great, but when you tried to repeat the same route, you find that the hills are so big that you have to walk up them.

Have you ever felt one with a crowd or an activity? Maybe you attended a concert and were so in tune with the rhythm of the music and the movement of those around you that you didn’t even notice your own body anymore.

Have you ever had so many ideas and plans that you can’t keep up with them? Maybe you were brainstorming your business plan and found that you didn’t have enough whiteboard to draw out all the ways you could grow and evolve it.

What's Flow?

If you’ve experienced all of the above during an activity, you might have been in a state of flow. Flow is a concept developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He stated, “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” The latter part of that quote is the essence of flow. And when we find ourselves choosing to do something so meaningful that we lose sense of time and self, we’re in a state of flow. When we find ourselves so engaged in an activity that hard things feel easy, we’re in a state of flow. And when we’re working on something with purpose and experiencing a richness of ideas, thoughts, emotions, or of our sensory experience, we’re in flow.

Being in a state of flow feels good and we’re more productive. We work more efficiently and easily, time flies, and we’re into it. Like really into it. I teach my clients how to achieve a flow state and laugh when I get texts like, “I got into flow this morning that I completely lost track of time. I forgot to wake up my roommate for class!” (There is a downside to flow and one of them is we need to set alarms to pull ourselves out, otherwise we could miss important stuff!) What if I were to tell you that there are things we can do to trigger flow? That you could learn how to create an environment or set up for flow? I’m guessing you’d want to learn more.

Flow Isn't For Everything

Before I tell you what to do to trigger flow, let me start with a clarification. We can’t force flow with everything. There are just some things that are too boring or just aren’t a good fit. For example, mindlessly transferring data from one spreadsheet to another likely isn’t going to do it. Flow also isn’t going to happen when working on a project that was assigned to us where we don’t see the value or purpose in it. We also can’t get into a state of flow if we’ve got a million things on our mind or if our attention is being pulled in multiple directions at once.

Five Ways to Trigger Flow

Flow is a great tool to not only increase your productivity, but it’s also helpful when we want heightened creativity or rapid decision making. When my clients master flow, they find that they’re able to get more done in less time, that they enjoyed doing the work, and that the finished product is one they’re proud of. Plus, they end up with time to spare so they can have fun, hang with loved ones, and completely unplug from the workday.

Here are 5 tips to get you started:

  • Choose your project wisely. Pick something that you want to do and make sure it’s interesting and has some complexity to it. If you don’t have anything like that, see if you can find the purpose in the work you need to do. How will it help you reach future goals? Is there a way you can make it more meaningful? If that’s too much of a stretch, how can you make it more interesting? Pick a tighter deadline, make it a competition, or turn it into a game.
  • Get clear on what you’re working on. We can’t get into flow if we don’t know what we’re doing so make sure you know what the plan is when you sit down to get started. It’s helpful to have a clear goal in mind or a written list on what you want to accomplish.
  • Pick a time of day where you’re most alert. It’s much easier to drop into a flow state when we’re naturally more alert and don’t have to force it. Do you tend to think better earlier in the day? At night? If you’re not sure, experiment and see what works best for you. Whatever time you choose, block it off on your calendar and protect that time for flow.
  • Eliminate distractions. Notice that I didn’t say minimize. We literally cannot get into a state of flow when we’re distracted, even if we have every other element in place. If you’re working on your computer, turn off notifications, hide the dock, put your phone in another room, and only have the tab or project open that you’re working on. If you’re working in a public place like a library or café, face the wall and wear noise canceling headphones. If you’re at home, tell others not to disturb you during your scheduled flow time.
  • Make sure you’re well rested and fed. We can’t drop into flow if we’re exhausted, burned out, overwhelmed, or hungry. Prepare for your flow time like you would a test or job interview.

When it comes to work, flow doesn’t usually just happen. We need to put some things in place to encourage it. But once you achieve it, you’ll be hooked. It maximizes our productivity, creativity, and efficiency. And we end up with more time left over to enjoy other parts of our lives. Let me know how it goes for you!

Recognized nationally for her expertise, Dr. Melanie has been invited to the White House to discuss the paramount importance of teen mental health. You can order your copy of Dr. Melanie McNally’s book, "The Emotionally Intelligent Teen,” through Amazon.

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