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  • Vanessa Barajas, MPH

How To Get In The Flow

One of the best feelings at work is being in the zone—work feels effortless, you’re mentally free to execute and apply your skills with no distracting thought whatsoever, and we even lose track of time.

Those who have experienced “getting into the flow” describe a beautiful combination of heightened focus and increased ability to handle complicated or creative work—outside sounds and distractions melt away and all that’s left is a calm and joyous and meditative relationship with work. Sounds pretty great, right?

For many, it’s a fleeting experience that comes when we least expect it, and when we’re least thinking about it. However, getting into the flow state doesn’t have to be this mystical thing. The flow state is attainable.

When we are engaged in effortful focus, the brain’s central executive network (CEN) is engaged. When we are “doing nothing,” the default mode network (DMN) takes over. This part of the brain is associated with daydreaming, but it plays an important neurological role. Our levels of activity are significantly higher when in the DMN, even though we don’t look like we’re doing much at all. Counterintuitively, this part of the brain is also active during flow.

When we are in a flow state, our minds are fully engaged in the task at hand in a way that seems to free up other parts of our brain to make connections. Although you are working, flow is inherently restorative and pleasurable. When in flow, dopamine is released. This neurotransmitter makes you feel more relaxed, optimistic, energized, and dedicated to the task at hand.

Here are some ways to get you into the flow state:

Create a mental cue for yourself to enter the flow state. In other words, do something special each time before you sit down to go into a flow state. Whether it’s repeating a special sentence or affirmation, taking a few deep breaths, a quick meditation or anything else. Just do that same exact thing each time you want to get into the flow state. Each time you follow your cue, you tell your brain that it’s time to get to work.

Eliminate external distractions. It’s been proven by research that in order to reach flow state, you must eliminate all external distractions. Every time you get pulled out of your focus, you’ll be taken further away from the flow state. You can get into flow state when you can focus with undivided attention for at least 10 to 15 minutes.

Therefore, it’s critical that you put your phone away and disable all alerts and notifications, as this is the biggest source of distractions nowadays. Close all social media & email tabs if it’s not required to be open for work, remove all unnecessary files and objects from your workspace and preferably go to a quiet environment. This will protect you from being disrupted and allows you to enter a state of hyperfocus, which is the most important element of reaching flow state.

According to research, whenever you get distracted it takes on average 25 minutes to gain back your full attention on the task at hand. This is because of something called ‘attention residue’, which implies that some of your attention is still left behind at the previous task or distraction that you were dealing with.

Besides eliminating external distractions, you also need to eliminate internal distractions. Whenever you experience stress or have too much on your mind, it’ll be incredibly hard to keep your mind focused on your task at hand — and therefore it’ll be impossible to reach a flow state.

If this happens regularly to you, try two things:

  • Journaling every morning and evening

  • Daily meditation (at least 5 minutes)

Both will help you clear your mind, limit mind wandering and help you control your thoughts.

Work when you have the most energy. Getting into flow state is hard if you are low on energy. You need to have the willpower to focus on just one thing and not get distracted along the way. Tapping into your willpower and attention is energy draining, so you absolutely need to do it when your mind is sharp and energized. If you try to get into a flow state when you are tired, it’ll feel like an uphill battle where you get distracted much easier and have less willpower to stay with your tasks for long enough to get into a state of flow.

Therefore, use your mornings to get into a flow state. Another option would be to enter the flow state right after you take a real break of about 15–30 minutes, and not one in which you fill your attention to the brim by checking social media or email.

Have a clear goal. Whenever you lack clarity about what you want to accomplish, your brain will struggle to get into optimum concentration. Therefore, clearly set out what you’d like to accomplish to avoid this mental hurdle.

When you have a clear outcome or goal, you make sure you prevent mind wandering and internal distractions. If you don’t have a clear outcome, you don’t know exactly when you’re finished with your task. Procrastination loves it when this lack of clarity exists, as it’ll try to push you towards quitting earlier or switch to easier tasks instead.

Lastly, to reach the flow state, work on one task at a time. When it’s not exactly clear what you’re supposed to work on, you’ll either switch between multiple different tasks too quickly or get distracted much easier. Both will prevent you from getting into a flow state. Therefore, pick one specific task that you’re going to work on. Maybe it’s writing an email, completing a report, making a call, or researching community resources. Be very clear about what exactly you’re going to work on.

Keep in mind that getting into the flow state requires practice. If you're not able to get into the flow today, that’s ok. The same practices of reducing distractions and cutting multitasking can help you focus on work. You can still get great work done without being in the flow every single day.

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