Focus is essential to getting work done. If you can’t engineer a productive flow to your work, everything crawls to the finish. Tasks become a sluggish crawl to the finish that is both inefficient and almost painful to work through. Any writer that has felt writers block or a programmer stuck on a difficult problem can probably relate from experience.
Focus is also critical for quality. One of the most popular downloads on this site is a free e-book on holistic learning. What I haven’t mentioned is that I wrote the entire e-book in one sitting. The 10,000+ word document I finished in a five hour marathon session of writing. This was all possible because I engineered a state of flow.
Flow – The Key to Happy and Productive Work
Athletes often describe it as “being in the zone” the sensation where self and time disappear and 100% concentration is devoted to the game. Flow, as described in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s bestselling book of the same title, is also one of the most enjoyable experiences.
Getting into this state isn’t always easy. But I’ve found it isn’t strictly the result of creative genius. With practice you can engineer these states and use flow to your advantage. Here are some suggestions I’ve found helpful:
- Eliminate Distractions - This may sound obvious, but it is easily forgotten. How often do you supplement boring activities with additional stimulus? Television, music, radio or IM in the background of your tasks. The problem is that although these distractions may help pass the time, they are destructive when trying to engineer a creative flow.
- Accelerate Slowly – No car can go from 0-100 mph in 2 seconds. Why do you expect your mind to work the same way. Flow implies a certain cognitive motion. I believe this is an apt metaphor. I often spend the first fifteen minutes of an article messing around with the first paragraph and subject. After I build up speed I can write almost as fast as I can type.
- Switch Gears During Roadblocks – It is hard to build up speed when you keep crashing into roadblocks. The best suggestion I have is to build some tools to smooth them out. Work out problems on paper instead of just your head so you won’t break the flow when you encounter a tough problem.
- Carve Clear Rules and Goals – Rules and goals form the highway for your cognitive drive. Imprecise goals are like twists and turns in the highway, forcing you to slow down. Poorly defined rules and standards are like gravel on the highway, preventing you from reaching top speeds. Figure out exactly where you want to end up and what needs to be done to get there before you put your mind into drive.
- Master Your Tools – Know the ins and outs of your vehicle before you start driving. If you use computer based software, schedule out some time to learn minor features that might help you overcome mundane tasks later. If you use physical tools, practice various techniques and motions so you will need less experimenting when you start.
- Environmental Controls – Modify your environment so it fits your ideal of a productive workspace. If your office doesn’t feel right, make some changes until it suits your image of a productive area.
- Dissect Your Stop Signs – Everyone has mental stop signs that keep them from a creative focus. This could be insecurity with your topic, lack of experience, fear or distaste. When you consistently have trouble getting to a peak flow, examine what might be stopping you. When you dissect these stop signs, often you can find detours around them.
- Your Body is an Engine – Don’t draw a firm line between body and mind. If your body is unhealthy, fatigued or toxic, that will influence your brain. Exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet is a must. It is easy to scoff at such a suggestion as being non-essential — until you try it. I was amazed at what a difference a little care for the body can do.
- Avoid Carrots and Sticks – You aren’t a donkey. Don’t expect external rewards to create intrinsic motivation. You are better of redesigning your environment and your tasks to suit your mind, then try and trick your subconscious to behave.
- Timebox - Give yourself a deadline. A deadline is the creative equivalent to getting out and pushing your car when it stalls. It won’t help you when you reach top speeds, but it can help you when you are stuck. Timeboxing is the practice of giving yourself a set amount of time to work (say 60-90 minutes) after which you will take a break. This nukes procrastination and pushes you into gear.
- Patience - It’s a virtue, remember? Moving slowly is uncomfortable. But you need to accept that instant creative acceleration is almost impossible to produce. The first fifteen minutes of writing for me are often frustrating and painful. The last fifteen are effortless. Be patient and you can slowly slip into flow.