Years ago, leading up to the holiday rush, I used to gift-wrap presents at the independent bookshop in my hometown.
I’d put on holiday music and get in the zone. Although the task may have seemed menial and repetitive, I got into a flow state that carried me through the day. Paper cuts aside, I loved the work.
This state of flow is characterized by a few key components: a sense of meaning, depth of focus, effortlessness, and suspended perception of time. Together, these ingredients create an optimal work environment.
Research suggests that if you can cultivate the flow in your daily life, the benefits don’t just stop at job performance — the flow state of mind also contributes to health and well-being. But as soon as we try to bottle up the feeling and carry it into less appealing tasks, it seems to elude us. Rather than getting in the flow, we end up disengaged and working harder than ever on work we just don’t appreciate.
Thankfully, cutting-edge psychological research can help us cultivate flow when we’re elbow-deep in work we don’t want to do. When facing difficult tasks, we can experience meaning, move through challenges, and embrace productivity while easing stress.
Quite simply, flow psychology offers an alternative to the daily grind: a way of working that is easier, more effective, and more enjoyable.
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What is the flow state?
At the bookshop, I got lost in my work — in a good way. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who pioneered the psychology of flow, describes these kinds of tasks as autotelic activities. Autotelic activities are subjective — they depend on the mindset and the preferences of the individual.
I’ve always loved gift wrapping, so it’s not a surprise that I eased into the flow state in my job. Some people feel that same sense of immersion when they’re in a yoga class or cooking a meal at the end of the day.
An autotelic activity is one we do for its own sake because to experience it is the main goal.
The science of getting in ‘flow’
Getting into an autotelic state has the power to transform your work — and your life. Not only does it allow you to derive a strong sense of meaning and pleasure from your work, it heightens your abilities to “superhero” levels.
Steven Kotler, who wrote the book “The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance,” credits increased performance to a mix of five neurochemicals the brain releases during this state: norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin.
Kotler summarizes their impact in Harvard Business Review:
Motivationally, these five chemicals are the biggest rewards the brain can produce, and flow is one of the only times the brain produces all five simultaneously. This makes the state one of the most pleasurable, meaningful and — literally — addictive experiences available.
In the flow state, you exhibit increased brain function. It’s easier for you to process data and it leads to deeper thinking, which is vital in the midst of information overload.
A study by McKinsey & Company points to the practical effects of these changes in the workplace. Executives in a state of flow are five times more productive than their counterparts. On a smaller scale, their research suggests that if you increase your time in the flow by 15 to 20 percent, you can double productivity.
Kotler’s work also suggests that the flow state of mind has enormous health benefits. Specifically, this mindset amplifies the immune system, flushing out stress-causing hormones and promoting personal well-being. Csikszentmihalyi traces the flow back to Taoism — like many Eastern spiritual practices, this approach nurtures deep engagement, contentment, and joy.
6 steps to getting in the flow state
There’s no magic bullet for amazing work, but the flow state is every person’s best chance of reaching peak levels of performance and fulfillment. Although it may seem as elusive as enlightenment, you can get into the flow by developing a new perspective on work. We broke it down into six simple steps.
1. Debunk myths about work
Beyond the measurable impact on health and productivity, there’s one thing that’s really amazing about being in the flow: it’s enjoyable. Working in the flow feels very different than working out of the flow:
In the flow, you feel a sense of ease, relaxed focus, immersion, a suspension of time, a keen sense of purpose, and joy.
Out of the flow, you feel stressed, disjointed, forced, scattered, strapped for time, unfocused, and disempowered.
Csikszentmihalyi’s research shows that people are most likely to experience flow characteristics when a task or project hits a sweet spot — what he calls a “challenge/skills balance.” These challenging circumstances stretch people to grow without completely overbearing them.
But even if people created the perfect challenge/skills balance, they’re not necessarily going to enjoy their work. There’s a simple reason why: a lot of employees think work is supposed to suck. They equate effort and discomfort with productivity. They believe that grueling, unpleasant, and unyielding toil creates a higher-quality end result. The flow state feels too peaceful and enjoyable to be efficient.
The good news is that the opposite is true. When people get caught up in the struggle and the distractions of the modern workplace, their time evaporates into busy work and procrastination — and they still go home exhausted.
So, before you try to dive into the flow, make sure you’re debunking any outdated assumptions about work. Devoting yourself to a task can and should be challenging, fulfilling, and filled with ease.
2. Connect to a clear purpose
One absolute requirement for the flow state of mind is a clear sense of purpose. You need to feel an authentic connection to the meaning behind your work to devote yourself to fulfilling it in the moment.
When I worked at the bookshop, I felt intrinsically connected to the joy people felt when they opened the gifts I wrapped. That joy permeated my work. Even less-than-jolly activities can still bring a deep sense of meaning to the participants.
A 2003 study cited by Fast Company found that janitors at a hospital (who emptied bedpans and cleaned up vomit) felt that they were part of a team that healed people. Their perspective brought an immense sense of purpose. What’s more powerful than helping patients to heal?
Dan Pontefract, who is an expert on purpose and the workplace, differentiates this kind of “purpose mindset” from a job or career mindset in the Harvard Business Review. Rather than working for the paycheck or advancement, people’s actions are driven by both their personal and professional sense of purpose. You can tell because they’re passionate, committed, and innovative.
Pontefract recommends that people cultivate meaning by crafting a personal declaration of purpose that ties their current role to their personal mission:
The declaration is a simple statement about how you decide to live each and every day. Make it succinct, specific, jargon-free, and expressive. Your statement ought to be personal, and it should integrate your strengths, interests, and core ambitions.
When I became a writer, I created my own declaration: “To see clearly and with compassion.” If you’re struggling to connect the dots, consider the “why” behind the most fulfilling part of your job. You can also use this template from Pontefract to help you take a job description and whittle it down to a simple statement.
3. Develop a "flow mindset"
The flow state is elusive. We experience it for a few minutes only to lose it just as quickly. Autotelic personalities — people wired to embrace the flow mindset — give us a blueprint for learning how to transform the flow state from an exceptional experience into the modus operandi of our work lives.
Autotelic personalities play to a combination of complementary (and seemingly oppositional traits) that give them a unique approach to work. Nicola Baumann summarizes the characteristics that create a balance present in autotelic personalities:
The need to achieve
Openness to novelty
Bias toward action
Focused on mastery
Of all these complementary characteristics, one key trait is a positive, “fail first” mindset. Autotelic people are biased toward action, leaning into new experiences rather than doubting their abilities.
Despite their similarity to all high-achievers, autotelic individuals stand out because of their intrinsic motivation. They’re not performing for anyone; they’re mastering the unique task for the joy of it. Because these individuals are not attached to a specific outcome, they’re freer to get into the flow. Csikszentmihalyi calls this unique mindset "disinterested interest” — these individuals are more attached to the inherent fulfillment in the task than its reception.
Although this description may seem like a far cry from the average employee, there are ways to cultivate autotelic characteristics. Start by focusing on the specific task in front of you. If you find yourself thinking about other topics — or any external repercussions for the work — bring your attention back to the task, and focus on mastery of the task itself.
You can also incorporate positive imagery into your day-to-day routine. One study of runners in Qatar found that working with powerful imagery helped amplify the runners’ experience of the flow. Before you start a new task, imagine moving through the task seamlessly. Even a few seconds of imagination can help get you into a state of flow.
4. Limit external distractions
“Flow follows focus” is a simple phrase from Steven Kotler to keep in your back pocket. To get in the flow, you need deep focus. That’s why distractions are also the biggest hurdles to creating the flow state in the modern workplace.
Whether your primary responsibility is project based or customer facing, you are going to get pings, beeps, taps, and texts pulling you away from the present moment. One expert estimated that these accumulated distractions cost the average worker six hours of lost time per day. Ultimately, they limit productivity because they deter the flow state — every time you sink into a new task, you’re pulled into another action.
But every job, no matter what it is, requires sustained periods of focus to fulfill a primary responsibility. As Wharton professor Adam Grant says, “To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction.”
At one point last year, I found myself working on my laptop and my phone while watching the news in the same room. From that day on, I created a one-screen rule. When I’m working, I put my phone in in a file cabinet for a couple of hours. I close all unnecessary browsers, and I put on headphones.
To the extent you can, severely limit digital distractions. Only keep browsers or tools open that are crucial to your job performance and directly contribute to the task in front of you. Be ruthless about shutting down unnecessary technology.
5. Drop multitasking and batch tasks
Instead of peppering your work day with one-off administrative or reactive tasks, batch responsibilities together by topic. When you’re responding to emails, just respond to emails. When you’re talking to a customer, really talk to the customer.
Batching tasks takes more effort — you have to plan out your day in advance and create transparency with coworkers and bosses. Plus, you’re always going to be tempted away from the state of flow by emails, calls, and even coworkers showing up at your desk. But the benefits are unparalleled.
Cal Newport, a Georgetown professor and the author of “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World,” describes the effect of batching on the flow state of mind and his workflow:
...The percentage of time spent in a flow state was as large as I’ve experienced in recent memory. I ended up spending 2.5 hours focused on my writing project and 3.5 hours focused on my research paper. That’s six hours, in one day, of focused work with zero interruptions; not even one quick glance at email.
Imagine the benefits you would reap from six hours of uninterrupted time!
To test it out, set aside chunks of time to do a group of tasks at once. When you’re done completing a batch of tasks, write them down on a have-done list. By acknowledging small wins, you give yourself momentum and ensure you’re getting real work done.
That said, sometimes it’s really difficult for a professional to step away from reactive work because it’s at the heart of their purpose.
If your boss doesn’t think it’s a good idea for you to step away from emails for hours at a time, try to get creative. Show up to work early for an hour of uninterrupted time, or carve out “meeting times” three times a week when you can immerse yourself in the flow state. Even the most harried employees can come up with a way to boost their focus.
6. Practice mindfulness
“Mindfulness” is a buzzword in both personal and professional spheres. As easy as it is to brush off this approach as a fad, its underlying purpose can help you to implement flow psychology. Without mindfulness, any rogue thought or immediate demand can pull you away from the most important tasks on your desk.
Related: How Practicing Mindfulness Can Lead to Better Decisions
Being present — with your emotions, thoughts, projects, and other people — is a verified shortcut to getting in the flow. To benefit from mindfulness (and step into the flow) incorporate some regular practices into your day-to-day. Anna Black, author of “Mindfulness @ Work,” suggests introducing mindful behaviors when things are going well. That way, when you hit a rough patch, you have already practiced the tools that can help you stay in the flow state.
Here are a few go-to mindfulness techniques from Black’s book:
Feet on the floor
Bring your attention to your feet. Feel the contact between the soles of your feet and your socks and shoes. Push your feet slightly into the floor, and recognize how firm the ground is under your feet — from your toes to your heels. By bringing your attention to your feet, you keep yourself grounded.
The mindful minute
Set a timer for one minute. Count your breath until the timer goes off. Do this a few times to calculate your average breaths per minute. Now you know how many breaths you take per minute. A few times a day, set aside a minute to breathe until you reach that number.
The breathing space
Notice how you feel in the moment — your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. As Black summarizes, “We can only move forward when we know from where we are starting.” So, recognizing your experiences is key. Focus your awareness on your breath. Feel it flowing in and out of your abdomen, and eventually widen your awareness to your body, to your feet, and eventually the room. If you’re experiencing a difficult moment, you can self-soothe by silently repeating the phrase, “It’s OK. It’s OK,” as you move through this process.
This mindful approach to work can help you stay in the flow when you’re about to snap out of it because of a stress response. Let’s say you make a big mistake or read a dismissive email from a colleague — that doesn’t need to stir up a dramatic reaction. By remaining mindful, you can handle the issue and return to the flow state.
Mindfulness can be so impactful in the workplace that Arianna Huffington even makes the case that it creates a competitive advantage, not only for individuals, but for the companies that support the practice.
Getting in the flow is a lifelong skill that will serve you in every challenge, every environment, and every job. By taking you deeper into the present moment, flow psychology moves you effortlessly forward, both personally and professionally. Unlike other productivity tactics, it promises meaning — something that should never be underrated.
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