Getting into flow will save you time (so you can get more done)

Is time your biggest leadership challenge? Would you like find more time in your day so you can get more done?

Improving your focus at work saves you time because you’re using the time you have more efficiently.  This sounds simple enough, but actually staying focussed for the whole day is the hard part. With so many tempting distractions, your attention can easily be drawn elsewhere. Like me, you probably end up doing several things at once, with every task taking longer to complete.

We call this “multi-tasking” but what you’re actually doing is jumping very quickly (and frequently) from one task to another. In the end, you’re much less productive. And if you pay attention to your state of mind, you might notice that you’re scattered, anxious or very stressed.

Time then becomes the target of your frustration. If only I had more time!

Research has found that time is fluid and emotions can actually impact on the way we perceive time (Dawson & Sleek, 2018). Fear tends to make time seem longer, while excitement makes it feel like time is going faster. But the time available to you to get stuff done doesn’t actually change. It’s you that changes – both the way you work, but more importantly, your state of mind.

If you’ve got a productivity tool or a time hack that actually works for you – go for it! The hack that works best for me is called the pomodoro technique. This is a half hour period of time, where I decide consciously to focus, without distractions, followed by a short break. You can read about this and other time management techniques at this useful website.

Unfortunately, time management techniques only work if you actually do them! And the reality is, unless you’re setting intentions to focus wholeheartedly on a task every half hour, and doing that for the whole day, you’re probably still struggling to get through your To Do List.

Getting into a flow state


When my time management hack actually works, I am able to focus intensely on the task at hand, to the exclusion of all distractions, and I start to experience intrinsic enjoyment from engaging in my task. Positive psychology calls this a flow state, also known as “being in the zone”.

Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi coined the term “flow” to describe the experience of being so fully absorbed in an activity that all distractions are shut out. A key feature of the flow state is the way it changes our perception of time. In the sheer enjoyment of the moment, you are completely focussed and energised, and time seems to fly by.

Csikszentmihalyi’s research (1990) demonstrates how the flow state can be actively cultivated.  You need a clear goal, clear feedback as you progress your task, and a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task and your perceived skills. This balance between challenge and skill gives you the confidence you need to move forward with your task, and to get into flow.

Making a conscious decision to focus doesn’t guarantee that you will reach a flow state. Flow involves more than just setting a goal and sticking to it. Intentional focus will certainly help you to save time and get more done. But when you’re in flow, you will notice a quality of intense focus accompanied by intrinsic enjoyment.

Do you want and need more of that? I’ve upgraded my time management hack into a Flow Experiment which I invite you to try. It’s designed to take your focus to the next level.

The Flow Experiment


1.  Choose a task with the right level of challenge and enjoyment
Choose a task that offers just the right level of challenge. If it’s too challenging it could cause you stress or anxiety, but if it’s not challenging enough, you’ll be bored. Given that flow states involve cultivating enjoyment as well as focus, it helps to choose a task that you’re likely to enjoy.  

2.  Set a manageable time commitment
Set a time commitment – say half an hour – as this will help you stay focussed. Once you are in a state of flow, you will no longer need specific time commitments. When you enter the stream of flow, you will have the momentum to keep going. But to get started, the time commitment is a useful tool.

3. Reduce tempting distractions
Take concrete steps to reduce possible distractions, for example, by turning off your email and social media accounts. You could even turn off your phone! Make a conscious choice not to get drawn into to your usual distractions. Once you are in flow, the distractions will no longer tempt you.

4.  Consciously set your intention do the task
Set your intention to do the task wholeheartedly. This means avoiding multi-tasking and focusing on just one thing at a time.  A lot of people think they can skip this instruction and multi-task effectively. This is an experiment, however, so don’t skip over this point. Just do one thing at a time.

5. Relax and don’t judge yourself when you’re not in flow
Maintain a relaxed and calm state as you work. If you get distracted, don’t judge yourself. Just return to your task. This is an important skill that mindfulness teaches us – coming back to your object of focus with kindness and acceptance.

6.  Enjoy being in flow but know when to stop
Being in flow is so intrinsically enjoyable that no external reward is needed. But if you’ve been in a flow state, it’s great to acknowledge this and enjoy it! When your energy begins to flag, or other demands need your attention, make a conscious choice to step out of your flow. With rest, you’ll have all the energy you need for your next period of flow.

I’d love to hear how your Flow Experiment goes. I’ve presented the experiment as a way to improve your focus at work, but when you learn how to cultivate flow states, you can put it in to practice in any aspect of your life – exercise, health, hobbies, relationships, family – even spirituality. When you’re in flow, there’s time for it all!

Maria Brett
The Growing Edge

Maria Brett is a former CEO who has been a practitioner of mindfulness for more than 25 years. Maria’s Courageous Leadership Program helps develop courageous leaders by helping them make deep and lasting changes – from the inside out – to the way they lead. To find out more, contact Maria.

References

Csíkszentmihályi, M., 1990. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harper Collins, USA

Dawson, J. and Sleek, S., 2018.The Fluidity of Time: Scientists Uncover How Emotions Alter Time Perception in Observer, Association for Psychological Science, USA.

© Maria Brett, 2022