Ashley Uy volunteering at a GDG Design Sprint event

Bringing out “The State of Flow”

“Well, when you are really involved in this completely engaging process of creating something new, as this man is, he doesn’t have enough attention left over to monitor how his body feels, or his problems at home. He can’t feel event that he is hungry or tired. His body disappears, like none of us do, to really do well something that requires a lot of concentration, and at the same time to feel that he exists.”
– Excerpt from transcript of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TED Talk

We’ve been given the impression that “flow” is this magical place that just happens in an instance, like a ribbon of inspiration, that comes when the heavens deem it to be the right time. This impression has often given us the excuse to not do consistent work and only do things “when we feel like it”. In contrast, people like me who have control issues and work hard but not in a smart way, don’t give ourselves enough time and awareness that we simply grind it out sometimes and end up just mindlessly working, not experiencing happiness or “ecstasy” (as per the TED Talk) that will help us feel content and continue to work sustainably.

In my journey, I’ve gotten a grasp of what the in-between looks like. I’m most definitely still working on it as I’ll explain further at the end of this post, but hopefully the methods I’ve found so far will help you in your journey as well.

Write down what you have to do for the day and focus on doing just that then schedule everything else

It’s easy for us to get distracted especially in this day and age but, as defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi above, being in the flow is “when you are really involved in this completely engaging process of creating something new” where you are truly focused on just one thing or on one theme of things that you forget that you even exist.

That means you shouldn’t jump from one tab or app or chat room or task to another for you to be able to emanate this state of mind. Make a list of five to six items only. See if you can get the items in that list done within the day. Most likely you won’t get them all done, and that’s okay because that’s the point. Doing this first step will tell you how many kinds of tasks you can do and finish in a certain period of time (also called your velocity). The more you practice, the better you will become at knowing which tasks you can get done and focus on for the day.

This video from David Brown talks about his methods of sorting and organizing his tasks in Asana, a project management tool. It’s techniques like these that you can implement when practicing this exercise.

Setup your environment for good self-motivation

Some of us work in team environments where it’s important for us to stay connected with others. In this situation, it is even more imperative that you are aware to not be a reactor. Meaning, you shouldn’t be the kind of person who simply reacts to the elements around them and who eventually feels like they are no longer in control of their own time.

Some “tells” that show that you are being reactive is when you let meetings take over your day or when you let responding to emails be your only task where afterwards you’ll feel unhappy and unaccomplished despite the long day.

Make it a point to set a time for yourself where you can get some peace and allow yourself to go through your five or six things in the list and get them done. For David Brown, it’s thirty minutes in the beginning, middle, and end of the day. For me, it’s the morning in between ten to eleven, and again in the afternoon from one to three. Define that for yourself, stick to it, and most importantly, communicate it to your team so that it’s a collective effort.

When you do get that peace and quiet, it helps to have a good work space where it’s clean, well-lit, and has good seating. On emergencies and on days where I can’t pick where I am working, a warm drink (coffee or milk) and a lo-fi playlist usually gives me a good push to get me to start working and then eventually absorbed in the activity of getting the tasks of the day done. 

Always take care of yourself first

You’re already pushing to form a new habit, don’t make it more difficult for yourself. Make sure your foundations are set and that you aren’t sleepy or hungry. If you are, get your basics covered first and make sure you’re in a state where you’re ready to take on work and deliver quality, not just to slog through it.

There’s a saying that talks about “treat(ing) your body like a temple” and as cheesy as I think that sounds, there is truth to it. This is easier said than done, of course, so also take this slow. If you’re hungry, make sure you get access to a good hearty meal and if you’re sleepy, take a rest. Once these basics are covered, go to your work space that you have ideally pre-prepared, look at (or work on but not for more than 30 minutes) your day’s todo list, try to go through it, and see what happens by the end of the day.

Try to not judge or be too hard on yourself. Simply observe how you did, acknowledge both your success and lapses, and try again tomorrow.

In my quest for productivity, I am still working on pacing. I tend to rush things, driven by the mindset of reaching my goals but forgetting about my own happiness and well-being. I sometimes wonder if I really am in the state of flow or am I just in this “slog” that I keep referring to and if I’ve just been getting better at the slog but not really achieving happiness and flow. I know I’ll be the only person who can solve this problem but hopefully as I share my progress you’ll be able to work on you as well and find your own way of bringing out your own state of flow. Have you cracked the code? What are some of the practices that you’ve found work for you?

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