Legend has it that flow (and amphetamines!) also aided Jack Kerouac in writing his final draft of On the Road, typing the entire novel on a 120-foot roll of paper in just three weeks. In his advice to writers, Kerouac recommends that they “struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind.” Fortunately, flow is not just for artists or athletes. We regular folk don’t have to climb a mountain or write a novel to experience flow; it can be found while reading a good book, enjoying a deep conversation, playing video games — or even working at the office.
Flow is the experience of being “completely engaged in a challenging activity,” says Gary Gute, associate professor of applied human sciences at the University of Northern Iowa. When that engagement happens, he says, time is distorted, self-consciousness disappears, and you enjoy the experience so much you want to repeat it again and again.
Researchers at McKinsey & Company surveyed more than 5,000 business leaders on whether they and their teams have experienced a state of flow. The executives reported that “they and their employees are in the zone at work less than 10 percent of the time,” but when they are, they estimate they’re five times more productive.
So how can you tap into flow, both at home and in the office, not only to get more work done but to get more enjoyment from it, too?
There are a few specific changes that occur when the brain is in a state of flow. Activity decreases in a set of regions called the default mode network, which gets turned on when the mind wanders. This includes a section of the prefrontal cortex involved in self-reflection. At the same time, there’s increased activity in another part of the prefrontal cortex that’s critical for attention, enabling you to focus solely on the job in front of you. Regions that process feelings of reward also get turned on, which explains how a task performed in a state of flow becomes intrinsically motivating.
The optimal setup at work
It’s one thing to get into this mental state while you’re playing a piano solo or skiing a black diamond slope, but what about when you’re staring down an Excel spreadsheet?
It’s not as far-fetched as you might think. In fact, Csikszentmihalyi was most interested in how the experience of flow could be incorporated into the more mundane aspects of everyday life. The key is to optimize your external and internal environments.
First and foremost, create a physical space where you’re able to focus. An office where people are frequently interrupted and distracted is a problem from the point of view of finding flow, says Zsadany Vecsey, who worked with Csikszentmihalyi and others to create Fligby, a gaming solution that teaches people how to be better business leaders using the principles of flow. “That kind of focus is missing, normally, in the modern workplace.”
Some of the biggest flow-killers at work are emails, notifications, and other distractions that shatter your concentration. Multitasking hinders flow, too, because your attention is divided. If you need to get into flow, close your email and Slack or set to Do Not Disturb, tell a manager or coworkers that you won’t be able to respond immediately for the next hour or two, and put your phone on silent and out of sight if you can. Also try scheduling meetings for either the morning or afternoon so you can block off the rest of the day for deep concentration.
It’s important to pay attention to your physical and emotional state, too. If you’re physically uncomfortable — tired, hungry, needing to use the bathroom — it can be difficult to ignore those sensations and lose yourself in a task. Similarly, if you’re feeling emotional, whether it’s positive or negative, you probably won’t be able to disengage and focus on the work.