In Search of Flow: A Guide to Making Your Work Effortless
Bob Dylan once said that his best songs were the ones that took the least effort: “Just about as much time as it takes to write it down is about as long as it takes to write it”.
I want that. Seriously. I want to be able to sit down for a writing session and tap into a part of my brain that knows exactly what to say and how to say it and all I have to do is let my fingers type the words.
I want to be in flow.
Right now, I’m in the opposite of flow. I agonize over sentences, fiddle with them, then delete them, only to write them again. I convince myself that I suck and that everyone agrees that I suck, all the while fighting the urge to check Facebook just in case something important happened in the last eight minutes. I can’t imagine that anybody’s best and most creative work could come from a place of such struggle.
It made me wonder — what would it take to be able to write in a Bob Dylan-like state? I decided to learn about this mysterious thing called flow, and see if I could find it for myself.
What is flow, exactly?
Flow is when you become so immersed in an activity that you forget about yourself and everything around you. Where time passes, but you hardly notice because you’re in a state of total focus, control and effortless action. It’s the the ultimate state of consciousness.
Professional athletes and artists enter a state of flow all the time. Just look at Roger Federer returning a 140 mph serve, or Keri Strugg landing a vault with an injured ankle at the 1996 Olympic Games to win her team a gold medal, or Cody Townsend skiing down an ridiculously narrow vertical chute. They fall into an intense, almost unconscious state and proceed to flawlessly perform some mind-boggling feat. And they make it all look so easy.
“In flow, every action, each decision, leads effortlessly, fluidly, seamlessly to the next. It’s high-speed problem solving; it’s being swept away by the river of ultimate performance.” Steven Kotler, The Rise of Superman
A better and more relatable definition of flow comes from Tim Ferriss who calls it ‘effortless output’—a higher state of consciousness where we produce and perform our best work with ease. Even then, it’s an abstract concept. The idea of ‘effortless output’ or getting ‘in the zone’ isn’t so easy to define, much more quantify.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a pioneer in the field of flow psychology, however, identified a number of elements that, when present, are known to trigger a state of flow:
- A challenging activity that requires skills, typically involving a certain degree of complexity, where level of skill and the challenge are in alignment. The below chart illustrates that even a novice can experience flow because the level of difficulty is just enough for his beginner skills.
- The merging of action and awareness. The presence of a high level concentration and mental discipline that, in performance, appear to be effortless and automatic.
- Clear goals and feedback and a clear, constant gauge of what needs to be improved and adjusted.
- Total concentration on the activity, with only specific external inputs being allowed into awareness.
- Total control over the situation, and complete trust in decision making abilities.
- No awareness of the self or of time
How we can find flow in our everyday lives
I’m not competing for a gold medal in gymnastics or performing my songs in an arena full of fans, and I’m certainly not about to jump out of an airplane any time soon. I sit behind a computer and write. I drive a minivan. A trip to Target is about as exciting as it gets. Not exactly high-stakes games here, so for me (and perhaps for you too) finding flow certainly becomes more difficult, but not impossible.
How does it work for the bulk of us?
The simple answer is to find ways to mimic the elements of flow that I outlined above: find challenging activities that match our particular skills and learn to perform them with total focus and concentration.
I like to think of it as productivity on steroids, where mastering concentration and focus is just a part of the equation (the ‘output’ part). The ongoing learning and practice of new skills must be present, so that we can continue to pursue bigger and more complex challenges that put us back into that ‘effortless’ state.
1. Find the sweet spot between skills and challenges
The first step is to find an activity that has the right amount of challenge and complexity. This is about getting out of autopilot mode and exploring new and unpredictable things. If it’s too easy, you’ll get bored, but if it’s too hard you’ll become anxious. It should be specific enough where you can set a goal and measure your progress.
Learning an instrument is a perfect example of finding a specific and measurable challenge where feedback is clear and immediate. Writing for a blog, on the other hand, isn’t so black and white, in which case you have to create your own gauge for progress. Maybe you want to measure the increase in page views, comments, or shares, or a decrease in the number of drafts you write or hours spent writing (this is what I am tracking)— whatever metric you deem important for improvement is what matters.
2. Deconstruct the activity
Now, pay close attention to the small details, the little steps required to complete the activity. What is involved? How can you do it better, faster or more efficiently? What skills do you need to learn or improve on?
Deconstructing a blog post, for example, might include analyzing every step of the brainstorming or outlining process, how you go about writing headlines, or developing a compelling argument. I struggle with creating and sticking to a solid outline and as a result I find myself frequently going off on lofty tangents that do nothing for my argument. That in mind, I’ve been reviewing and tweaking my own process (with great difficulty) in hopes that a more thorough planning system will improve how the writing comes together.
3. Make it a game
There is a lot of monotony in practice, but it’s the most important part of the skill-building process. Small games are particularly effective because they provide immediate feedback, and they’re fun, which translates into faster improvement.
As a kid, Sidney Crosby used to shoot hockey pucks into his parent’s dryer. Rory McIlroy played a similar game with golf balls. If you’re learning the guitar, see how many chord transitions you can complete in a minute. And then try to beat your score. And if you’re trying to write an awesome blog post, see how many minutes you can work before you encounter the urge to do something else (my current record: 9 minutes).
If you can count it, time it, or measure, you can turn it into a game.
4. Practice single-tasking
The ability to focus on a single activity is the cornerstone of productivity, and it requires that we learn to direct our attention and energy on your chosen task with increasing levels of intensity.
- Create a distraction-free environment. Find a place where you can work without distractions, and yes, that includes turning off your notifications and devices and anything that could interrupt your work. It’s an obvious one, but one that most of us conveniently forget to do.
- Set a time constraint. Start with five or ten minutes of focused work, after which you can reward yourself with a break. I’m particularly fond of the Pomodoro Technique which chunks work into 25 minute intervals followed by short breaks.
- Shake things up. Break away from your habits and routines. It could be as simple as brushing your teeth with the opposite hand, your brain is demanding your focus and attention.
- Meditate: Because with even ten minutes a day our ability to control thoughts, attention, and filter out distractions improves.
Exercise has an enormous impact on how our brains function, and even a short amount of moderate to intense activity (10–20 minutes) before sitting down to work is an extremely, if not the most, effective way to improve productivity, creativity, focus and general mental performance.
Putting in the effort to make work effortless
It’s a bit ironic that we have to work so hard to get to a place where the work becomes effortless. We spend months and years in uncomfortable, deliberate practice just to find a few hours, minutes or even seconds of flow (which is still never guaranteed).
I’m happy to report that in the past few weeks I’ve found myself totally immersed in writing for very short but satisfying pockets of time, where, for a few moments, my self-conscious wandering mind shuts down and I write from the gut.
The rest of the time, I’m either monkeying around, ‘practicing’, or forcing myself to focus, and it’s a drag and a struggle. But I continue because it’s how I’ll get better.
If excellence is the goal, then we owe it to ourselves to find flow in our own lives.