As the end of the year approaches, many of us are thinking about what changes we want to make. How we want to approach life and work differently going forward.
For better and worse, over the last decade I’ve probably obsessed more than most about workflow, productivity, and flow.
I recently had a conversation with a friend where we were talking about flow, creativity, and how to up our individual creative performance. We both work in leadership roles with technology teams, so we end up spending a lot of time changing contexts, zooming in/out, collaborating with others, while still trying to find a way to do our own deep work. A very common challenge in modern knowledge work.
He asked me how I thought about flow and setting up my day to get more creative output, and it turned out to be useful so now I’m sharing that here. I get asked this a lot, so hopefully going forward I can just point people here when asked.
This is about generating more flow and top-quality creative output in your life.
At a high level, we’re going to talk about two things:
- What is flow, and why should we want more of it in our lives?
- How do we get more flow in our lives?
As we go through this, I’ll attempt to distinguish between the principles of flow that apply anywhere, and provide specific examples of how I have implemented these principles in my life so you have something to go off of.
Let’s get into it. We start with understanding flow itself.
Flow is defined as an optimal state of consciousness, where you feel and perform at your best. This concept comes out of the world of positive psychology, and the godfather of flow is the late Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, may he rest in peace. He was a true gem and contributor to humanity.
If you’ve ever felt “in the zone,” and totally lost track of time during an activity, that’s flow.
There are four hallmarks of flow, and they are captured in the acronym STER:
- Richness (sensory)
Said another way, four big things happen in flow:
- Action and awareness merge — you become one with the moment
- Your sense of self and self-criticality goes away
- Your sense of time distorts — either speeds way up or slows way down
- Mental and physical performance skyrockets
If you’re curious about what’s happening in your brain in flow, there are two main things I’ll highlight.
First, your brain goes into a state called “transient hypofrontality.” This means that for awhile, parts of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) quiet down and self-criticality goes away.
Now, on a neurochemical level, flow is a crazy chemical cocktail of:
- and sometimes oxytocin, especially in group flow situations
That’s an ultra-addictive mix of the same neurochemicals released by the following drugs: cocaine, MDMA, LSD, marijuana, speed, and sex…
First, flow is strongly linked with a greater sense of wellbeing, accomplishment, meaning, and enjoyment. For almost everyone, getting more flow in your life is going to make a big positive contribution to how you feel about yourself and your life. This is perhaps even more important as we navigate this new post-COVID reality, when, as Adam Grant wrote about in the New York Times, many of us are feeling a sense of languishing, the antidote to which is a sense of progress.
Secondly, flow is a major generator of progress. Every single measure of performance skyrockets in flow. I assert that flow is the single most important factor in doing great, deep work. Not only will flow improve the quality of the work you do, you’ll actually end up getting more time back in your life because you’ll get more out of your work hours. (Assuming you have healthy boundaries around your work, that is.)
Now, the dark side of flow is that it’s so amazing that we can become addicted to our pathways into flow. An example of this is an extreme sports junkie like an obsessive base jumper, but it can happen with something as commonly practiced as yoga.
Flow is not tied to any one activity. It is a psychological state that arises based on certain conditions. Certain activities and environments are more conducive to flow, due to having more flow triggers, which we’ll discuss in a minute.
In short: unless you already have so much flow in your life that the people close to you are worried about your flow activities taking over your life, you would benefit from more flow.
Next, I’ll go over some of the foundational principles of flow that you need to understand. Then, I’ll share some examples of how I put this into action in my life, so you have an example of what it can look like in practice.
The first thing to know is that flow follows focus. It is a game of attention. If you remember nothing else from this piece, remember that: flow is a game of attention. Everything we’ll cover here is about driving your attention into the present moment and keeping it there. That is the only way flow happens.
The second thing to know about flow is that it’s probabilistic, not deterministic. That is, you can increase the likelihood of getting into flow, but it’s never guaranteed. It emerges, and generally happens in a four-stage cycle: struggle, release, flow, and recovery:
- Struggle: first you have to struggle with a task for a little while, while your brain is loading all the information (this is generally not that pleasant)
- Release: eventually, we either relax into the activity or take a break, often to return later and quickly fall into flow (one of the few things you can’t do to move through release is watch TV, by the way)
- Flow: ah, that sweet sweet flow that we all seek. This is where the magic is.
- Recovery: flow takes a lot of resources, especially on a neurobiological level. Your brain and body need a break afterwards.
Finally, realize that flow is a learnable, buildable skill. As my friends at the Flow Research Collective (FRC) say, “the more you flow, the more you flow.” This is called “flow proneness.”
If you want to go deeper into the subject of flow, I highly recommend checking out episode 12 with Rian Doris and Conor Murphy of the Flow Research Collective, which is the leading research and training organization for flow science. They’re terrific and that conversation goes deeper into all of this.
As I mentioned, flow is an emergent state, which means that you have to make it more likely to happen. You can do this by understanding the principles we’ve already covered, and also flow triggers. Flow triggers are factors that increase the likelihood of flow. There are many identified flow triggers, including those more relevant for groups, but I’ll list out five here that an individual can focus on. For more on flow triggers, check out this piece on Steven Kotler’s website.
The main flow triggers that you can immediately put to use are:
- Total concentration in the present moment
- Immediate feedback
- Clear goals
- Challenge-skills balance
- Structuring time according to mind states and mental energy
These are the levers you can most directly pull to enhance your own experience.
Let’s go over each briefly, and then discuss concrete ways to do this.
This is exactly what it sounds like. Your attention has to be in the present moment, on the task at hand, to get into flow.
When your flow is broken and your attention is pulled out of the task, often it is lost, and you have to start all over again. If you’ve experienced it, you have felt how viscerally frustrating this is. (By the way, if you work with engineers and have wondered why they seem so annoyed when they are interrupted, this is why. They were in a great zone and now they have to start the flow cycle over to get back in the zone.)
Ideally, your environment and/or task are giving you rapid feedback about what you’re doing that is or is not working. This makes the activity more engaging as you are dynamically adapting to the feedback.
This is one reason that programming, for example, can be addicting. A programmer can be rapidly writing code and testing it against the system piece by piece, building up something that works. Back when I was a full-time engineer, this was absolutely my favorite thing about that job. I could get hours of delicious flow every day, and it felt great.
To me, this is often the simplest, and yet hardest trigger to get right. We can’t get into flow until we can immerse in an activity, and we can’t do that until we know what we’re supposed to do.
Whatever we can do to make the goal of this activity ridiculously clear, the better. If you get to a work session that you want to be in flow on, and you have to stop to think about what you need to do, your odds of getting in the zone just went way down.
There are two “tells” to indicate if your goals are clear enough:
- If you feel any resistance to starting the task, it’s probably not clear enough. This is a key reason to separate your work strategy/planning and execution.
- If you get to the end of a work block, and there is any ambiguity as to whether or not you completed the task successfully. One way to do this for exploratory research is to add a time criteria, such as “I’m going to research how this works for 45 minutes”.
There is a sweet spot between the level of difficulty of the task and your level of skill. Ideally, you want a challenge that meets or slightly exceeds your level of skill.
If you have a task to do that you want to be in flow on, and it’s below your level of skill, see what you can do to make it more challenging and interesting. One example of this is gamifying your email: can you get through all your email in 20 minutes instead of the hour you originally had planned? That extra challenge can sometimes be enough to do the trick. It’s also a surprising example of a place one can get into flow that I certainly had not thought of.
Another trick you can do, if you’re temporarily on the anxiety side of the challenge-skills balance, is to practice gratitude. Find things to be grateful for in the moment, and this can reduce your anxiety and stress levels enough to increase the odds of getting into flow. This is one trick that I’ve heard of elite extreme sports athletes using before a major competitive run with a lot on the line.
This isn’t technically a flow trigger according to the research, but I think this is such an aid to flow that I consider it practically equivalent.
The core idea here is that our energy changes throughout the day, and so our minds are more suited to different kinds of work at different times. These rhythms tend to be stable. Once you figure out your rhythms, you can increase your likelihood of getting into flow even more.
This has been explored extensively in both research and in practice in high-performance environments. The first book I recall reading on this was “The Power of Full Engagement” by Jim Loehr. More recently, I read the excellent “Mind Management, Not Time Management” by David Kadavy—who, incidentally, I have a soon-to-be-released episode with. I highly recommend the book. The main idea is that there are seven mind states involved in creative work, and some of them will work better at certain times of day for you. Those seven states are:
For our purposes here, Generate is the most important state. This is the state where you are aiming to produce new, usable, creative output. This is “zero to one” time. You can get into flow in any of these states, but it is far and away most important when you are in Generate mode.
A general rhythm that most people follow is being better at convergent thinking in the morning, and divergent thinking in the afternoon. (For some people it’s opposite.) This resonates with the common pattern of people feeling like they have their peak creative output in the morning, where their brain is synthesizing and generating top output. You can set this up even better by reviewing relevant material for that Generate-focused work session the evening before, and letting it incubate in your subconscious overnight for your brain to stitch together in a flow-driven generate state.
Using Kadavy’s seven states, this means that for most people Generate, with lots of flow-powered convergent thinking, should dominate the early part of the day, maybe with some focused research mixed in. Other states like Explore and Polish can also leverage flow, but don’t merit your best creative hours. Again, I highly recommend reading Kadavy’s “Mind Management” book.
Alright, with those flow fundamentals under our belt, let me wrap this up by sharing a few examples of how I do this. Personally, I often find it takes about 20-30 minutes to go through struggle and release. Here are some approaches I use to increase the chances of me getting in flow.
As I cover these examples, keep in mind the distinction between general principles of flow that we just went over, and the many ways they can be applied. These are just the ways of increasing flow-proneness that I am currently using. You’ll find your own. Keep in mind that this is an ideal-state day.
I don’t hit this all the time, but when I’m really serious about getting into flow, this is what I do. I will cover how I:
- manage attention and block distractions
- structure my time
- set up my work in advance for when I get to a work session
I could probably do in-depth pieces on each of these, but let’s get to it.
This is the basic blocking-and-tackling of focused knowledge work. You’ve got to set up your physical and digital environment to minimize distractions when you are trying to get in flow and do deep work.
What you want to do in your physical environments:
- put on noise cancelling headphones if a noisy environment, and pair with music that helps you focus
- find a place to work that doesn’t have loud noise or distraction
- if you’re trying to do more focused, heads-down work, a lower-ceiling room can be helpful
- if you’re trying to do more broad, connective, creative, divergent thinking, then a high-ceiling room or more open space—especially with a view—can be helpful
- turn off notifications by putting your phone and computer in Do Not Disturb or Airplane mode
- close chat, texts, Slack, etc — really anything that can send you a notification and break your focus during this session needs to be silenced
I have Freedom running all the time on my computer, running a sort of “passive blocklist.” During a pre-set schedule of work hours, Freedom is blocking me from a loooong list of websites and applications which distract me. This is my digital equivalent of taking the junk food out of the house when on a diet. I’m protecting myself from my own temptation in the moment. This is running all the time during work hours.
I use Focus when I want to really have a hardcore focused work session, especially if I’m struggling and getting distracted by messages, email, web browsing, or whatever. I turn this on for a set period of time, and it blocks me from pretty much everything I find distracting: email, Slack, iMessage, etc. I can’t even open these applications or turn off the block until time is up. I have also set up the app to activate Do Not Disturb mode on my Mac when I start a focus block. Very handy.
I tend to use noise-cancelling headphones and either listen to instrumental-only electronic music sets, or listen to Brain.fm, which plays music designed to help your brain focus.
On the phone, I tend to put it in Focus / Do Not Disturb mode in every session, and it spends much of its day this way. In iOS 15, Apple recently released more tunable and granular focus modes, but I haven’t gotten around to implementing those yet and just generally kill notifications. I also strongly suggest you turn off as many notifications as you possibly can for the apps on your phone. I want to control what can reach out and interrupt me, and have a rule that by default, I decline notifications from apps. The only app that has essentially unlimited access to interrupt me with a notification is my calendar.
If I’m really having a hard time ignoring my phone-even with notifications off—I’ll use an app called Forest, which sets a soft block and tries to nudge me to put the phone down. Unfortunately, iOS currently doesn’t allow apps to do the kind of blocking on the phone that Freedom and Focus are able to do on the Mac. Then, if I do pick up my phone during a focus block, I see this, encouraging me to put the phone down so my “tree can grow”:
And in general, even a short meditation practice of a few minutes every day will be helpful in developing the capacity to bring your mind back to the present moment.
Structuring time and structuring attention go hand in hand. I’ve blended two approaches to this: daily/weekly planning from Cal Newport, and the previously mentioned creative mind states outlined by David Kadavy.
The key insight here is that task lists are pretty useless, and never-ending. If something isn’t in my calendar, it basically doesn’t exist and it’s probably not happening. Instead, everything I am doing needs to make it’s way onto the calendar and have time allocated for it. This is at the core of Cal Newport’s approach to implementing the ideas in his phenomenal book, Deep Work.
I use Cal Newport’s Time Block planner + Fantastical as my calendar app. Then I map out time blocks for what I need to do, and try to batch them into the parts of the day where my mental energy is optimized for that type of work (per David Kadavy’s post).
This cycle happens on a daily and weekly basis. I do a rough outline of the week, trying to cover the big items on the calendar. Then at the end of each day, I adjust and set up the next day. This is part of the mental shutdown routine that Cal Newport advocates for, and is one of the final things I do in the workday. It helps me let go of work and be present for whatever is coming afterwards.
This is where the rubber really meets the road. Now that I have time blocked out, how do I set up those time blocks and structure the work that goes in them?
This is the tactical level where flow lives and dies. Focus here! I’ve got five steps for you:
- Separate planning and execution
- Time block
- Adjust time block for challenge-skills balance
- Batch and organize your time blocks by energy type / mind state
- Remove friction
Let’s go through these.
Separate your planning/strategy time from your doing time. To put this is the language of Kadavy’s creative mind states, you need Prioritization and Admin time to be separate from your time for Generation, Exploration, Research, and Polishing (but especially Generation).
I like to do a big planning session (Prioritization) on either Monday afternoon or Sunday night to set up the week, and a short shutdown/setup block at the end of each day. The weekly session is to roughly plan out the week, and the daily one is to plan the next day in detail, and to set up clear goals for every work session, as well as remove the friction of starting that task in advance by “setting the table” with everything I’ll need when I get to that task.
Block out the amount of time you think is needed for the task at hand. At first, you’ll get the time estimate wrong, and usually you’ll underestimate. For any meaningful deep work, I try to have time blocks of at least 90 minutes, and up to about 3 hours.
Once you block out what feels like the right amount of time for the activity, define clear goals for it. Remember, you want to make each time blocked task so clear that when you get to it, you feel no resistance or confusion about what you need to do. It should be crystal clear exactly what you need to do and how to get started. Help your future self out and leave yourself a breadcrumb trail now, while you have the context already in mind.
You can stretch time out to give yourself more time for a harder task that you feel anxious about, which will reduce your anxiety. Or, if a task is more rote, tedious, or not challenging, you can crunch down the time you give yourself to make it more challenging and interesting. This is just one way of practicing that wonderful meta-life-skill of finding ways to make things interesting when they aren’t inherently so.
Batch this work block and/or organize with other tasks that require a similar mind state. For example, if I have several Explore tasks that need to be done, I’ll try to batch them into a similar time of day, which for me is usually in the early-mid afternoon.
I’ll also often stick an Admin block in this time as neither needs my best creative energy or flow.
My goal is to remove as many of the distractions and annoying cognitive load as possible, so my that brain can spend its time in creative modes as much as possible.
This involves a few steps, typically when I am planning out work items for the following day during my end of day shutdown routine:
- link to all relevant documents and resources into the calendar event itself. Often, I link to a specific Trello card that has all the context and information I need for a task consolidated.
- if I have an important creative generation session, I’ll try to skim the prep material toward the end of the previous day so my subconscious has time to percolate on it (this is the incubation stage of creativity
- I’ll add the location of any meetings—either the physical address, or the direct link to the call—into the calendar event itself. I do not want to need to go digging around in my email or messages for that information when it’s go-time. I just want to flow from one thing to the next.
- in prioritization or an earlier research session, I’ll set clear goals and potentially outline what I need to later create
It’s a simple concept that can show up many ways. The key principle is to remove as much friction as possible so that when you need to do your work, you don’t have to stop and think, and can just drop into flow and go. This is one of those little optimization tricks that adds up over time, in my experience. But handle the other parts first.
This is really where time blocking and the calendar come to life.
For a calendar, I use Fantastical on Mac/iOS. I prefer it to the default calendar app, especially for its quick event entry feature.
As I mentioned, when I add a work block to the calendar, I try to add direct links to any/all resources on the calendar event itself. I also make extensive use of cross-app linking with Apple’s x-callback-url scheme, which allows you to deep link to an item within apps, and is consistent across both Mac and iOS.
So for example, I’ll have a link to a Trello card in my calendar event for a work block, and then that Trello card may have a link to a note with detailed planning thoughts or notes in the Bear app. The fact that these links work on my laptop or my phone is wonderful and is as close to seamless of an experience as I’ve been able to create.
You’ll also notice in these screenshots that I categorize calendar events/Trello cards by the mental state needed, and by size estimate:
- “Small”: I estimate I can do this in 15 minutes or less
- “Medium”: I estimate I can do this in less than 30 minutes
- “Large”: I estimate this will take between 30 minutes and 2 hours. Anything bigger than this should be broken out into multiple tasks.
And finally, when I start a work session, I activate the distraction blocking tools we went over previously, such as do not disturb / airplane mode, and Focus.
So there you have it: a whirlwind tour of what I’ve learned so far about creating more flow in your day to day work life. I hope this is helpful to you to understand the principles of Flow so you can implement it in your own life, and also see some real examples of how it’s done.
What’s one first thing you’re planning to implement from this? Please let me know on Twitter, and what resonated with you from this.