Do you recognize the following scenario?
You start working on a project or problem. It takes a bit of time, but soon enough, you're immersed in it and you're producing great work. You lose track of everything other than what you are working on: time, hunger, thirst, other commitments.
It feels incredible. However much time has gone by, you've accomplished more work in one sitting than you sometimes are able to accomplish all day, maybe even all week.
Congratulations! It means you achieved a state of "flow".
That type of event is incredibly rewarding. You finish your work session feeling energized and satisfied...maybe even a little cocky. It feels amazing.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi*, the architect of the notion of "flow" according to Ted.com, describes the sensation as follows:
"You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and [your] sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger."
I think most of us can relate to this state but I find that it is increasingly difficult to achieve in our typical North American work environment and in our increasingly-connected world.
"Flow" and the cubicle jungle
When I find myself working in an office setting, my strong preference is to get there before everyone. I get more done that way and I increase my chances of getting into that wonderful state of higher productivity, especially if I'm trying to be creative or solve a tough problem.
Getting into that "flow" state requires an environment where you have control over your time and nothing else is competing for your attention. Productivity guru David Allen writes that
"More and more people’s jobs are made up of dozens or even hundreds of e-mails a day, with no latitude left to ignore a single request, complaint, or order. There are few people who...can maintain some predetermined list of to-dos that the first telephone call or interruption from their boss won’t totally undo." -- p. 8, Getting Things Done.
Interruptions kill "flow"...dead
Interruptions don't just affect productivity in general. You can't just turn "flow" on and off at will. To get into it initially, you need to be able to concentrate, clear your mind and avoid all other preoccupations. Unfortunately, "flow" also doesn't always work on schedule, so blocking off 60-90 mins to get into your "flow" can sometimes be counter-productive because the pressure of having to get into that state itself can keep you from achieving it -- and the work you were trying to get done!
Given I can pretty much set my own hours these days and the fact that I don't have to answer to anyone or anything immediately most of the time**, I have the luxury of paying attention to my thoughts, energy levels and detect opportunities to get into a "flow"-like state. I have to say it's cool to feel I can ride that wave pretty much as it comes. I don't need to try to force it and I believe that I produce more quality work now than ever before, whether I'm learning something new, creating something from scratch or even writing a new piece for this blog.
Reflecting on the difference between my current productivity and and what life in an office involves, I do hope that more offices who engage knowledge workers in the creation of products, services, and/or collateral build in as much flexibility as possible -- including communication blackout periods -- to facilitate this type of hyper productivity. I can't see how it could be considered anything other than a win/win situation for both the employer and the knowledge worker. I don't know if a contractor model might be the better approach to achieve this state on a more consistent basis, but I'm certain that many, if not most, organizations and individuals are missing a significant opportunity to achieve more and better work with less effort.
Do you experience states of "flow"? Do you have a "flow" story to share? Do you have any tips or tricks you find help you achieve that hyper state with little or no effort? If so, what's your secret?
** It is life changing to be able to manage email, phone, social media and other distractions on our own terms without constant fear of being chastised for being "disconnected" for a few hours.
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