According to Steven Kotler, "Flow follows focus. It can only show up when your attention is in the here and now." The other critical ingredient for flow is time. Steven says that it takes 90 minutes of uninterrupted time to reach flow. I've found through experience that this is true.
For most people, the idea of 90 minutes of uninterrupted creation time sounds like a disaster. They can't imagine focusing for that long. But it's easier than you might think.
Design a Distraction-Free Environment
Not only is the distracted present a miserable place to be, it's also the worst kind of handicapping. Study after study has shows that we're terrible multitaskers. By trying to improve performance by being everywhere and everywhen, we end up nowhere and never. - Steven Kotler
Almost all of your behavior is the result of the environments that make up your life. To get from focus to flow, your 90-minute work block has to be uninterrupted and distraction free. You have to design an environment that is conducive to your desired behavior.
You should consider anything that diverts your attention from the task at hand as a distraction:
- Browser tabs
- Cell phone
- Clutter on your desk
Assume that everything you can see, hear, or feel that that's irrelevant to the task at hand is a distraction. If you want to get better at managing your attention, start by reducing the competition for it.
When I'm writing, 3 things are on my desk:
- Moleskin Notebook
- A cup of coffee
I do all my writing in Notion in full-screen mode with everything else in my computer closed.
You have to warm up before you practice.
- My warm up is reading 40 pages and writing 3 pages by hand
- Musicians play scales
- Basketball players shoot around before a game
The goal of a warm-up isn't productivity or focus. It's merely getting yourself in motion. The first 200-300 words in my writing sessions are my warm up. My only goal is to get my fingers moving.
Excessive consumption and social media addiction have damaged people's attention span. You're going to have a difficult time focusing for 90 minutes if this is how you work.
Fortunately, there's a workaround. You can use interval training to improve your capacity to focus. Cal Newport helps students quit using social media with 20-minute distraction free blocks. You can divide your 90 minutes into 3 - 30 minute focused sessions, with breaks.
But there's a caveat. Don't use the breaks to check your email or glance at social media. Otherwise, you start from scratch. Because of attention residue, your focus on the initial task will suffer.
Adam Gazalley recommends the following tips for taking breaks:
- Look up from your screen and stare out the window
- Get up to use the restroom or grab a drink of water
The key is to make sure you take a break that doesn't cause attention residue.
Aim for the Midpoint Between Boredom and Anxiety
If you're attempting something too difficult, you'll be paralyzed with fear and anxiety. If something is too easy, you'll be bored. This is why advanced snowboarders, artists, and athletes have to get out of their comfort zone. It's the only way to find flow.
There's a sweet spot known as the midpoint between boredom and anxiety. This is the spot where the task at hand causes you to bend not break. For writers, that could be higher word count. For a snowboarder that could be an increase in speed going down the mountain.
As you become more skilled this midpoint will change. You will need to adjust the flow triggers. For a snowboarder, that could mean higher speeds or more challenging terrain. For a writer that could be higher word counts or longer writing sessions.
Steven Kotler says "If we want to achieve the kinds of accelerated performance we're seeing in action and adventure sports, then it's 4 percent plus 4 percent plus 4 percent day after day, week after week, months into years into careers. This is the road to real magic."
I avoid meetings, and phone calls between 6am and 9am, at all costs. It's my most productive time of day.
I leave my phone out of the room and set it on Do Not Disturb.
It's impossible to achieve the flow state if you respond to emails or messages immediately.
However, you can overcome this with some simple boundaries:
- Leave the phone in your car or out of the room.
- Close the door. If you don't have a physical door, put on some noise cancellation headphones. Let people know, "when I have these headphones on, don't fuck with me. I'm flowing."
Without boundaries, you'll be interrupted constantly.
Whenever an interruption shifts your attention, you not only get kicked out of flow. You experience attention residue. Let's say you shift your attention from the current task to an email or instant message. When you return the original task, your ability to focus on the initial task suffers. You waste all the time it took you to reach a flow state.
A 500% Increase in Productivity brings a Significant Increase in Happiness
At some point, you will go from focus to flow and when you do, your productivity and your performance will go through the roof.
It takes me less time to write the last part of an article than the first. I write 500 words in the same amount of time it took to write 100. Not only do I increase the quantity of my output, but I also increase the quality.
Flow is essential to how I get shit done, despite having ADHD.
Flow doesn't just increase your productivity. You stop worrying about the past and the future, decrease anxiety, and increase your happiness.
A 90-minute work block can make you more productive, effective and happier. That's an amazing ROI for a small window each day of uninterrupted creation time. You might be surprised by what you can accomplish by working in a few 90-minute work blocks.
Flow is the ultimate productivity hack.