The idea of flow is considered by many to be the epitome of productivity. Also known as “being in the zone” or “hitting your stride,” flow captivates us with its promise of becoming so absorbed in what we’re doing that we tackle tasks effortlessly.
It’s a kind of productivity nirvana—an enlightened state of mind where we feel unstoppable, focused, and highly effective.
But the reality is flow is elusive: It’s nice if you can get it, but what if you can’t?
Sure, we can find flow without much effort when engaged in fun activities like playing sports and games. But when we have to do something we don’t want to do, like responding to never-ending emails or completing our taxes, finding flow can be impossible. For busy professionals, that’s a big problem.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned writing my two best-selling books, Hooked and Indistractable, it’s that writing isn’t always fun. It’s hard work full of boredom, self-loathing, and self-doubt—pretty much the opposite of flow.
Still, I wanted to write my books and waiting to conjure a state of flow often meant I was more susceptible to distraction.
The good news is, we don’t need to wait for flow to accomplish what we need to. In fact, most people can’t afford to wait for the muse to strike. Rather than depending on flow, we can learn other methods to do what needs to get done, no matter what.
What is “flow” and why is it so hard to find?
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow” in the 1970s. He defines it as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
Csikszentmihalyi wrote that during flow, “concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted.”
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Unfortunately, the trap of flow is that you can’t find it in just any task. According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow requires several components, which he calls “the elements of enjoyment.”
For one, the task at hand must be “autotelic”—that is, it must be done for its own reward. Doing something for the sake of getting rewarded (like completing tasks for a paycheck) is not autotelic. Well, that requirement pretty much rules out what people do for most of their working lives.
Flow-inducing tasks also require “clear goals and provide immediate feedback.” Again, that doesn’t translate well to hard work, for which getting immediate feedback is rare. Slaving away on a task that takes a long time to complete means feedback is inherently delayed.
The dark side of striving for flow
Flow is great when you can get it. But the price of relying too much on flow is that when you can’t find it, you’re more likely to succumb to the vicious cycle of distraction—a horrible loop of frustration and perpetual time scarcity.
Distraction is an unhealthy escape from bad feelings, or “internal triggers.”
If you feel anxious, restless, or poorly qualified for a task, for example, those internal triggers may drive you to pick up your smartphone to scroll through Instagram or check the news in order to forget that feeling for a while.
Likewise, a task that is not inherently engaging and enjoyable can elicit the internal triggers that lead us off track.
That’s why we can’t make flow a precondition to getting things done. If you wait around for flow and it doesn’t come, you have to learn to deal with your internal triggers, or you never will get the task done.
Reimagining the task
Most people don’t know how to focus on things they dislike doing for very long. They constantly drift from one thing to another as soon as a task gets too hard, boring, or uncomfortable.
It’s important to note that some people struggle with chronic mind-wandering. Though studies estimate ADHD afflicts less than 3 percent of the global adult population, it can be a serious problem and may require medical intervention. But for some 97 percent of the population, distraction can be easily tamed—that is, if we know what to do about it.
There’s a way to stay focused on a task without waiting for the elusive state of flow. It’s called “play!”
According to Professor Ian Bogost of Georgia Tech, play can help us persevere when we would otherwise quit. Surprisingly, Bogost says, play doesn’t have to be fun. In fact, enjoyment isn’t a prerequisite for play.
Play, Bogost claims, can simply be a tool that helps to sustain our attention long enough to complete the task at hand.
Instead of trying in vain to find flow, we can do two things to turn any task into play:
- Add constraints
- Find the mystery
Think of adding constraints like building a sandbox.
An unconstrained pile of sand spills in all directions. But contain that sand in four pieces of wood, and suddenly you have a sandbox where children will play for hours.
Similarly, when we let a task spill out into our day, we don’t see it as play, and we delay and procrastinate. But put a time constraint on the task, and watch yourself sprint to get it done.
The next time you have to respond to those dreaded emails or finish a blog post, you might give yourself only 20 minutes and see how much you can do. You don’t have to enjoy it or find a magical state of flow, but you will accomplish much more than you would if you had just let it languish on your to-do list.
You might also infuse play into activities by looking for the mystery in something that other people don’t notice.
I found the play in writing my books by focusing on the unknowns surrounding the topic: I don’t write what I know, I write about what I want to know. The mystery around finding the answer propels me forward, whether I’m in flow or not.
Reimagining difficult work as play is empowering. Adding a constraint and finding the mystery can help us “play anything,” according to Bogost. Knowing how to harness this power can make any task more manageable, even when flow eludes us.
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