You’ve gotta optimize productivity to stay in the “flow”

Corey Boissonnault • November 2, 2018

You’ve found yourself so utterly focused that nothing else matters, all you see is the task ahead of you and how to go about tackling it. 

To your surprise, you look at your watch only to realize you’ve spent hours funnelling undivided attention toward your current project.

You’re simply motivated and enjoying the task at hand; hungry for more.

Sound familiar?

The term “flow state” was coined by Hungarian American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975. He goes on to describe the state as intense concentration on the present moment, a distortion of your preception of time, and experiencing your activity or “work” as fun & rewarding. While such a mental state is hopefully present in your everyday life, it’s all to often that we find ourselves distracted from the task at hand.

Why is achieving “flow” so important?

Simply put, when you enter a state of flow you’re at your optimum productivity level.

So, how can you maximize concentration, and achieve your goals amidst distractions? The first step to answering this question is understanding the psychology of a flow state, but most importantly what promotes and obstructs in-depth concentration.

Contrary to popular belief, psychology says someone can’t focus on two tasks at once.

When you’re talking with your boss about the current project you’re working on, its far less likely that you’ll notice the sound of a pen hitting the floor; or better yet, it would be impossible for you to comprehend a stray conversation nearby (that is, unless your attention was guided toward that conversation, and not your boss’s). This means that when you focus on a task, your subconscious or “working memory” exerts a great deal of effort filtering the unrelated information you’re exposed to. In my opinion, this psychological phenomenon is best described in Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow”. His writing illustrates our mind and thinking process as being two divided systems. System 1 which is the involuntary, effortless and the automatic aspect of thinking; and System 2 which is responsible for all voluntary, resource-heavy tasks which require critical thinking (think Flow state).

Kahneman’s research has discovered that activating System 2 requires a priming period of approximately 15 minutes.

This brings me to the main point of this article. If you’re is fully concentrated on a task and have achieved a state of Flow; something as simple as answering an incoming call or text message can disrupt your productivity for fifteen minutes thereafter.

You’re completing a task at work. Suddenly a co-worker’s question distracted you.

It’s likely that you had trouble resuming the task at hand with the same degree of prior efficiency. Your inability to do so is mainly because you can’t focus on two tasks at once. Switching from one to another leads you to “Drop” the ideas you’ve built up over the course of your fifteen-minute buffer period.

Get rid of distractions

Woman holding phone
Woman holding phone

Lose the phone

Unless your job is mobile and requires extensive communication via calls, put your phone in desk a drawer or make sure it’s on airplane mode.

Noise cancelling earphones

Get yourself a pair of noise cancelling earphones. If you choose to listen to music make sure it’s instrumental. Studies have proven that songs containing words stress your working memory and take away from your overall concentration.

Be ready to work

Before starting your work set yourself up in a manner that minimizes the amount of moving around you do. Drink coffee? Make sure you’ve got it at your desk; try not to break your focus to get some.

Work out of a familiar space

If you’re working in a new environment you’re going to be exposed to unfamiliar, and distracting stimuli. Try to keep your workplace constant for maximum productivity.

Minimize multitasking

Assorted items on a desk: laptop computer, phone, clipboard, coffee mug, newspaper, etc.

Multitasking sounds like a skill you ought to learn if you’re going to be productive. In practice, trying to do multiple tasks simultaneously results in hindered productivity due to that fifteen minute buffer period.

Prioritizing and committing to a single task of focus will make you more effective in the long run.

If you’re interested in learning a little more about the psychology of task switching I recommend reading this article.

Eat a healthy diet

Good food
Plate of food with spinach, soft-boiled eggs, avocado on toast, and tomato

Make sure you’re eating healthy on a regular basis. Properly feeding your brain requires eating a wholesome diet containing Omega 3, and 6 fatty acids. These are the building blocks of your brain’s neurons, which are the foundation of where your thoughts are formed.

If you think of your brain as an engine it would be best to feed it good quality slow burning fuel. Avoid high octane foods that deliver an immediate burst of energy followed by a crash. Energy drinks may sound like a great way to induce your flow, but they certainly aren’t sustainable.

If you’re feeling sluggish and having trouble concentrating there’s a chance you’re deficient in sodium, and/or potassium.

Opt for a gatorade instead of that coffee.

Does your work require task switching? The fifteen-minute buffer periods mentioned in this article can be especially damaging to productivity if you’re working on multiple projects simultaneously.

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