Wikipedia defines Flow as “the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.” Mihály Csíkszentmihályi proposed this definition more than 30 years ago, and it’s a popular way to describe the way you feel when you’re really engaged in something. The age of always connectedness and multi-tasking is antithetical to Flow and may damage our brains. Paul Graham writes about the Maker’s Schedule as being fundamentally different than the Manager’s Schedule. Help, you say — this stuff all sounds great but I can’t seem to fit it into my everyday schedule and excuse me, my boss is calling and I have an email on my phone — how can I get closer to applying this concept in real life? The steps are annoyingly simple (and elusive): Take Care of Yourself, Find Focus and Ask for Prioritization, and Share and Learn.
The first rule of finding Flow in an always-connected world should be obvious: Take Care of Yourself. This varies from person to person, but the standard corollaries of Get Enough Sleep, Eat Well, and Exercise make a huge difference in your ability to function, let alone achieve a state of flow. Just ask yourself whether that plan of sleeping “when you can”, eating well “when you can”, and exercising “when you can” is working for you. Yes, just about as well as it’s worked for me in the past when I haven’t been at my best. Entrepreneurs are noticing that hard work is not always good work and I can speak personally for the improvements that simple diet changes and some exercise (no, you don’t have to be an Ironman, just get out and walk more everyday) makes for your ability to Focus and Get Stuff Done.
Finding focus and asking for prioritization are key concepts in finding the Flow state. I have a list by my desk of the 10 (or [n]) things I know I have to get done, so that whenever I don’t know what to do, I can look at that list and find something of value without having to think about what I should do next. If the item on that list keeps showing up, it must be important to someone. If I put my iPhone on silent and close my email, I can spend 30-60 minutes only doing the one task I need to get done at the moment. Headphones with classical music also help this focus. But focus alone doesn’t get me to the right things — if I’m focused on an irrelevant task, that can be wasted effort — I also ping my peers and my manager for prioritization so that I know that I’m spending my time on the right things for that moment.
I just got lost in another thought (lost my Flow), and that tells me I’m on to the third point — share and learn. For me that involves one of several activities: get up from your desk and walk around; visit and information “graze” on new information from blogs, Twitter, or other sources; and/or talk to friends through email, phone, text, or IM. Ignoring this impulse is like trying to stop water: if you try to turn it off, it will eventually leak out somewhere else. For information sharing and learning, the best way I’ve found to be effective is to spend a few blocks of time (beginning of the day, mid-day, end of day, and 1 hour at night) in intense email triage, Twitter management, having coffee/conversation with a friend, or just picking up the phone and saying hello. I can’t sit at a desk and code for 12 hours straight: I have varied interests and need to try some of those every day.
Finally, the bonus suggestion for achieving Flow is to Try Something Else Different. For me, that’s drawing, painting, or another artistic activity. On another day, it might be the temporary sensory deprivation I get from swimming. Engaging someone in conversation and helping to solve a different problem than the one you’re working on can also sometimes trigger a breakthrough. When all else fails, just go to bed. It will be better tomorrow and your brain will have had some time to recover from your latest episode of multi-tasking and trying to do something on a conference call when you should just be listening. If that conference call isn’t for you, try next time to politely decline and go back to focusing on the thing you really wanted to be doing at that moment. In the meanwhile, take some time for yourself, focus your attention on the things you need to get done, and make sure you get up once in a while to see what’s going on around you (figuratively or literally).