Most people can’t remember the last time they entered a flow state.
According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow, flow is “the optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.”
Most people sleepwalk through life without ever feeling so intensely focused, time seems to stand still.
The idea of flow might have been popularized the most with professional athletes, who often describe the feeling of succeeding on the field. Gold medalists, Tour de France winners, and World Cup champions, have all repeatedly recounted how they were in flow states for their winning performances.
But how can you and I reach this level, consistently?
How can you completely ignore the 1,000 distractions around you and produce intense, unbroken focus on complicated tasks?
Here’s how you can train yourself to shut out distractions and enter flow states regularly.
“When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.” -Steven Pressfield
Consistently following routines creates physiological energy spikes.
Although your mind and body are extremely fluid (you can adapt to just about anything if you wanted to), there are specific times of the day when you operate best.
Dr. Michael Breus calls this “The Power of When.” He asserts there are specific times when you are most primed for nearly every task — having the greatest sex, waking up, when to see a therapist to immediately get to the root of your issues, etc. — and people are divided into “chronotypes.”
There are 4 main chronotypes (you can take a short quiz here to see which one you most align with). Each type has a very specific timetable for entering into peak flow states.
Most people will go their whole lives without ever really knowing when they’re the most primed to operate at world-class levels. They will continue to operate as a square peg in a round hole.
Learn about yourself. Find out if you get your best work done at 5AM, 1PM, or midnight.
“If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly.” -Neal Stephenson
When you consistently begin acting during your prime time, you can expect to see 10x or even 100x better results over time.
The more you practice during these times, the more focused your mind will be. This repetition will train your mind to remember that focus and reproduce it on a daily basis.
Distractions will grow weaker. Flow states will become commonplace.
Operating at your peak level will become a daily routine.
Learn when you operate best for certain tasks, then act every single day.
Power will concentrate around you.
“I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” -Somerset Maugham
“It is better to look suffering straight in the eye, acknowledge and respect its presence, and then get busy as soon as possible focusing on things we choose to focus on.” -Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
I woke up at 6AM this morning, like I usually do. I’ve found my peak creative time is early in the morning.
But instead of writing an article or journaling new ideas, all I could think about this morning was how much I hate my awful student, Daniel.
My wife and I currently teach English in South Korea. Daniel is the worst student in the entire school. He makes me so angry sometimes, I literally want to punch him (and he’s 10 years old).
I couldn’t write a single coherent thought this morning, because all I could think about was how infuriating Daniel is.
Julia Cameron once described morning journaling as “spiritual windshield wipers.” By dumping your immediate thoughts out on paper first thing in the morning, you clear away the dirt that’s obscuring your view.
It’s pointless to attempt to enter flow states until you “clean your windshield,” so to speak.
Whenever anybody wakes up — Tony Robbins, Barack Obama, Beyoncé, you — they are filled with “fluff” thoughts on largely unimportant things. Every day, we’re exposed to tens of thousands of advertisements, distractions, and trivial tasks.
You must get these thoughts out (morning journaling is an excellent, proven method) before you can see clearly focus on what truly matters.
I had to spend a good 30 minutes this morning journaling about Daniel. I still don’t know what I’m going to do about him, but I cleared my windshield of him, and I was able to write this article after.
The most important thing you can do when you wake up is dump the fluff-thoughts out so you can access the real stuff that lies underneath.
“You cannot allow the actions of others to define your reality.” -Steven Pressfield
“How much you improve is up to you.” -Anders Ericsson
The idea of taking your thoughts captive is thousands of years old.
Paul the Apostle once wrote some advice to a struggling church. They were distracted with a good many things (not the least was persecution for their Christian beliefs).
“Take your thoughts captive,” he instructed. Paul encouraged them to make all their thoughts and actions obedient to their goals.
Ignoring distractions is a conscious choice.
Most people never take the time to build their self-discipline with controlling their thoughts.
Acclaimed author Cal Newport once wrote in his book, Deep Work:
“Network tools [social media, email, the Internet] are distracting us from work that requires unbroken concentration, while simultaneously degrading our capacity to remain focused.”
The routine of the majority is to wake up and immediately check their phone. Their email, notifications, the news, and social media dictate their thoughts.
This trains them to live reactionary lives, unfocused and frantic. If you condition yourself to always respond to whatever tasks come up — no matter how trivial or mundane — you make it 10x harder to focus and enter peak states.
Choose to ignore distractions.
“Successful people don’t see it as free time, they see it as the only time they have to do the things they really want to do in life — and they don’t take a minute for granted.” –Nicolas Cole
Your goal is to create a shift in your mindset. This will create emotional momentum, which will manifest itself into extremely focused behavior.
Most people don’t reinvest the time they’re given outside of work — they’d rather be entertained and distracted. Choosing to learn and grow on your personal time isn’t common.
But this is exactly what the world’s most successful people and top performers do. They know their ability to focus and avoid distractions is the difference between making thousands of dollars a year and millions of dollars a year.
Ironically, most people’s personal time can actually be about as stressful as work. In the words of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:
“On the job people feel skillful and challenged, and therefore feel more happy, strong, creative, and satisfied. In their free time people feel that there is generally not much to do and their skills are not being used, and therefore they tend to feel more sad, weak, dull, and dissatisfied. Yet they would like to work less and spend more time in leisure.”
Csikszentmihalyi is saying work is a positive environment because there are specific goals and priorities that naturally keep you focused.
But “free time,” for all its freedom and lack of schedule, can actually become agitating for many people.
Most people don’t realize having positive, restful free time is a skill they need to develop.
You don’t have much free time outside your obligations. It’s very tempting to use it to binge on TV, sleep, or numb out on alcohol/drugs.
If you want to be someone who is extremely focused with no tolerance for distractions, this mindset starts with how you choose to spend your free time.
Focus on learning and creating, not entertainment and distraction.
You should make sure the outside of you is a good reflection of the inside of you.” -Jim Rohn
Throughout my years of therapy and work in 12-step program environments for my addictive behaviors, I discovered a key factor about ignoring distraction.
The alcoholic’s solution isn’t to remove himself completely from environments with alcohol (like, moving to Antarctica). Besides, they probably have alcohol down there anyway.
Your solution to ignore distractions isn’t to attempt to remove them entirely.
The problem is not the distraction. The problem is you.
The real solution is to become someone who can operate at peak levels while in an environment that may occasionally be distracting.
Distractions will always be there. You must choose to embrace this idea, and surrender to it.
Only then can you begin operating at peak levels and enter flow states in various environments.
“You can’t change your destination overnight, but you can change your direction overnight.” -Jim Rohn
The deep life is the good life.
Cal Newport wrote, “Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.”
To design your lifestyle around entering flow states and deep focus is a proven path to deep satisfaction.
Most people don’t know what it’s like to be fully engaged with their life. They would prefer the numbing pleasure of distraction instead of the subtle, powerful fulfillment of focus.
If you want to completely ignore distractions and enter flow states consistently, you have some work to do.
Remove emotional blockages. Learn what environments and timetables prime you for intense focus. Consistently act and train your mind to expect this.
Choose focused learning, not distracting entertainment.
“It is by being fully involved with every detail of our lives, whether good or bad, that we find happiness, not by trying to look for it directly.” -Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
If you want to become extraordinary and become 10x more effective than you were before, check out my checklist.
Originally published at medium.com