Humans face too many distractions to get things done efficiently. The cult of multitasking is taking its toll on productivity and happiness. With 96 percent of students in one study performing worse on tests when interrupted than those who were not, the results are far reaching: even small distractions can dramatically derail overall productivity. It’s no wonder distractions are costing companies millions each year.
Psychologists have looked at how humans operate at peak efficiency, studying everyone from executives to athletes. The people who seem to outproduce in all instances have something in common. They all go into a heightened mental state when engaged in their work, which has become known as “the zone,” “flow,” “deep work,” and other names beyond depending on the researcher. The characteristics of these terms differ slightly depending on which study you read, but they fundamentally refer to the same principle: great work is the result of intense focus brought about by creating the right environment.
How can you cultivate the right environment to achieve peak efficiency? It may be easier than you think, especially when you realize you have control over most, if not all, the necessary pieces.
It sounds a bit off topic, but it’s not. Getting into a flow state or work zone is about honing your mind in on your task so you can get more done. It’s hard to do that when you’re hungry. If your body is sending you hunger signals, chances are it’s using mental energy to maintain (or ignore) those signals. Hunger is a survival instinct, so it takes precedent over creative, higher level thoughts. Make sure you’re not trying to enter a deep work state on an empty stomach.
Humans respond to signals and triggers. While this has typically been used in a negative way (for example, threats of punishment or being grounded as a kid became a trigger to behave properly), you can also use positive triggers.
If you’re trying to enter a “flow state,” having a mental trigger to kickstart your work can be a powerful way to prep your mind. This could be a physical motion (for instance, a stretch), a mental habit or mantra (for instance, a consistent thought), or something else. It’s all up to you, though research suggests starting with a calm environment and mindset helps you get to work more quickly.
It’s ironic to recommend low expectations when you’re trying to increase productivity, but there’s a logic to it. The goal of flow state or deep work zones is to get more done, but most major studies see getting started as a big problem to entering flow state. It’s not something that flips on and then you start work – you start work and, if you have the right environment, you enter this mental state. So by setting low expectations, you decrease the motivation necessary to get started. Writing a whole book is hard and can demoralize you or put you off starting. Writing the introduction, on the other hand, is much easier and you can use a smaller amount of willpower to get started.
Once you get started, you’re more likely to blow through your low expectations, feel invigorated, and continue to work. In the end, you get much more done than if you aimed too high and lost motivation.
Setting low expectations may increase motivation to get started, but those expectations need to be specific and measurable to get you going. Continuing the book writing example from above, setting a flow state goal of “finishing the book” may be clearly defined, but it’s a huge task. A low expectation goal of “start writing the book” may not require much motivation to do, but you also don’t know when you’re finished. A measurable outcome of “write 500 words of the book” is not only a low bar to get started but it’s also clear once you’ve accomplished the task.
When you have a low expectation and measurable outcome to start, you build positive reinforcement into your flow state because you have an accomplishment under your belt quickly. Positive reinforcement through continuous rewards is crucial. This builds momentum and trains your brain to desire more, resulting in more energy to work.
When you have a million things to do, complete one of them. Then complete another. Multitasking won’t help you achieve much because switching contexts constantly will suck out your creative energy. This is why setting low expectations plus measurable outcomes is so crucial to a flow state or deep work zone – you know what you need to get done and you can plough through it.
If you have a lot on your plate that has to get done (but is too big to be done in succession), try “time-boxing”, or dedicating certain times of your day, like 90-minute intervals, to specific actions. This will help you focus on the task at hand while giving you the mental confidence that you’ll be able to tackle everything on your list.
In his book The War of Art, novelist Steven Pressfield describes the concept of resistance. This is the idea that everything in the world will try to entice you away from the work you need to do. It’s the moment you notice the dishes are dirty… but only after you sit down to get work done. It’s when you suddenly remember your best friend’s birthday is next month when you’re half way through a sentence. Or it’s the sudden urge to check your email ‘just in case’ something important comes through.
When these thoughts come – many of them about legitimate things you need to do or accomplish – recognize them as resistance. Write down the task or thought so you don’t forget it, but quickly move back into your work. Over time, this muscle becomes stronger and you can wrest greater control over your body’s natural “resistance” to work and get back into productivity mode more quickly.
Many leadership and management courses train people on the finer points of flow states, deep work zones, and other concepts about productivity. These courses not only help you become a better leader but can also help you with self-mastery.
Taking a project management course is another excellent way to improve productivity skills. With a background in project management, you can set up your own work as a project, using various frameworks, principles and methods to help guide your work. Popular offshoots of project management include agile training and scrum certification, which teach you how to break down complex projects into smaller, manageable parts, and quickly collaborate on solutions within diverse teams.
Time management is tough. It’s even tougher when you’re trying to be creative and hyper-productive. But as you go about your journey of getting into the zone, you may start to realize a trend of when you’re really productive. This could be after something specific, like your mental cue, but it could also be a specific time of day. So as you begin to tweak your time management strategies, don’t forget to pay attention to your most creative times.
When every employee in a company is charging towards the same goal, the organization usually achieves that goal much faster. The same premise works on an individual level. When all your energy is focused on a specific, measurable task, you are more likely to achieve it. When you set up your environment and mental incentives properly, you spark momentum that can last for hours where productivity skyrockets. This may be called fancy names like flow state and deep work zone, but the fundamental premise behind these studies is focus. And the arch enemy of focus is distraction.
As you continue to find ways to be more productive and solve difficult problems, remember to do less, do it faster, and spark your momentum.