Flow And The Secret Of Productivity

Peak human performance.

Operating at your full potential consistently sounds too good to be true. We all want to accomplish more at our jobs and around the house. But a million little distractions always seem to throw us off course. Sure, we all have flashes of inspiration, but many of us settle for a fraction of our true capabilities.

But there’s a better way.

Researchers have discovered that high productivity doesn’t have to be limited to short bursts. There’s actually a very specific state of mind that results in stunning levels of output that’s triggered by certain psychological factors. It’s called flow, and understanding how it works may change your life.

What is flow? Technically speaking, “Flow is a cognitive state where one is completely immersed in an activity… It involves intense focus, creative engagement, and the loss of awareness of the self.”¹ Think of it like this: what’s your favorite quarterback thinking about when he’s making a game winning play? Almost nothing else besides what he’s doing in the moment. That state of total concentration on the task at hand is what defines flow. Other sensations follow. Decisions seem to make themselves. You lose awareness of what’s going on around you. Time either seems to fly by or you see things in slow motion. And, most importantly, you feel awesome. You’re “in the zone.”

Achieving flow. You’ve almost certainly achieved this flow state at least once in your life. But it probably doesn’t seem replicable. You were just on during that highschool football championship game or playing that local show with your buddies or giving that presentation. Fortunately, research hasn’t just described flow; it’s discovered a few factors that contribute to achieving peak performance.

The first flow key is to establish goals. Your brain loves objectives. It loves feeling like it’s accomplishing things. Having a clear outcome in mind will help you tune out the distractions that don’t matter and hone in on what does. Identify your desired goal, outline in detail how you’ll accomplish it, and then proceed to the second flow key.

The second flow key is the balance between challenge and boredom. Very often, facing a difficult task doesn’t naturally induce deep focus. It actually can make us feel anxious, scared, and avoidant. However, a mundane and simple activity, like washing dishes, doesn’t require the brainpower to trigger intense concentration. Flow lives in the happy medium between those extremes of crushing anxiety and mind-melting boredom. You have to have the confidence that you can actually crush the challenge at hand, but also not find it too easy or boring. Dial in your ideal difficulty level before you start a project. Expect more from your mundane responsibilities and get help for the daunting ones. Raise the stakes for your performance but make sure you don’t drown in the process!

The third flow key is immediate feedback. Let’s say you’ve hired a coach to help you master a skill. Would you prefer them to write up an annual review on your progress or give you tips, critiques, and advice as often as possible? Think about all the bad habits and practices you would develop without their regular oversight. You might discover you’ve been doing things wrong for a whole year if you’re only getting an annual checkup! Instant feedback allows you to constantly refine your process and execution while also setting up micro goals for you to accomplish. It’s a simple way to add a dash of challenge to your daily routine that locks you in and helps you achieve peak performance. Seek out frequent feedback. Ask your boss or co-workers or coach to give you critiques as often as possible. That constant stream of input will either make you feel good about what you’ve accomplished or give you new obstacles to overcome!

Achieving this state of peak performance isn’t always easy. There’s a cycle to entering flow that includes a difficult first phase. It’s hard work for our brain to enter into total focus and concentration. This first barrier is where most of us quit because intense concentration doesn’t feel great at first. But overcoming that initial resistance can open up a whole new world of productivity and performance. Use the three flow keys, push past the opening waves of discomfort and get into your zone!


¹ “Flow,” Psychology Today, accessed Sept. 24, 2020, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/flow