How achieving 'flow' can maximize your productivity

December 19, 2016

Josh Li

Digital Marketer at Institute of Code

Have you ever been working and felt as though the rest of the world had melted away? That instead of it feeling tedious and boring, work felt absorbing and invigorating?

Chances are you experienced a ‘flow state’, otherwise known as ‘being in the zone.’ This means you were fully engrossed in a certain activity. People often even describe it as a transcendent, spiritual experience, with effects lasting long beyond the work itself – producing a fuzzy, warm afterglow.

Sound like bullsh#t?

It’s not – we swear! Flow state has been extensively studied and is deeply rooted in our neuropsychology.

It’s a common misconception that when we’re working well, our brains are fully switched on and firing - blame the Hollywood movies about people with telekinetic powers for perpetuating that little myth.

In reality, quite the opposite is happening. When we’re concentrating hard, we actually start shutting or slowing down particular parts of our brain. Without getting too sciencey on you, when we’re focused, our brains undergo a process called ‘transient hypofrontality’, where the prefrontal cortex (the part responsible for complex thought) shuts down. Other parts of our brain, such as the departments responsible for self-awareness, introspection and awareness of our surroundings also begin to slow down. If we’re out in the wild, trying to stay alive (you now, like Leonardo di Caprio in The Revenant) these parts of the brain would be essential to keeping us from getting mauled by an angry, grizzly bear. But when we’re concentrating on a single task, these parts of our brain take a backseat.

But why does this happen? And how does it affect our productivity?

A huge part of it comes down to hormones – 5 specific ones, in fact.

One is Dopamine. Dopamine, in addition to helping us feel happy and motivated, is responsible for filtering what information is and isn’t important to us.

The second hormone is Norepinephrine, which helps us maintain focus by increasing blood sugar, making us feel more energetic. It also improves emotional control, arousal and attention, making us feel more connected to our work.

Next is Anandamide, which helps with our lateral thought, increasing our creativity, and decreasing our risk aversion, making it more likely for us to push ourselves creativity.

Endorphins also come into play, helping us feel less physical pain. One hundred times more potent than medical grade morphine, this one is particularly important to athletes.

Lastly, our body deals out a healthy dose of Serotonin, which gives us the feeling of happiness, making the whole experience a positive one.

All of these work in tandem to create a deeper sense of connection and oneness with what we’re doing. High-achieving athletes often achieve this state of flow better than others, allowing them to train and perform at their absolute best.

So now that we understand how it works, how do we attain the state of flow? Here are five ways to effectively get there.

1. Prioritise tasks that are intrinsically rewarding 

This might seem pretty obvious but rewarding yourself after you’ve completed a task is often not enough to keep you focused. 

The task itself needs to be rewarding. If you’re training to do a marathon, you should at least enjoy running. One of the key foundations of flow state is immediate gratification.

Also, the task should be one that challenges you enough to push yourself just beyond your current skill level. Too challenging and you’ll sit there panicking, not knowing what to do. Not challenging enough and you’ll get bored and apathetic.

It’s easier said than done to only do work we enjoy. That’s when it becomes important to distinguish between work that’s ‘important’ and work that’s ‘urgent’.

Urgent work is usually work that has deadlines. It’s characterised by the ‘now’ factor, putting you in a reactive, defensive and hurried position. Important work, on the other hand, are the rewarding tasks. Ones that contribute to your long-term goals and your overall fulfilment.

If you learn how to categorise tasks between these two baskets, and spend more time tackling the important tasks, perhaps even kicking off your day with them, you’ll feel more renewed and in a better position to tackle tasks that are less fun.

2. Focus on the present moment 

Wherever we go, things are always vying for our attention.

Distractions are absolute flow breakers. In fact, little things like responding to an email notification can have a more significant impact on our focus than we think. Research shows after getting distracted, it can take anywhere between 15-25 minutes to get back into the swing of things, especially things that are completely unrelated to the task at hand. A couple of these distractions results in significantly lowered productivity.

An obvious fix for this is turning off your notifications and blocking out separate times for responding to texts and email and for getting focused. You can check your texts before you start work, then go offline, then check them again when you grab lunch and then at 4 pm before you finish work.

The world won’t end if you don’t respond to a text within an hour, and 24 hours is the usual professional courtesy extended to email replies – so you’re in the clear there. If that doesn’t allay your concerns, just remember that if something was truly urgent, people would call you! No-one communicates something life-threatening through text message.

Another way to stay focused on the present is daily mindfulness meditation. Short sessions every day are like taking your brain to the gym, training it not to chase distracting thoughts and being aware of what you’re doing in the present. Even simple things like focusing on your breathing and posture can gently bring your mind back to the task at hand.

Lastly, many studies have shown multi-tasking can negatively impact your effectiveness, so make sure you close down all those internet tabs!

3. Set goals

To achieve a flow state, a task must have a clear end-point. This gives you a sense of progress. If you were writing a blog like this one, finishing the blog post would be the goal – and so the paragraphs tumbling by would tell you that you are getting closer to your goal. This ties in with the immediate sense of feedback and gratification that motivates you to keep going.

Working without a lack of clear goals, markers of progress or a tangible endpoint is like putting a ladder up a wall to reach a window without knowing which wall is the right one. Therefore, it’s critical to know exactly what you’re working towards and to have mini-goals along the way to help you measure progress.

4. Forget your fear of failure

Fear and anxiety are some of the biggest hurdles to achieving a flow state.

Taking on a challenge is one of the cornerstones of getting in the zone, and fear of failure prevents people from taking on even moderately challenging tasks. Even if the job is rewarding, research shows people do not attain the same enjoyment from being in a flow state if they show a high level of concern for the possible consequences of doing the job incorrectly.

One way to prevent fear from getting in the way is to have constant feedback on how you’re going. Just as having mini-goals helps you measure progress, getting immediate feedback from your work also ensures you’re doing things right and that you’re on the right track.

5. Block out stimuli 

Whacking on a pair of headphones and diving into your favourite playlist is an excellent way to drown out the outside world and knuckle down. But it’s actually a bit more complicated than that.

Countless studies have been done on the effect music has on our concentration. Music with lyrics can be incredibly distracting, especially if you’re trying to learn something new, and listening to songs you’re not too familiar with can also mean you’ll tuning in to hear what comes next. Some studies have shown that even listening to your most preferred genre of music can lower your performance.

Confused as to what to listen to, or whether to listen to something at all?

It all heavily depends on your own personality, your surroundings and a number of other factors, however, papers have shown repetitive ambient sounds, such as binaural beats, can have a positive influence on your brain activity – relieving stress and helping you synchronise your thoughts. If you don’t have access to binaural beats (we love Brain.fm!), then putting one song on repeat can help you get into the zone.

Keep in mind, that music tends to only be the best option if you’re already in a noisy environment like a cafe or an office. If you’re by yourself, silence is probably best.

These are just five ways to help you achieve the flow state but it’s best to take note of what works for you. Where are you when you’re most engrossed in your work? What time is it? What are you working on? Take note of your behaviour and patterns will start to emerge.

Here at The Institute of Code, we’re huge believers in creating a flow state to create the best working and learning environment. Not only does it help you get things done, it helps you build a stronger, more meaningful connection with your work. And what could be better than that?


Written by: Josh Li

Digital Marketer at Institute of Code