What is 'Flow' and How It'll Maximise Your Productivity

December 19, 2016

Josh Li

Digital Marketer at Institute of Code

Did you know there is a science behind ‘getting in the zone’? Here are 5 ways to make the most out of your productivity!

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 almost felt absorbing and invigorating?

Did you know there is a science behind ‘getting in the zone’? Here are 5 ways to make the most out of your productivity!

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 almost felt absorbing and invigorating?

Chances are you experienced the ‘flow state’. The state of flow often goes by other names, such as being ‘in the zone’, but is always characterised by a feeling a full immersion and enjoyment in a certain activity. People often even describe it as a transcendent, spiritual experience, as the effects of being ‘in the zone’ last long beyond the work itself, producing a fuzzy, warm ‘afterglow’ effect.

Sound like a bit of mythological quack?

Well actually, 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 - I blame the Hollywood movies about the crazy people with telekinetic powers because they’re able to harness 110% of their brain function.

In reality, quite the opposite is happening. When we’re concentrating hard, our brain actually starts shutting or slowing down particular parts. Without getting too sciencey, 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 Leonardo di Caprio ‘The Revenant’ style, 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 is it good for 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 dialling in the signal-to-noise ratio, filtering information that is and isn’t important to us.

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

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

Endorphins also come into play, helping us feel less physical. 100 times more potent than medical grade morphine, and is particularly important to extreme athletes.

Lastly, our body deals out a healthy dose of Serotonin, which gives us the pleasant ‘afterglow’, which makes 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. For example, high-achieving athletes often can understand and 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 5 ways to effectively get into the zone.

1. The task at hand to be intrinsically rewarding and challenging (prioritising the important stuff over the urgent!)

Kicking off the list is one that might seem pretty obvious. Rewarding yourself after you’ve completed a task is one thing, but often not enough to keep you focused. The task itself needs to be rewarding - for example, if you’re training to do a marathon, you should at least enjoy running. One of the key foundations of flow state is immediate feedback, which could be you getting instant gratification from what you do.

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

We get it, though - it’s easier said than done because we’re not going to be able always to do what we enjoy. That’s when it becomes important to distinguish between work that is ‘important’, and what is ‘urgent’.

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

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 (mindfulness, anyone?)

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 a day equals a lot of lost productivity!

An obvious fix for this is turning off your notifications, and scheduling in certain email/text responding times for when you want to get focused. For example, you can check your emails and tell your friends you’re going offline for a bit first thing before you start work, check them again when you grab lunch, and then at 4 pm before you finish work. The world has never ended 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, if something was truly urgent, people would call you!  No-one communicates something life-threatening through text messages.

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 have adverse affects on your effectiveness, so make sure you close down all those internet tabs!

3. Setting a Goal

To achieve a flow state, the task must have a clear end-point. This would give you a sense of progress, i.e. if you were writing a blog like this, finishing the blog post would be the goal, and so the paragraphs tumbling by would tell you that you are getting things done. 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 the fear of failing and getting immediate feedback

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,  fear of failure prevents people from taking on even moderately challenging tasks. In fact, even if the job is rewarding, research shows people do not attain the same enjoyment from being in the 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 stimuli and get repetitive

Whacking on a pair of headphones and putting on music is an excellent way to drown out the outside world and knuckle down. However, people can find the music itself to be distracting, which would defeat the purpose!

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 be listening to the music to hear what comes next. Some studies however, have also shown that listening to your most preferred genre of music can also lower your performance.

Confused as to what to listen to, or whether to listen to something at all? It does depend heavily 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 on one song on repeat can help you get into the zone.

Keep in mind, however - music performs best if you’re in a noisy environment, where there are lots of other people talking around you. If you’re by yourself, silence is probably best.

These are 5 ways to help you achieve the flow state. Here at The Institute of Code, we’re huge believers in achieving 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 connection with your work.

Got any other ways you use to get into the zone? Let us know!

Written by: Josh Li

Digital Marketer at Institute of Code