What do professional race car drivers and world class ballet dancers have in common – that is, aside from having select body parts insured for millions? It’s that they have an astonishing ability to get in the flow. After all, during a rendition of Swan Lake or while navigating a hairpin turn at Daytona, it’s really not a good idea to be pulled into yet another pointless status meeting.
Thankfully, most employees don’t have to cultivate super-human concentration skills in order to do their jobs effectively. But that doesn’t mean they should be subjected to a work experience in which finding flow is tough to do and impossible to maintain. When that happens, performance, productivity and morale diminish; and in some cases, plunge to dangerous levels. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that employees can use these practical tips to get in the flow at work—and stay there:
#1 Be Prepared
The Boy and Girl Scouts are right: being prepared and having a plan for the day, week and month ahead goes a long way towards alleviating the energy-sucking, anxiety-triggering, flow-killing “am I doing what I need to be doing?” question that won’t go away. Of course, unexpected issues emerge – some good, some bad. But without a foundation of preparation, instead of effectively responding to new facts, employees are forced to frenetically react to them. The former is flow-friendly, the latter is not.
#2: Multitasking: Just Say NO
The word “multitasking” shouldn’t be part of the vocabulary, because we’re not wired for it. As noted by Paul Atchley, Ph.D, an associate professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Kansas: “Our brain chooses which information to process. For example, if you listen to speech, your visual cortex becomes less active, so when you talk on the phone to a client and work on your computer at the same time, you literally hear less of what the client is saying.”
The moral to this story? Employees should stick with a task until one of three things happens: it is completed; until they reach a target milestone (e.g., 50% completion); or until it has been focused on for anywhere from 20-50 minutes straight (the variance here is because some people have a longer attention span, and can spend more time with a task before their focus starts to wane).
#3: Take Strategic Breaks
Some hard working employees are celebrated for skipping breaks. While their intentions are good, their policy needs work, because breaks aren’t a waste of time. Just like a time-out in a football or basketball game, when they’re strategically scheduled breaks can significantly improve performance, quality, efficiency and results. In other words: employees who spend a little less time working can get a lot more done, and feel better about it at the end of the day.
#4: Simplify Goals into Smaller Chunks
Finding flow in the looming shadow of a daunting goal is the stuff of Zen masters, not everyday employees. As such, until enlightenment is achieved, the more practical way to handle things is by breaking down big goals into smaller, comprehensible chunks. As noted by TIME, the brain works needlessly hard when forced to process too much information. Simplifying things is good for the body, and great for the flow.
#5: Use Positive Reinforcement
Employees should reward themselves after they’ve done the right things, in the right way, to get in the flow – such as taking a strategic break, being prepared, establishing a “time box” to work on a specific task and nothing else, turning off/dialing down the internet and social media and so on. Positive reinforcement for achieving flow, is far more effective (and a lot more humane, too) than negative reinforcement for failing to achieve flow.
#6: Use Focus to Find Flow
Focus is critical to flow; both in enabling and sustaining it. As such, employees should be empowered with tools and technologies that automatically and in real-time puts all relevant information in context, such as project updates, schedules, tasks, team and customer communications, and so on. When employees don’t waste time and energy trying (and often failing) to figure out what matters, they more easily focus, get clarity and contribute to work that achieves meaningful results.
The Bottom Line
The work landscape is constantly changing—and riddled with distractions. That means getting in the flow is increasingly challenging, yet critically important. The practical tips above, however, will point everyone towards finding their flow: from new interns that want to make their mark, to seasoned executives who want to leave a legacy.