As a leader, you know that being efficient and productive has always been core business. It’s important that you are personally efficient and productive, but also that your employees are. You need your employees to do their utmost to keep growing your business, and to keep your customers happy. Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could show them how to do this all the time?

While technology and collaborative workspaces have been brilliant for work, everyone has more to do, with more competing demands. Despite having the same number of hours we’ve always had, our employees often feel pressured to perform ever better, for many more hours of the day.

The critical question for you, then, is: How can I, and my employees, perform at our peaks, for longer periods of time, without succumbing to the pressure and stress?

In this article, you’ll find the answer.

The answer is Flow

I want you to cast your mind back to the last time in which you were one hundred per cent present. The last moment in which your awareness of time stopped. Your work felt effortless, you were completely focused, things seemed to happen all by themselves.

Remember that?

Remember how amazing it was and how much you got done? Right now, you’re smiling, too, probably.

What you remember is what we call the Flow State.

Now, as amazing as it is to get into a state of Flow, you’ve probably only been there once or twice recently. It’s likely that you have subconsciously categorised it as being rare,or accidental. You might also believe that you don’t really have control over it. Flow happens at times when the stars align and things just happen to be the right way.

If that’s the case, I have some ground-breaking news for you. Once I tell you how you can do it, Flow is a state that you can cultivate. (1) This means that you can experience it whenever you want to.

You can get into Flow state on purpose, instead of by accident

Articles about Flow are everywhere these days, but it’s a relatively new phenomenon. It was popularised by the positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who began writing about it in the 1970s. You might have read his book, Flow.

Csikzentmihalyi studied artists, people without an expectation of fame or fortune, people who do what they do because they love it. He discovered that many of them, in all different art forms, got into what could only be described as an ‘ecstatic state’. This was when the artist ’stepped aside’, and found a way of getting into an alternate reality.(2)

If you’re a sports fan, you’ll likely have heard about this in sports commentaries. High performers, particularly in sport, talk about getting ‘into the zone’. They’ll say things like, they were ‘completely in the zone’.(3) This is just another way of talking about being in a state of Flow.

Csikszentmihalyi explained in his 2004 TED(4) talk that getting into Flow requires seven conditions.

They are:

  1. You’re focused.
  2. You are clear: You know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the next.
  3. You get immediate feedback in whatever you’re doing.
  4. You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even if it’s difficult.
  5. Your sense of time disappears.
  6. You forget yourself.
  7. You feel part of something larger.

Hitting a Flow state is easier than it looks

Granted, those seven critera are all quite lofty. If you’re working in an office and you have competing meetings and deadlines, how on earth are you going to allow your sense of time to disappear?

Don’t worry – we’ll get into that further down. Then, there’s a PDF that you can print out and put on your desk to remind you about how to get there.

The first key to Flow is focus. Know what you need to be doing, know what the steps are, be clear about what it’s going to take. If you’re not sure, take a moment to sketch them out on paper.

The second is uninterrupted time. If you want to get into Flow, you absolutely can’t have any interruptions. Turn off your email, turn off your phone, close your door. Hell, go and work in a cafe down the road for an hour and a half if that’s what it’s going to take.

The third is to have work that is challenging, with skills that are equal to the task. If you don’t have the right skills, or the work isn’t challenging enough, you’ll be either frustrated or bored instead of in the zone.

Then if you have all of these things and still can’t hit the Flow sweet spot, there’s a good chance that an emotion is stopping you from letting go of the ‘real world’.(3) Besides boredom and frustration, the other two culprits are anxiety and worry.

Take a moment to calm yourself down and come back to now, before you dive in.

Flow is really just learning to be mindful

If you’ve read any of my previous articles about mindfulness or mindset, you might suspect that Flow is really a mindful state. And you’d be right. The ultimate goal of mindfulness is flow.

This is why practising being mindful in small, mundane activities can be so powerful for you. It helps you to realise that there are ’no mundane moments, only mundane states of mind’.(5)

In this article in Fast Company, Steven Kotler, author of The Rise of Superman: Decoding the science of ultimate human performance, suggests that even brushing your teeth with the wrong hand can create the focus you need in order to access the Flow state.

Kotler says:

Anybody anywhere can apply the triggers for any task. And the amount of time someone spends in flow has a massive and powerful correlation to life satisfaction.(6)

The Flow state makes you happier because it changes how you think about work

Just because it’s work, it doesn’t immediately mean that it is hard, or difficult or annoying. It can be completely enjoyable, if you change your mindset. Getting into a flow state is just one way that you can find greater enjoyment in your work, without changing anything except how you approach it.(7)

When we look at the nitty-gritties of how to find happiness, we discover that flow is about single-tasking, not multi-tasking. Gone are the days in which we write job ads asking for people who can multi-task!

The focus needed for Flow is enjoyable because it immediately reduces your stress levels. You aren’t trying to force your mind to function when it’s distracted by a handful of things all at once.

At the same time, you’re improving quality – for the same reason. It’s all because you’re only focusing on getting one thing done.

As Leo Babauta at Zen Habits writes:

the ability to single-task (as opposed to multi-task) is one of the keys to true productivity.(8)

You’ll remember that in my article Happiness is a choice, I wrote that one of the simplest ways of finding happiness is to improve your performance.

The fastest way to do this is to stop multitasking. When you do, Flow is achievable.

Hang on. My team is great at multitasking!

Well, they’re not actually. Nobody is.

In the throes of a busy day, we often find ourselves doing multiple things at once, in an attempt to ‘save time’. We read things while cooking dinner. We reply to emails while waiting on the phone for someone. We read while sitting on a stationery bike in the gym. But the truth is, even though we might feel like a hero doing everything at once, we’re actually wasting time.

When it comes to work, you can multitask for the things that don’t require any brain power: The habitual things. But multitasking is terrible for things that do need you to think.

One of the reasons why is that it stops you being able to remember. If you’re worried that your mind isn’t what it used to be, if you can’t remember things, then the culprit might be habitual multitasking.

In this Forbes article, Douglas Merrill tells us that our brains can only store between 5 and 9 items in their short-term memories. The scary thing is, if something doesn’t make it into your short-term memory, then it sure as hell isn’t going to make it into your long-term memory! And that’s a problem if you’re trying to read Board reports, and you’re cooking dinner at the same time.[9]

Some experts argue that the drop in productivity as a result of switching cost – that is, switching between tasks – can be a massive 40%.(10)

Dr Jenny Brockis, in an article in CEO Magazine, called single-taking, ‘monotasking’.[12] She argues that when speed, performance and efficiency are the requirements, you can’t achieve them by multitasking.

She says:

The cognitive cost includes increased fuel requirements (oxygen and glucose) for the job, leading to rapid mental exhaustion, reduced time efficiency, more mistakes, reduced creativity, poorer analysis of data, and poorer decision-making.(12)

How to switch away from… well, switching

If you have a multitasking culture in your workplace, there are some ways in which you can start making the switch. As a leader, you set the standard, so you need to make the change yourself if you want others to do the same thing.

Dr Brockis suggests that you:

  • Establish a meetings policy that bans all mobile phones (and other unnecessary tech) from the room
  • Allocate work in chunks of 60-90 minutes, with 20-minute, brain-refreshment breaks
  • Switch your technology off, and keep it out of sight during conversations. This means keeping it off the table!
  • Reward yourself by working through your Top 3 important items in a day this way, with your mobile phone either off or on do-not-disturb.(11)

Real-world case study: How ADSSI Home Living achieves Flow

ADSSI HomeLiving Australia provides home-based care for older people and people living with a disability. They have a staff of approximately 150 people, and a client-base of approximately 16,000. Those who work for ADSSI’s clients need to give top-notch, compassionate care for a range of clients who themselves face a litany of challenges as a result of illness, injury or age. Carers at ADSSI carers need to show up day after day and be the person whom their clients need them to be.

ADSSI HomeLiving Australia has embedded The ORANGES Toolkit into its workplace culture. The ORANGES Toolkit can dramatically change workplace cultures for the better. Itself an acronym, ORANGES stands for Optimisim, Resilience, Attitude, Now, Gratitude, Energy, and Strengths.

So where does Flow fit into this? It’s in ’Now’ or mindfulness. We’ve already seen that Flow is a natural outcome.

As part of their ORANGES training, ADSSI’s team members have learned how to come back to this focused, centre moment whenever they need to. Additionally, a mindful approach is programmed into the way that they do everything – including run their meetings.

‘We’ve started doing mindfulness regularly at most team meetings,’ explained CEO Jenni Allan. ‘So we’ll have a few minutes using an app just to focus our minds on where we are.’

People and Culture Manager, Colin Henson, expanded on the changes to the AHLA culture.

‘The other fact is, managers and non managers are more present for their staff. They understand even though I’m flat out busy I’ve got this report due that needs my attention now, I need to be in the now for this person. That might mean that just for 30 seconds you stop, close your eyes, focus yourself and then go and have that chat. Everyone is a bit more mindful, more consultative. We’re better at explaining the why of decisions.’

How has it changed the business?

Colin gave it some thought.

‘It’s changed this place. We’re a lot softer, a lot… no softer is not the right word. Self compassion is more evident now. We’re less judgemental of ourselves as individuals, and of each other.’

Your guide to cultivating Flow at work

The following six points will help you get into a state of Flow whenever you want or need to be. With a bit of practice it will become second nature.

To print this out for your employees, download this PDF.

1. Understand your emotional state. Use mindfulness to tell you how you’re feeling. If you’re bored, you’ll find it hard to get into flow; and if you’re anxious or worried, the same thing applies. If you’re trying to get into a Flow state, take a moment to calm yourself by focusing on your breath, relaxing your body and getting ‘centred’. It will be much easier for you to approach Flow by preparing yourself for being engaged on just one thing.

2. Block out your time and make sure you won’t be interrupted. Turn off your mobile phone, turn off the internet (or use a blocking application like Freedom to ensure you won’t end up frittering time away). Make sure that your colleagues know you can’t be interrupted for the next 60 to 90 minutes. Then get to work.

3. Know exactly what you are doing and what you want to achieve. Clarity about your goal is important. Think about your work like training a puppy: If you don’t have a clear enough goal, your puppy mind isn’t going to pay attention to you.

4. Ensure that you get immediate feedback. Maybe the feedback is your own assessment against the requirements of what you’re doing. Maybe it’s hitting the ’send’ button. Maybe it’s putting a file back where it needs to go. Whatever it is, you need a way of knowing that what you’re doing is effective and – perhaps! – finished. If you’re not sure, think about it on paper first.

5. Notice whether your work is challenging enough. If it isn’t, you won’t find yourself in a flow state, because your mind will wander off. This might also be an opportunity for you to seek more ways of providing value to your business.

6. If you fall out of the Flow state, take a moment to consider what happened. If it’s the fault of a notification of some kind, make a mental note of so that you can prevent it next time. But if it’s your attention, it could be that you haven’t given yourself enough brain breaks to stay engaged. Remember, 20 minutes of work is optimum, so set a timer and get started. Then, have a break for 5 minutes before you keep going.

In Conclusion

Getting into a Flow state will help you to get more done, and enjoy it while you do. It does this because it stops you from getting distracted, while simultaneously improving the quality of your work. All it takes is a moment of mindfulness, some uninterrupted time, and allowing yourself to get caught up in the process. When you do, you’ll find you are more productive, more efficient, more relaxed – and happier.

Give your team the skills to get into Flow, with The ORANGES Toolkit

The N in ORANGES stands for Now, or mindfulness. It’s the fourth of seven workshops delivered over a two-day program. The program empowers your team members to learn and use 40 mindset-improvement strategies. The program is so impactful that participants can put the strategies in place immediately.

The ORANGES Toolkit isn’t a fluffy wellbeing program. It draws on the latest thinking in psychology and neuroscience, which is why it works.