That’s what experts call flow, which “happens when you’re so engaged in what you’re doing that time seems to stop and you just keep going,” says Susan Perry, Ph.D, a social psychologist and author of the Creating in Flow blog at Psychology Today.
Now what if you could recreate that feeling on a regular basis when you’re logging hours in the office? Just think how much you could accomplish. Well, here’s some good news: You can—and you don’t need to be a world-class concentrator to do this. It just takes some expert know-how.
Follow these nine key factors for finding (and keeping) your flow at work:
1. Create a beginning ritual. “Set up a system that tells your brain it’s time to get started working,” says Perry. This could be as simple as drinking your morning coffee and scrolling through the news for 15 minutes. You may even have a routine without realizing it, but recognizing your ritual as a necessary start to your day is a good way to prepare yourself for work.
2. Ditch the distractions. Experts agree that distractions are the most common culprits for pulling people out of flow. So clear the clutter from your desk and put away anything that will tempt you to lose focus—in particular, your smartphone, which many people keep within sight of their work area, notes Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., a professor in the department of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa and author of “The Procrastinator's Digest: A Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle.” As hard as it may be, turn off your phone or put it on silent, place it in a drawer and only allow yourself to check it at specific times throughout the day.
3. Overpower procrastination. Dreading that new project you were planning to start, um, yesterday? Putting off a work assignment until you absolutely have to deal with it? Procrastination is a roadblock to flow, but Pychyl’s research found that before study participants started a task (i.e. when they were procrastinating), they felt that what they had to do was difficult and stressful, but once they actually got to the task they realized it wasn’t as bad as they had made it out to be. Note to self: Remind yourself of this when you’re putting off a dreaded or daunting task. Most likely, the work is not as bad as you envision and just getting started is the easiest way to conquer it quickly.
4. Make your goals specific and active. You have to be strategic in order to stay focused, according to Pychyl. The simple trick of learning how to implement your goals—rather than focusing on your intentions—can help you get into the zone on a daily basis. For example, instead of saying that you want to work on an Excel project (which is vague), say you’re going to complete two pages of the spreadsheet by the end of the day in order to move towards finishing the entire project in two weeks.
5. Challenge yourself. The task at hand needs to be somewhat challenging in order for you to reach flow, notes Perry. In other words, if it’s too boring, your flow will fizzle. An easy fix that anyone, in any job, can do: create an internal challenge. Creating challenges on menial tasks also makes activities more fun, which increases the chance that you’ll find and maintain flow, according to Pychyl. So if you’re folding clothes all day in a retail store, set up a contest with yourself to see how many shirts you can fold perfectly in a one-hour time period. If you’re writing a less-than-thrilling document in the office, try to complete a certain amount of words before lunchtime and reward yourself with a walk outside if you achieve it.
6. Quit multitasking. Seriously. Even if you think you’re a pro at multitasking, chances are it’s really just counterproductive. “Every time you switch your focus, your brain has to stop and then pick back up again,” explains Ryan Howell, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, director of the Personality and Well-being Lab and founder of BeyondthePurchase.org, an academic website that helps consumers evaluate their happiness. “It’s actually much more efficient to stay on one task.” Yes, this means you should close 11 of the 12 browser tabs you have open on your computer right now. Instead, try setting an alarm for 20-minute (or longer) chunks of time so you can still switch from task to task, but this way, you’re only focusing on one at a time.
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