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Lately I’ve noticed my mind has been wandering and I can’t seem to focus on my work. And on top of that, I can’t put down my phone because I’ve been doomsday scrolling with everything going on around the world right now. How can I remove all this noise and distractions around me?
Have you ever been so immersed in a task that you realize a few hours have gone by? Most people refer to this as “in the zone" or flow.
As explored in Steven Kotler's book Stealing Fire, flow is studied and practiced amongst top organizations such as the Navy Seals and Silicon Valley tech giants but not so much in your average workspace. If high performers are taking advantage of this legendary “mind gym,” why isn’t everyone? To create an equal playing field, everyone can utilize this great peak state to increase productivity, focus, and satisfaction at work.
But first, you must understand flow.
Rethinking our perception of “time”
When you are in flow, you have “more time.”
Time is not linear— even Einstein stated time is relative, and it is created by things— including our mental realities. Of course, the sun rises and sets at the same ‘time’ every day, but our perception and speed of time dictate how we experience physical reality. To increase our quality of work and life, we can control this by learning how to switch brain states and understanding the concept of ‘mental time travel.’
Aristotle described memories not only as archives of our lives but as tools for reimagining the future. Our perception of time is the architect of our mental reality created by past events, reflecting our physical reality, which affects our future outcomes.
To take complete control of your life, including your productivity and overall well-being, you need to relearn what you think time is.
The Ancient Greeks described time brilliantly
In ‘Recapture the Rapture,’ the modern-day prophet, Jamie Wheal, described two definitions of time defined by the Ancient Greeks: Chronos, the linear description of time we all know from past to present. And then there is the Kairos– or sacred time. Kairos is when you are outside linear time. Flow.
The seeming timelessness of the non-ordinary state of Kairos plunges us entirely into the present, removing all thoughts of the past and future. You are now in the immediacy of the “deep now.”
Most of us operate on Chiros but imagine the opportunities if we all made time for Kairos. Chiros provides well-needed structure, but Kairos is when creativity and innovation flourish because it feels like we have the time in the world as we effortlessly execute the task at hand.
What is flow?
Flow is the state where hard work and meaning collide.
Flow is the magical state where time doesn’t exist as we know it or at least moving at a much different pace — you are in your dimension, your personal Eden. Your senses are heightened. You are present. You are in sync with the universe, making effortless momentum and fully immersed in the task.
Popularized by positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who said in a 2004 TedTalk, “there’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback.”
Steven Kotler, the author of The Art of Impossible, describes during flow as the “mental and physical ability go through the roof, and the brain takes in more information per second, processing it more deeply.”
Shifting brain waves
When you are in flow, your brain waves shift from your normal state of high beta (waking consciousness, alertness, cognition) to a combination of slower low alpha (relaxation, visualization, creativity) and high theta (meditation, intuition, memory) states associated with meditation.
Theta states are prerequisites for epiphanies or “aha” moments when insights happen.
In our busy world, we evolved intelligently with an “attention filter” to not overwhelm our senses in an environment with constant distractions. The processing capability of the conscious mind may only be estimated at only 120 bits per second. Still, this double-edged evolutionary sword helped solidify our reign at the top of the food chain. Think of your dog or a squirrel who reacts at every sight or sound in their environment– because they lack that precious attention “filter.” Imagine what we would do without this filter!
As our society expands with increased distractions such as smartphones and social media that come with the exponential growth of a thriving economy– our minds have yet to catch up, and it’s difficult not to fall back to our primal instincts. We need to develop skills to enhance our attention and focus on getting through life more effortlessly and efficiently. As with any skill, everyone can achieve this with consistent practice.
Benefits of flow?
1) Flow states lead to exponential productivity.
A 10-year McKinsey study found that top executives are up to 500% more productive during flow because they work harder and smarter. If you spend two hours per day in a flow state for five days in a row, you’ll be as productive as most people are in an average 40-hour workweek.
2) Flow enhances learning.
When you're in flow, dopamine is released, which enhances attention. This allows you to recognize patterns which get stored in your subconscious. Your brain is always “listening” and collecting data from your environment and only when you are relaxed. In flow, it can take everything you absorb and make correlations from it. Think of those “aha” moments.
3) Flow states induce happiness and well-being.
Human beings require fulfillment to survive, as discovered in the notable Man’s Search for Meaning by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. Flow allows us to experience meaningful work, and doing it often will transform your life and mind and give you a reason to live truly.
4) Flow makes us more resilient.
In The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, Steven Kotler explains, “the edge (flow) is the one place that the ghosts can't follow.” When you are in flow, that ‘voice in your head,’ the inner-critic— your ego is silenced. As we rewire circuits in our brain by inducing flow more often, we learn to cope with stress effectively and shut out the negative thoughts and emotions. We better prepare ourselves for challenges ahead.
5) Flow can save lives.
In Peak Mind, Amishi Jha tells us about a harrowing incident in Afghanistan in 2004. Lieutenant colonel, Walt Piatt, had received approved intelligence from all top levels and was about to obliterate an insurgent encampment of Taliban fighters. As his team encircled the camp and was about to launch an attack, a scout radioed in and saw no weapons– they were civilians. A tragedy was averted because one individual was present enough to see things clearly because he wasn’t distracted and situationally aware.
The “insurgent encampment” was in fact the winter camp of a Bedouin tribe. The tents were filled with families. They had been making their way to this land for centuries, to let their animals graze. They had absolutely no affiliation with the Taliban. — excerpt from Peak Mind
How to achieve flow?
Set an intention.
Flow requires clarity and a clear understanding of objectives. Understand your task at hand before you start.
Find an activity you enjoy.
Flow requires intense concentration while performing an intrinsically rewarding activity— at the intersection of action and awareness.
A couple of years ago, I decided I needed to be more present because I realized how fast time passed, and I didn't want to miss out on life doing meaningless things. The first thing I did was cultivate the habit of putting down my phone! Try it — it will change your life.
- No checking phones when I wake up.
- Stop bringing your phone to the bathroom!!
- Absolutely NO checking messages (unless urgent for work) or posting on social media during dinners.
- Limit social media time. People think I go on social media a lot, but I use it less than an hour per day. I only post, and my feed is highly curated with content that only helps me learn or grow in topics I am interested in (science, nutrition, mindset, psychology, etc.).
Understand the oscillating patterns of your physiology.
Productivity ebbs and flows, mainly dictated by chemicals in your brain. Dopamine, the neurotransmitter for drive and motivation, is at its peak at the beginning of the day. Do any *flow-inducing" work that requires deep focus in the morning when you get up or mid-afternoon because that's when you are the most creative, as recommended by Dr. Andrew Huberman, neuroscientist and professor at Stanford. As your willpower or dopamine wanes, do any work that doesn’t require much ‘deep thought’ in the afternoon, such as scheduling, sending invoices, bookkeeping, etc.
Set up a workspace where no one can disturb you. Turn off notifications. Don’t multitask— only focus on the task at hand. Wear noise-cancelling headphones. Listen to binaural beats for focus — time block all your tasks. Try not to get up even for the bathroom until you finish a period of deep work, so prepare to set yourself up for success beforehand.
Think of achieving flow as a skill and practice it often.
If you catch your attention drifting, kindly see yourself and bring your attention back to what needs to be done. You rewire circuits in your brain, so it takes less effort each time you do this. Individuals who achieve flow often are more productive and derive greater satisfaction from their work than those who don’t.
Exercise in nature more often.
As a cyclist, I have experienced flow states infinite times. I cherish nothing more than being one with Mother Nature– it is an ethereal, otherworldly experience that can never be described with words. I’ve ridden in mountains worldwide where I’ve cried because I was in an indescribable state of awe, wonder and peace. These experiences have such a profound, lasting effect on my life.
Doctors prescribe “forest bathing” in Japan because simply being in our natural element completely relaxes our nervous system. When we are relaxed and focused on an activity, our minds naturally get into flow. Our minds have not evolved enough for us to thrive in concrete jungles. Research suggests that techniques such as grounding have positive effects on inflammation and chronic conditions. The central hypothesis is that connecting the body to the Earth enables free electrons from the Earth’s surface to spread over and into the body, which can have antioxidant effects. Although still controversial, we cannot deny the benefits of spending time in nature.
Lean into your flow
Flow is a state all individuals and organizations must take advantage of to reach peak states of high performance in both our personal and professional lives.
Companies such as Google are known for their legendary efforts in creating a seamless live/work environment for their staff because forward-thinking organizations know that increased overall well-being results in happy and productive employees. It benefits everyone.
As an individual, create a daily spiritual practice to immerse yourself into flow. Teach your friends, family and colleagues. We have nothing to lose by getting into flow!
Kate Pn writes about mastering a healthy work-life balance by focusing on productivity hacking. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.