Hacking your productivity flow: 5 simple steps to be 500% more productive

Einstein once said, "When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute -- and it's longer than any hour. That's relativity"

Let's rework this a bit: when you sit with full concentration on a project for an hour, it seems like a minute. You are so absorbed in your work, you don't know where time goes. That's productivity flow. But when you sit with a distracted mind on any assignment, time will drag.

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Certain projects suck us in, blurring our surroundings with the focus only on the work at hand. In cases like that all time is lost. In fact, moments of flow state like this can make us 500% productive according to a 10-year McKinsey and Co. study.

That’s 500%! You heard that right. So how do you enter this state of flow on purpose and be ultra-productive? Let’s explore but before we proceed, here’s a look at what exactly productivity flow is.

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Photo by Isaac Smith on Unsplash

What is productivity flow

Productivity flow is a state of mind when creativity peaks, focus sharpens, and you get more done. The author of “The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance,” Steven Kotler explains,

“In this state, we are so focused on the task at hand that all else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Our sense of self vanishes. Our sense of time distorts. And performance goes through the roof.”

Interestingly, productivity flow isn’t just a productive state but an enjoyable one too. Plus, you’re internally motivated. The flow state gives you better control over how much you can accomplish during your day.

Mike Oppland writing in PositivePsychology.com shares what it feels like to be in a flow state:

  1. Complete concentration on the task;
  2. Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback;
  3. Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down);
  4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding;
  5. Effortlessness and ease;
  6. There is a balance between challenge and skills;
  7. Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination;
  8. There is a feeling of control over the task.

Ultimately, productivity flow helps you get more done. For instance, you can cover more of your syllabus if you’re a student. Or, if you’re a professional, you can manage to get more of your assignments completed in less time.

After all, you’re in your zone and your focus is soaring. Naturally, this helps you achieve more rather than being distracted and eyeing the third cup of coffee for some SOS help.

How to get into flow?

This can be hard at the start. You’ll need to learn how to channel your focus on one task, figure out how to signal your brain to jump into the zone, and find when you’re the most productive among other things.

We’ve laid each of these steps in detail below. Let’s dig in:

Step 1: Pick a task and prepare accordingly

Just as you need to list which fruits you require before you prepare a cocktail, you should know a few things before selecting a task to complete in your flow state.

Look at these three main things:

  • The significance of a specific task so that you make the most of your time which goes into the flow state. For instance, how important writing a post for your blog is in your marketing strategy
  • Your interest in the task to determine how hard it’s going to be to focus. For example, some of us love sorting through data so interest levels are high when working on such an interest-based project
  • The challenge level involved. The work should be challenging enough but not too challenging. For example, designing a web page instead of designing an entire app from scratch

A lack of challenge can make work boring, and your mind will start wandering. On the flip side, an extreme challenge can drain available motivation and make things frustrating. In fact, research proves that tasks requiring 4% more challenge than our skills help meet the midline between boredom and anxiety.

Take a page from the co-founder of Find A Way Media, Chris Gillespie’s book. His work involves a lot of writing so he assigns himself articles that need the right level of challenge.

He identifies such assignments as, “the articles where I feel like I’m crossing a threshold into a new, more advanced level of craftsmanship, where the writing feels like a privilege and where I’d be doing it money or no money.”

So you need to strike a balance of skill and challenge to find your productivity flow sweet spot.

But what if the work at hand is way too challenging and you need to do it anyway? Break it down into bite-sized portions to make it doable and less terrifying. Put simply, choose the task that needs immediate attention and is challenging enough to keep your mind engaged.

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Photo by Fabian Grohs on Unsplash

Step 2: Practice a flow stage ritual

A flow stage ritual is a series of steps that you take to prepare your brain to dive into the flow state. Getting into the flow is different for everyone. For some folks, it’s a matter of ten minutes. For others, it could take longer.

Gillespie takes about 30 minutes. He shares, “my pre-flow state ritual is coffee paired with a history book for thirty minutes. That fills my head with ideas. Then I leap over to my laptop and reorder my backlog to put my favourite tasks first.”

Hence, the key here is to figure out your steps to enter into the flow state.

Three-pointers that can help you in this regard are:

  • Eliminate distractions (more on this below)
  • Zone in on single-tasking. Multitasking is a flow state buster so start by clearing your desk of all open tasks except the one you need to tackle
  • Follow a routine so that your brain knows it has to get to work after the scheduled tasks. Say you can start by sipping tea in the quiet or reading your favourite newsletter before you get to work

Step 3: Fine-tune your focus by chopping distractions

Laser-sharp focus is one of the crucial triggers of productivity flow, which is why you need to work on honing it. Studies indicate that it takes between 5 to 20 minutes before you’re completely focused.

You’re more likely to sustain your focus and dip into the flow state if you remove distractions for 20 minutes straight. This is why the pomodoro technique is a champion at helping you master focus for entering flow. More on that in a bit.

For now, get rid of both internal and external distractions.

Internal distractions include stress or emotional onslaught. Start with acknowledging the disturbance, this is half of the problem resolved already. Next, rectify the issue. For instance, journal your accomplishments to help combat feelings of imposter syndrome.

Research concludes that the way to reach flow state is by flushing out all external distractions. So snooze notifications, put your phone on aeroplane mode or mute it at the least, and block tempting sites such as social media networks.

Step 4: Determine your productivity/creativity hours

Certain hours in a day tend to be productive. For instance, you could be a morning lark or someone who is at his best in the afternoon. Figure this out before you jump into the flow state so that you are at your most productive.

The author of A Life Of Productivity, Chris Bailey details how to determine your most productive hours. He recommends starting with tracking your energy, focus, and motivation for three weeks. Perhaps you’re not a 9-5er but that’s okay. Track your productivity for at least five weeks. Log this data in a spreadsheet at the same time daily, so it isn’t biased.

Here’s a template to assist you:

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Image Source Trello

Step 5: Get started with the pomodoro technique

The beginning of productivity flow surfaces when you cage your focus on a single task. The pomodoro technique does this as the 25-minute timer starts.

At the end of your session, you are rewarded with a refreshing 5-minute break. You need 25 minutes of distraction-free work to focus, and the pomodoro technique provides exactly that. In fact, this technique and productivity flow are the perfect match for getting more done in less time.

Through these rejuvenating 5-minute breaks, yo
u are allowing your brain the opportunity to relax, which is another reason why the pomodoro technique is a flow state supporter. Most important of all, the pomodoro technique helps conquer the biggest mental barrier– getting started.

To recap the pomodoro technique helps you in 3 ways:

  • Fighting procrastination and just getting started
  • Sustaining the flow state by resisting distractions
  • Taking short breaks to rest and refresh your brain, because you can’t be in a state of flow at all times

Practice makes perfect

Although all of this may sound like a piece of cake, it’s challenging in practice. You simply can’t set a timer and expect your brain to zip through the work. It takes time to find your productive hours, outline a pre-flow ritual, and recognize your mental cues.

Good news though, like all things requiring regular practice and dedication, it will all pay off in time. One more thing as we part – it is not necessary that your flow session lasts exactly as long as the pomodoro. If you’re in the flow and need to get some more done before taking a break, feel free to alter the pomodoro technique guidelines.

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