Do you need any help to boost productivity at work? Try getting “in the zone”

The scientific explanation for being “in the zone” is called Flow.

Have you ever experienced that feeling before? Where you’re so in the zone, that time just seems to be passing without you even realizing it. It’s almost a surreal experience, where you can almost notice how productive you’re currently being.

Each thing that you’re doing is flowing beautifully, and you know in your heart of hearts that you’re producing great work.

This magical feeling is what psychologists call “Flow”.

There are thousands of blog posts on the internet on how to boost productivity at work, but if you want to understand the true secret of productivity, you need to understand what Flow is. I want to break down the science for you, so that hopefully you can get “in the zone” more often.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law

From Wikipedia:

The Yerkes–Dodson law is an empirical relationship between arousal and performance, originally developed by psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson in 1908. The law dictates that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point. When levels of arousal become too high, performance decreases. The process is often illustrated graphically as a curvilinear, inverted U-shaped curve which increases and then decreases with higher levels of arousal.

The yerkes dodson graph that talks about peak productivity

This is essentially what Flow is. It’s that perfect sweet spot when a task that you’re doing isn’t too challenging, but also isn’t too boring. Obviously it’s really tricky to find that sweet spot, but this is the goal.

Also, the only way to actually ever achieve flow is if you love what you do. You’ll never be able to reach that point of “mental arousal” is you don’t enjoy your work. This is why finding something you’re passionate about to work on is so important.

Before I go any further, I think it’s important that everyone watches this TED talk by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “Flow, The Secret to Happiness”

Tips For Getting Into And Maintaining Flow

One of the amazing things that Mihaly talks about in his TED talk is trying to take flow, and applying it to other areas of our life, outside of work. What he says is that in many ways, the secret to a happy life is by getting flow into our daily lives.

This is why learning how to get and maintain flow are so important. Here are some tips to get you started:

  1. Find the right environment – you have to find whatever works best for you, but you need to find a place where you can really get some work done. Everyone has that place, whether its a coffee shop, a co-working space, or your bedroom, everyone knows what that “right” environment is to them. For me, I need absolute silence, and I find I do my best work at night in my room.
  2. Find the right time of day – Like I just mentioned, I find I do my best work at night, but everyone has their special time when they are the most productive. Find that time, and take advantage of it, by really getting “in the zone”.
  3. Remove all possible distractions – Turn off your cellphone, close the TV, close any other program or tab you have open on your computer. But more importantly, when you are flowing, harness that power. Don’t get up to go for lunch, you’ll eat later. Getting into flow is such an incredibly hard thing to do, that once you’re in, you want to stay in as long as you can.

You can also try meditation techniques to achieve flow more often.

In my opinion, the hardest part about achieving this state of productivity is accepting failure. If you can learn how to do that, then you’re on the first step in the path to improve yourself. Once you’re ready to fail, you’re ready to learn. In the flow diagram, there are essentially two sides, boredom and anxiety.

the optimal point for productivity is the balance between anxiety and boredom. Once you get here you can easily boost productivity at work.

Boredom, is when a task is too easy for you. You won’t truly learn anything new if you’re always taking the easy the way out. The only way to improve is to consistently challenge yourself. This is the other side of the graph.

Anxiety is when you don’t know enough about a certain task, so you learn as you go. This fits in perfectly with the “fail early, fail often” ethos.

If you want to grow really fast, and be the best at what you do, you need to be willing to fail and learn from your mistakes. The best advice I can give you is to find a mentor that will help you. But make sure that your mentor gives you clear, actionable recommendations. Don’t just let them tell you what you did wrong, learn what they know.

If you’re looking for more tips on productivity, we’ve written a lot about it before.

Leveling Up In The Game

First, let me take a step back and explain what gamification is, in case you’re reading this and you don’t know. Gamification is the process of adding game mechanics (like points, badges, and achievements) to non-games to make them more fun.

Life is a game, and in order to constantly improve yourself, you need to “level up”. If you ever want to achieve the flow state while you’re working, you have to keep challenging yourself, and you have to keep getting better at what you’re doing. You also need to take it very seriously.

Let me give you a personal example, in case it helps. At the beginning of this year, I set out to learn web programming, as a personal challenge. I set myself a very realistic, attainable, long term goal, and I made sure to practice for many hours.

Luckily, the website I was using to learn online had a very clear path for me to follow. So I was able to see the end, and I was able to tell myself, if I do 1 hour of concentrated studying, 3 nights per week, for 4 months, I’ll have completed the course. During each of these 1 hour sessions, I made sure that there were absolutely no distractions. I closed every other program on my computer, I put my phone on silent, I closed the door to my room, and asked everyone in the house to respect me and be quiet.

This is what I mean by taking it seriously.

I also recorded everything I did. This is important when tracking your goals to understand how you’re improving. My example might be unique, in the sense that web programming is easy to log and monitor progress, it’s actually part of the learning process.

Help Employees Achieve Flow

As an employer, there is a lot that you can do to help your employees achieve flow. It’s every manager’s responsibility to ensure they’re doing everything possible to help make sure that their employees are working at their best.

The first, and most obvious thing to do is to look for warning signs of disengagement. So looking for things like boredom, wandering, and loss of focus are important, but you can also measure their performance with a certain key performance indicator (KPI). If you notice that a certain KPI is going down, this is a sign that something is wrong, and that whoever is in charge of this metric, has probably lost focus.

Perhaps the task became too boring for the employee, in which case it’s your responsibility to make it more challenging for them. Make sure that you’re keeping it fun though, there’s no need for extra pressure or stress, just more engagement from the employee.

Or perhaps the task became too complex, or the employee had to take on other work so this task became too much for them. If this is the case, then flow won’t be reached so you need to lighten their workload, and provide more support for them. Again, it’s about trying to find that sweet spot of challenge and engagement.

Another thing you can do as an employer is encourage them to master their task. Provide learning resources for them, so that they can become masters. This is actually part of the flow concept. Mastering a skill is an important way that a person can reach that sweet spot of engagement. Have you ever heard Malcolm Gladwell talk about 10,000 hours? This is important to understand, when trying to think about how the best become the best. Practice, practice, practice.

Employers should also be encouraging team building activities at work, to bring everyone closer together. Employees need to love where they work, and who they work with.

Do you think that our “lifehacks” will boost productivity at work?

As you can see, Flow is important to boost productivity at work. Do you have any tips that I missed? Let me know in the comments!