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5 ways to find your Zen at work

December 8, 2014, 4:50 PM UTC
It isn't easy to keep your focus in a digital age.
Photograph by Andy Nelson — Getty Images

There is absolutely nothing like flow, which is that energized, hyper-focused state that you fall in when you are completely absorbed in whatever you’re doing. You’ve felt it, right? Working in such an absorbed fashion that you look up and hours have flown by. Feeling completely engaged and focused. Call it flow, peak performance, or being in the zone. It’s when we work and live at our absolute best.

The concept of flow was first noted and studied by University of Chicago psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who came to believe that flow is the ultimate state of happiness. In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi says you know you’re in flow when the work is effortless, when you feel:

  • Completely immersed and engaged in what you are doing
  • A sense of ecstasy, feeling outside everyday reality
  • Great inner clarity
  • Confidence in the task at hand
  • A sense of serenity
  • Timelessness, hours seem to pass in minutes
  • Intrinsic motivation, meaning whatever has produced the flow is its own reward

You don’t have to be a famous artist, writer, or athlete to get in the flow. We can all get there. We can all learn to work better, with real joy, passion, and presence. How? Well, there’s a simple science to it, but the bottom line is that in order to really experience flow, we have to train ourselves to disengage from the distractions that surround us all day every day. We can’t get to flow if we’re overwired. And that means we have to learn to unwire.

It can certainly be tough, but here are five ways to help you get there:

Seek out struggle. Flow doesn’t just happen; we have to get into it, and that’s where the struggle comes in. You actually have to fight to get into flow and struggle against the myriad disruptions and distractions that prevent us from getting there — emails, texts, Facebook, Twitter, phone calls, etc. There are so many opportunities to be distracted and avoid the struggle. Don’t justify busy work (i.e. email, texts, putting all those files away, etc.); get to work on important things. Schedule a time to answer emails and phone calls. Schedule your flow time like you would anything else.

Unplug, unwire, and unwind. The struggle will be a lot less difficult if you actually disconnect, and a critical precursor to flow is taking time to unplug from the stress and strain, to unwire ourselves from our technology and devices, and to truly let ourselves unwind. When we do, we change the way our brains operate, we change our neurochemistry, and we shift the way we think. Then and only then can we enter flow. So unplug from your gadgets. Move away from the distractions. Shift your attention and energy so you can get into your flow.

Be here now. Flow only happens when you are in the present. In fact, that’s the very nature of flow—being absolutely lost in the present. If you are worrying about the past or planning for the future you won’t get in flow. Optimize your likelihood of getting in flow by setting clear goals (“Today I want to accomplish this.”) and remove distractions: Close your door, turn off your phone and all the responders that go ping and ding, tell people not to disturb you. If an anxious or stressful thought pops into your head write it down and put it aside for later. Minimize distractions so you stay in the present and stay in the flow.

Embrace the funk of recovery. Flow is draining. During flow, our brains go crazy, producing neurochemicals to create the hyperfocused, creative, expansive state. As the neurochemicals recede don’t expect to feel great. Sleep, sunshine, and nutrition are essential, so when you’re out of your flow, go for a walk in the sun and then take a rest. And rather than lamenting that the flow state has ended enjoy your period of recovery. Your brain needs the rest. Relax and rejuvenate. You won’t be able to get back into flow if you don’t.

Flow whenever and wherever you can. Turns out the more we get into flow, the easier it becomes to get there. Flow is like a muscle or habit; it gets easier over time. The more you train your brain to get into and stay in flow, the easier it becomes to get there. So if you crave more flow at work, spend more time on weekends in flow doing what you love—gardening, cooking, dancing, etc.

Flow is a state that we can all experience. I don’t want to leave the impression that technology is evil. Quite the contrary; I love technology (my love for my iPhone runs a very close third to that of my husband and son). But we can’t get into flow if we are overwired, responding to every ping, ding, and post, and distracted and disrupted by our gadgets. Only by unwiring can you go with the flow.

Camille Preston is a virtual leadership expert, author, speaker, executive coach, and the founder and CEO of AIM Leadership. Preston is also author of, The Rewired Resolution.