In this week's column, I want to discuss the concept of flow, how it can benefit us and how we can try and achieve it in our sporting, professional and personal lives.
What is flow?
Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.
People enter a flow state when they are fully absorbed in an activity and they lose their sense of time and have feelings of great satisfaction. The ego falls away, time flies, every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one. Your whole being is involved, and your using your skills to the utmost.
Being an elite athlete in the middle of the challenge of beating an opponent to a ball (the clear goal + challenge/skill balance + immediate feedback) in a high stakes environment like an All-Ireland final makes it easier to access the 'flow state' but how can we set ourselves up to achieve it in our day-to-day activities?
We all need a certain level of challenge outside our comfort zone in our daily pursuits to feel alive and engaged as human beings.
From looking at the research, our work can very often meet the requirements to reach this flow state. We are able to set a vision and clear goals for tasks or projects, we are challenged to use our skills close to or slightly above current capabilities, we can get immediate feedback if it works or doesn’t based on the goals we have set.
What are the benefits of finding our flow during Covid-19?
Scientifically, whenever we immerse ourselves fully in a task that uses all our mental faculties, we get into the state of flow, and flow has a huge therapeutic benefit on our fight or flight response.
During times like these, the state of flow can be just the solution we need to stimulate our creative skills and protect our well-being.
One study, that had over 5000 participants in Wuhan and other major cities seriously impacted by Covid-19 complete an online survey assessing experiences of flow, mindfulness, and well-being. The key finding was that flow - but not mindfulness - made a significant difference in well-being.
People who experienced high levels of flow showed little or no association between quarantine length and low scores in the domain of well-being.
In a business context, a McKinsey study of 5000 executives found those who spend 10% of their time in flow were five times more productive during this period. Navy seals, top fortune 500 CEO’s and leaders, Silicon Valley start-up entrepreneurs are all connecting into flow to cut learning in half and become 2-5 times more productive.
- Can you think of activities during which time disappears, you are completely absorbed into what you are doing?
- What were you doing? How does it make you feel? Can you replicate it?
- What percentage of time do you think you are in a state of flow at work, in sport or doing some hobby each week?
- When you are in the state how many more times productive do you think you are?
- Do you block off time to allow you to complete these activities each week?
- Focus on doing something you are very good at
- Something that is really challenging
- Set goals and identify internal distractions (thoughts or sensations) or external environment distractions (weather, opponent, noise, technology etc) that prevent you from focusing and plan how to remove or deal with them.
- Review your results: Get inputs from video, coach, manager, team member.
For a sports person this could be a skill like shooting (aspect you enjoy and good at). Give yourself a goal of hitting ten shots on the run over the bar from the 65m line in hurling in under 60 seconds (the challenge).
Review your scoring efficiency (immediate feedback). Can manipulate intensity, time, distance, etc. to increase difficulty.
In a personal or work setting:
1. Define your expertise
Do you know what your personal strengths are?
What is your primary field of interest? What are you very good at?
2. Clarify your challenges
How challenging is your work, sport or hobby?
Have you talked to your manager about more challenging activities?
Any challenges that don't relate to work? Passions or hobbies?
3. Personal agenda
When do you reach a state of flow in your ideal week?
Do you block off undisturbed time in your personal agenda?
Strategies to consider reaching deeper focus and flow more consistently?
1. Energy and time
Be aware of the times during the day and week when you feel mentally and physically most energised and focused. Lock in your most important activities here.
We all go through energy peaks, troughs, and rebounds throughout the day regarding our mental focus and energy.
Putting our highest impact projects into our peak energy times will reap big rewards e.g. preparing a report, important client meetings, learning a new skill, etc.
2. Set clear intentions that provide feedback
When we set clear goals and intentions and write out detailed plans, we are between 2-3 times more likely to carry them out.
Set 2-3 clear and specific daily intentions for your work and personal life.
For example: I will do a 5km run at lunch time in under x time. I will study the sales report from 9-11am. I will call my manager for feedback on the sales report at 4-5pm.
Make them visual on a whiteboard, diary or post it.
3. Identify distractions
Research tells us that people on average check email 11 times per hour and 88 times over the course of their working day. When we disrupt ourselves with these mini interruptions it can take us up to 29 minutes to reach previous levels of focus.
Removing apps from our phone, removing the phone from our room, noise cancelling earphones, closing notifications and websites on our laptop are great ways to increase productivity and increase our deep focus. Spending time in quiet spaces improves focus too. What clutter in your environment affects your focus and how can you reduce it?
4. Mind wandering
Realise that our mind will wander almost 50% of the time each waking hour. When we set an intention for key parts of the day or that hour we can bring our self-back to the point of focus by resetting attention on the task we intend on doing. With no intention we can sit in autopilot 95% of the time and achieve very little.
5. Attentional space
Our working memory can hold on average four pieces of information at a time. If we split this attention on too many things, we distract ourselves from our key task. Narrow our focus to one internal cue (thoughts on task) and one external cue (typing, object like goal or ball, etc). This stops us from having attentional overload.
6. Work together
Flow is also possible to experience as a team. You increase the likelihood of experiencing flow as a group by ensuring you have shared goals and all the team members are willing to participate and actively listen to new ideas.
A healthy level of disagreement is good to have in teams and people are willing to share participation without ego.
Finally, teams are more likely to achieve flow when they have frequent and consistent contact and when they divide risk on key decisions.