You don’t have to wait around and hope that Flow magically happens—you can prime yourself to intentionally experience it.
Two weeks ago, Steven Kotler and I both had a chance to share some ideas at the (virtual) GeniusX meeting.
I saw some immediate connections between Steven’s work with flow and my background in behavior design.
Specifically, flow is not something you have to wait around for and hope that it magically happens. Flow follows from the right lifestyle and work conditions, and the Tiny Habits Method (developed by my mentor at Stanford, BJ Fogg) is perfectly suited to help you create those conditions in your own life.
I’ve worked on creating flow in my own life since my undergraduate years at Stanford University when I realized how powerful and satisfying it can be to work in this way and how much more productive and creative my work is when I’m in flow. It’s a special state of consciousness characterized by full immersion in one’s work, energy, focus, and enjoyment. What’s more, flow states are widely reported to be 2–5 times as productive and creative than non-flow states.
If you flow, you know.
Now, flow is much broader than just a productivity tool (characterizing immersion in many different domains of life), but for this article, I’ll mostly focus on achieving flow states in your intensive work or writing tasks.
Last summer I was finishing my master’s thesis, and wrote down a “preparation for work blocks” list that I still keep on my desk that helps me get into flow in my daily tasks. I’ve found that a little bit of intentionality and preparation for flow work can be incredibly powerful.
In Steven’s presentation two weeks ago, the biggest “a-ha” moment for me was learning that flow happens when your executive functioning takes a back seat (accompanied by decreased activation in your brain’s frontal lobes, the neurological locus of executive functioning).
I’ve done executive functioning coaching in the past, and this was a helpful reminder that sometimes it’s important to switch out of executive functioning mode, i.e. eliminate the processes of judging, evaluating, and task switching from some of your work cycles. You’ll see that come through in some of the behaviors below. For example, one tip he offers is to separate the processes of research, writing, and editing when you’re producing written work.
Broadly, these are some of the factors that help make for a more flow-intensive life. Some are general life conditions that help bias your neurophysiology towards flow, some are specific to the flow state itself, and some are aimed at active recovery after working.
Gratitude, exercise, social connection, meditation, sleep, making work binary (you’re either fully engaged or fully unplugged), exercise, eliminating decisions in the work process, cold or heat therapy, time in nature, massage, nutrition, and clarity of purpose, among others.
Taking those ideas from Steven’s Flow Research Collective materials and adding some inspiration from my own personal history working on this and Screentime Genie (a tool that can help you manage distractions), I put together the lists of behaviors you see below.
Let’s say you want to build routines that help foster more flow in your life — how do you get started? In his book, Tiny Habits, BJ Fogg, lays out a simple and highly effective recipe for forming new habits. It follows a simple A-B-C structure:
I’ve followed this structure below.
- A list of some typical anchor moments in your workday
- 3 lists of specific behaviors that can help you achieve flow which should follow immediately from your anchor moment. You can mix and match however you like, so the total number of distinct combinations of anchor and behavior is 615 😊!
- Finally, celebration follows from your new behavior. This is the emotional kick that will help move your new habit towards automaticity. Here are shorter and longer explanations from BJ that lay out celebration better than I can do here.
Here are a few examples of completed recipes:
- After I decide which task to work on, I will look at my “prep for work” checklist and say to myself, “Way to go! You got this.”
- After I set my work timer for a task, I will turn on my essential oils diffuser, take a deep breath, and smile as I turn to my work.
- After I hear my child wake up from his nap, I will shut down my computer and pat myself on the back for a good day’s work completed.
A few notes and tips:
- The more reliable your anchor, the more reliable your habit will be.
- The behaviors listed are generally very specific and very tiny. Start small and celebrate your success, and you can always do more if you want to, but don’t raise the bar on yourself too quickly. You want to feel successful.
- I use the term “work cycle,” which I take from my friends at Ultraworking, but you might call it a “work session” or a “pomodoro” or a “chunk of time.” Basically, you’re going to want to schedule a block of time when your mind and body are prepared to do deep work.
- After my feet touch the ground after I wake up
- After I sit or stand at my desk
- After I power on my computer
- After I use the bathroom
- After I buckle my seatbelt
- After I sit down to a meal
- After I finish my last bite of a meal
- After I “wake up” from being distracted and realize I’m off task
- After I hear a phone ring
- After I hang up a phone call
- After I finish a meeting
- After my work timer goes off at the end of a work cycle
- After I close my computer for the day
- After I turn my phone on “do not disturb” mode
- After I close my front door
- After I brush my teeth
Behaviors for getting in the right headspace and orienting to work:
- Take one calming breath (3s inhale, 7s exhale)
- Look at my personal work-readiness checklist
- Think of one distraction that might pull me out of flow and address it before diving into work
- Write down what distracted me during my last work cycle
- Write down the day’s agenda
- Make my work plan even more specific with the question “how will I get started?”
- Start one behavior in my transition ritual to “turn on” into work mode
- Put my walking shoes on
- Write one gratitude text to somebody in my text history
- Schedule one work cycle in my calendar
- Schedule my daily workout in my calendar
- Set a personal deadline for one of my tasks
- Write one sentence on how I’m acting *autonomously* in the task I’m choosing
- Write down a work goal that challenges me just the right amount (e.g. number of words to write, milestone on my project)
- Eat a handful of almonds
Behaviors for managing distractions and setting up for a work cycle:
- Remind my colleagues/family, “I’m going into a work cycle, please only interrupt me if absolutely necessary”
- Close my office door
- Put up a sheet or room divider for visual privacy and to indicate I’m not to be disturbed
- Put a post-it on my door indicating when I’m next available
- Plug my phone in to charge in the kitchen (or somewhere away from my workspace)
- Turn my devices to do-not-disturb
- Put away one piece of clutter in my work environment
- Put on my noise cancelling headphones/earplugs
- Put one song on repeat
- Put peppermint essential oils into my aromatherapy device
- Put a pen and paper on my desk to write down any off-task distracting thoughts I have (to which you can return during a break)
- Turn on my website blocker for tempting or distracting sites
- Close my web browser or specific tabs like email
- Open my Ultraworking template
- Open my Pomodoro timer
- Set a 90-minute work timer
Behaviors for maintaining body and mind and actively recovering:
- Fill my water bottle and put it on my desk
- Add spinach (or other leafy greens) to my grocery list
- Start one behavior in my transition ritual to “turn off” from work
- Sit for a one-second meditation (thanks to Jason Fladlien for that idea)
- Do one cycle of Wim Hof Breathwork
- Run a hot bath
- Run an ice bath
- Call my favorite relative
- Schedule time to catch up with somebody who uplifts me
- Visit https://www.recreation.gov/ and reserve a campsite for some time in nature
- Turn off my computer
- Turn off my phone
This list is far from comprehensive! Feel free to build your own recipe based on your experience with what works well for you.
- Pick or create 2–3 new Tiny Habits Recipes that you think might help you
- Rehearse them in your mind
- Implement them the next time your anchor moment arises
- Celebrate your success!
I should also mention that not everything has to be a habit; there are many useful one-time behaviors that will also orient your life more towards flow, such as ordering a room divider for visual privacy around your work area, taking on a new project that involves flow-intensive tasks, or eliminating one ongoing stressor in your life (maybe hiring an accountant instead of managing your own finances).
As an added challenge, write your new Tiny Habits recipe in the comments below and/or email them to me at email@example.com and I will personally check back with you in a week to help provide social support for your new habit!