How to: focus and flow

How to: focus and flow

Published —
03.17.22
Writer —

They’re different things, focus and flow. One is very much about the now; and uninterrupted, effective achievement. One’s about the longer term, a purpose and a goal, and the ability to keep doing the thing you’re doing. Both are about concentration and discipline. Both are a.b.s.o.l.u.t.e.l.y  e.s.s.e.n.t.i.a.l if you have plans and long-term dreams you want to achieve. And the good news is, they’re both skills that can be learned.

The idea of ‘flow’ comes from positive psychology. Defined by a feeling of complete, energetic focus, while you’re in the ‘flow state’, time can slip by unnoticed while you completely lose yourself in the task at hand. It’s almost effortless, and very different from the forced concentration we often associate with working. Flow feels natural, relaxed and easy; effortlessly creative and productive.

Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first coined the term ‘flow state’ in 1975. Having grown up during WWII, he was researching why, in spite of society becoming wealthier, it wasn’t having an impact on people’s happiness. Concentrating on creative people, he talked to musicians, poets, figures skaters and business leaders, identifying an effortless, spontaneous state where everything feels like it clicks and you’re intensely productive – whether you’re out running (athletes call it ‘the zone’), playing a piece of music, writing, or something else.

Csikszentmihalyi, of course, put a specific name to it recently, but the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu called it ‘doing without doing’, or ‘trying without trying’. (There’s a great TED talk of Csikszentmihalyi’s – where he talks about stumbling across Carl Jung in Switzerland – if you want to watch it for more info…)

And, while Csikszentmihalyi focused first on creatives, he soon moved on to business leaders too, talking about the impact of their work feeling meaningful. This isn’t just about work that’s lovely, creative and inspiring; it’s really about paying attention. Which means you can enjoy things you don’t typically ‘love’; it’s also the satisfaction of getting your annual accounts done, or just having cleared a task you’ve been putting off, because you’ve been able to focus on it.

“We create ourselves by how we use this energy,” says Csikszentmihalyi. So the question is how we can tap into a flow state and create a relaxed, but focused, environment where you can get shit done. Where you can lose yourself in the job you’re doing, and all track of time slips out the nearest window. You feel full of energy, and are really enjoying what you’re doing. Sounds ideal, huh? So the key to flow is clearing your mind by reducing any interruptions, decluttering your desk and breathing deeply for a few minutes to get you focused.

Planning also gives you the mental space to focus on the task in hand, because research tells us that, when our subconscious doesn’t know when we’ll complete a task, it will interrupt us with reminders about other things we need to do. We don’t need to actually do it them, more to plan to, hence the importance of setting goals, and organising your ‘to do’ lists.

And before we go any further, can I just make a plea – nay, a scream – for you to turn your notifications OFF. I’m consistently amazed, and a little scared, by the amount of notifications people have on their phones. Don’t allow your day to be interrupted by developers whose chief aim in their app is to make money out of you. Turn them off, NOW! 

Check them when you want to check (except when you’re aiming to flow, natch), but you’re honestly not going to get anything done if your phone’s pinging every six minutes. Or more. While you’re at it, quit your mail app and put your phone on ‘do not disturb’. We all live in a bit of fear of being constantly contactable, and the way email, instant messages and app notifications have reset our ability to prioritise is a real concern.

(Fact fans: while I was researching this section, I found a study from the International Journal of Information Management. The typical person checks their email once every five minutes, it says, and it takes us, on average, 64 seconds to resume our previous task having checked emails. Which means we waste one in every six minutes, on email alone…)

Now find your self somewhere comfy; get rid of any clutter that might distract you, and do the things that are important to you. 

Any time you have to stop and start again, and refocus your attention, means it’s only going to take you longer. Get a glass of water; make sure you’ve got everything to hand that you need to complete your task. Like getting a good night’s sleep by developing a pre-bedtime ritual, doing these steps means your brain’s ready to perform.

Running a business means there are always lots of little tasks that need doing; client and project management, accounts and admin things; chasing up future work and signing projects off finished projects. But – when push comes to shove – I need to balance them with really productive periods of work time to get the work done that I’m being paid to do. And those extended periods of intense work are much more difficult to grab on the run that ten minutes to update someone’s website, or five minutes to update our invoice list.

Set a time limit… it can be half an hour – or less – (look at Pomodoro in our tools section on page 139) or a couple of hours. I’m always juggling a massive ‘to do’ list alongside plans for my future weekends, birthdays and holidays, so concentration isn’t one of my best qualities. But to spend a couple of hours with my head buried in something that’s really important to me – which is often writing something – is an absolute joy and a luxury. Yet also fundamental to my ability to earn a living. 

The curse of the freelancer, or anyone who works from home, is that people will ring you; they’ll ask you if you want to bunk off for the afternoon and do something fun. And – of course – the joy of freelancing is that you can skip off to the park for a walk in the sunshine, and I have absolutely no doubt that it will do you the world of good. This is about setting boundaries – know what it’s important to you to achieve, and explain it to the people around you. If you’re working, your work should be respected as much as someone working for a big law firm or a high flying financier, that you’d never dream of interrupting at work. 

The same goes for working from home… it’s tempting for your partner or family to think that, if they can see you, you’re fair game for a chat. And it’s hard to dispute the fact without coming across as grumpy/ dismissive/ self-important – I’m sure I’ve done that lots of times.  So if you’ve got somewhere you can go and shut yourself away, then all the better. But that’s not always possible. 

But the things that make freelancing, starting or running your own business hard are the blurring of those boundaries. When you work longer hours because you’re not getting everything done during the day that you need to; when your time is squeezed by running errands for the family, then working into the evening, or by not having a clear cut-off between work and play. We all need to close our laptops/ put down our tools, shut the door, and switch off and enjoy ourselves. Prioritising the work you need to do, by optimising periods of flow where you focus on one task, is the first step to doing that. 

Focus, on the other hand, is a much longer game. But one that requires no less discipline. Focus is built on the blocks of flow you can achieve, but is guided by the steps along the way. It’s shaped by your purpose, and created from repeatedly doing the things you do. Mental focus is about concentration – and it’s a skill, so can be learned and improved with practice.

Because it’s about concentration, focus has a large element of saying ‘no’, too. Steve Jobs said: “people think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” And I think we’d all agree he got shit done.

Focus is the grind to the flow’s groove. It’s getting up every morning to take the next step. It’s the long game. The Cambridge English Dictionary describes it as “the main or central point of something, especially of attention or interest“. With a camera, it’s the ability to see things clearly.

But it’s worth remembering that our attention is a finite resource, and it takes attention to achieve the things you want to. Know when to stop to go and take a walk, and to put down what you’re working on to get some perspective.

Like measuring progress, which we tackle next, focus is maintained by creating habits; by understanding your end goal, but breaking that work down into the smallest chunks you can, to maintain momentum.

The key thing is creating habits is measuring your progress; repeated success and incremental gains are the friend of focus. And that’s also the thing you come to enjoy – those successes are where the dopamine drops down into your brain, and you enjoy what you’re doing. And they helps you stay focused – when it becomes about the process, and not so much the end goal.

So, what should you be focusing on? There are several ways of working out what’s really important to you RIGHT NOW. A former non-exec of ours used to ask ‘does it make the boat go faster?’, whenever we talked about things we should be doing. That was his focus. You’ll find some more tools for refining your focus in our tools section, on page xx.

You can’t actively concentrate on two things at the same time. If you’re multitasking, your brain is flicking backwards and forwards between the things you’re trying to do, which is slowing you down – and taking up more of your energy. That’s fine if you’re watching telly while doing the ironing, but it’s not effective if you’re doing something you need to think more deeply about. (In psychology it’s called ‘the switching cost’ – like when you have to start typing again when someone’s asked you a question, and it takes a couple of seconds to remember what you were doing.)

Cut out the multi-tasking. While it burned briefly but brightly as a badge of the uber-productive, as humans we’re just not good at it – and we know more now about the impact it has on our ability to do things well. Just do one thing, finish it, and then move on to the next. Or, as the ancient Chinese proverb says “if you chase two rabbits, both will escape.”

And now, I’m going to open my email programme again, then head outside for a bit of fresh air.

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