Some ideas kick around in your head for years, mature and finally come to fruition as a way of life. I’d heard of flow way back when, but it wasn’t until I read Deep Work that I started to eke out a process to take advantage of flow. Once you master flow and deep work, heightened productivity, creativity and enjoyment become everyday occurrences.
Flow is a state of deep concentration and absorption that leads to an almost altered state of consciousness. The ego and sense of self get lost and only the activity remains. Ever lost track of time playing a video game, during an intense workout or a bout of great sex? That was flow.
For a more academic look, the Wikipedia article on flow is enough to get the general idea. Steve Kotler discussing flow is among the best introductions to the concept and how to harness it. Both of his books, the Rise of Superman and Stealing Fire were cover-to-cover reads for me.
Getting into flow can be manipulated by providing the right environment with enough, but not too much, challenge. The state is intense and can border on bliss. The downside is that flow is neutral: losing a decade to video games and pornhub is the exact same flow as writing a great novel or training to become an elite athlete.
Deep Work and Flow
Cal Newport argues that aiming for mastery is more important than ‘finding your passion’ as well as being ultimately more rewarding. You’ll be in flow, thus enjoying what you do in any case and building up the skills that will allow you to get a job where you make an impact.
The way to do this is deep work. Prioritize concentrated work blocks that are removed from distraction, where you can delve into complex and taxing mental tasks. This could be writing, coding, research or teaching.
Distractions and Modern Work
Despite the fact that flow improves productivity and enjoyment, it’s scarce in most offices. Chat apps, noisy open offices and a culture of everything needing an instant answer undermine deep work. This leaves modern office workers spending the majority of their time engaged in mindless shallow work.
There’s no magic bullet, but Newport does provide some points to consider. Schedule blocks of ‘do not disturb’ time where you can go deep. An hour or two a day is enough to start off.
The biggest obstacle is culture. Practitioners of deep work are highly productive yet calm and centered. Office culture tends to value people who look busy and chaotic. Very few professions, save first responders and the like, have work that is always truly urgent. Learn to ignore non-urgent tasks while you are in deep work and then schedule blocks to knock them out.
You don’t need fancy tools or apps for this. I use email, Trello, Google Sheets and paper for all of my personal organization. This won’t come easily at first, as people will accuse you of not working because you refuse to run around screaming that the sky is falling. Let the results speak for themselves.
Flow is draining and requires a lot of downtime, rest and sleep. To keep up deep work, you need to leave work at the office and give your brain the chance to shut off. 24/7 low-level anxiety will kill deep work. Once the day is done, go home and relax. In fact, once you get scheduling down it’s easy to outperform your coworkers and go home on time every day.
I’ve gravitated towards hobbies that are flow-intensive such as cycling, meditation, reading and blogging. The thing is, flow is so productive and fulfilling that you don’t need that much to get decent results. That leaves plenty of time to simply do nothing such as having a cup of tea and looking out the window. Not having this downtime kills creativity and joy.
Be realistic. Shallow work is part of every job, but it shouldn’t be the main thing a white collar worker does. It’s not easy and training your brain to not be distracted takes real work. But, it’s worth figuring it out.