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Sustainable Flow: Getting there and sticking with it

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“People who are engaged in deep work are happier, and it’s not just a question of being more productive, but deep work produces more of an intrinsic reward that doesn’t come from being distracted. In other words, becoming better at concentrating intensely on a single high skill or high craft target tend to enjoy their work a lot more.” - Cal Newport, computer scientist at Georgetown University and author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Have you ever gotten so deeply involved in something that you have tunnel vision and completely lose track of time? Some people describe it as when you’re “in the zone,” and at WillowTree, we call it “flow.” It happens when you’ve reached a state of high concentration. You’re completely immersed in whatever you’re engaged with and accomplishing things with a high intensity and swift pace. It can also happen when you’re in a brainstorming session with people, where great suggestions come together to create something that’s more than just an idea. Flow is about giving something your undivided attention and having the ability to keep distractions from hindering your focus. Any intense focus time will produce higher quality work, but quality doesn’t necessarily mean you need to invest a higher quantity of time. If you love your job (like I do), moments like these are flashes of intense and stimulating information working towards a single outcome.

There are ways to optimize our time to achieve the rewards that high concentration can produce. I’ve learned to adopt a few methods into my daily life in order to maximize the amount of things I accomplish during the time I’m at work.

Focus

I’m not sure about you, but I have a hard time focusing on the things I want to get done without being in the appropriate setting with minimal distractions. Being at work can mean juggling the beeps, dings, tweets, emails, likes, and push notifications in between the actual work that you need to get done.

Personally, I need to buckle down and set up my environment to accomplish the amount of work I want to complete. I know that other people can look beyond distractions and compartmentalize, but if you’re a little more like me, there’s a myriad of ways you can help yourself focus.

First, I will typically avoid multitasking when I’m trying to make headway or complete a task. The golden rule of flow is doing one thing at a time. To me, that means closing applications and other browser tabs on my desktop and leaving my phone in another room so that I’m not tempted to answer a text, check social media, or otherwise do anything that doesn’t involve what I’m working on. Your mobile device might even have a “do not disturb” mode that will aid you in your quest for successful focus time.

I’ll also place myself in a space that’s completely quiet or closed off from other people so that I don’t get looped into an unexpected conversation. Even having some peaceful, classical music or white noise in the background can help me gain a higher level of focus. It’s suggested that the type of music and tempos that classical music creates can assist in achieving a longer focus time, higher efficiency, and the capability of retaining more information overall. I have personally found that, working in an open and collaborative environment, my best method is to utilize my earbuds at my desk. If you work somewhere where this is okay, I strongly urge you to try it! In my experience, people are less likely to interrupt you if they see you have earbuds in and your eyes are intently glued to your screen. If anything, this subtle signal may encourage peers to send and email or slack message, rather than pulling your attention away from your current task.

Prioritize

Start with accepting and understanding that you have a list of things you need to get done, and in most cases, not all of them need to be done at the same time. Since time is limited, it would behoove you to make a list of those items and prioritize them by what is most important. This is the part where you might be saying, “But how do I know what’s most important? They’re ALL important to me!” Don’t panic! Here’s how you can start defining in what order your list should go:

  • Tasks that have a deadline
  • Development work that has clearly defined expectations
  • Items that are daily/weekly obligations
  • Work that someone is waiting on you to complete in order for them to move forward
  • Items required to complete before another step can begin

The benefits of list-making go beyond just writing things down for the sake of prioritization. Writing things down creates a sense of accountability. This can be beneficial for entire teams as well when it comes to collective ownership of certain tasks or milestones. By writing it down, you’re committing to something and creating a path to successfully accomplish it. This also can help with delegating tasks. You will notice if your list is becoming too long and if that happens, you may need to reach out to your peers to get some help. Have you ever crossed something off a list before? It’s satisfying. It can really provide you with a sense of positive productivity and a feeling of control. This alone makes the list-making strategy worthwhile.

Beyond list making, there’s everything else… like meetings! How do you schedule meetings throughout the week? Would you have more flow time if you consolidated meetings to take up 1 day/week? The alternative would be to space out your meetings in a way that provides you a daily block of time to schedule for yourself for diving into “the zone.” Either way, there’s a few things you can ask yourself to help decide if you’re optimizing your valuable time with meetings you have scheduled:

  • Is the meeting beneficial to attend?

  • Am I making this meeting useful by being there? If not, consider not attending at all. If someone else is attending the same meeting, you could request that they share their notes with you afterwards so that you can get the summarized version of what happened.

  • Audit the time length of your meetings. If they’re too long or too short, ask the reasoning for that or ask that it be shortened so the timeline can be more Agile.

  • Don’t multitask at meetings. This seems efficient in some cases, but meetings can be short and sweet if they have your full attention.

  • If you’re saying yes to one thing, will you be saying no to something else?

  • Alternatively, say no to meeting requests sometimes. It’s hard to turn something away, and no one likes to do it, but it’s important to manage expectations. If you’re unable to take something on, then don’t do it at all.

Set work hours that are organized for success. Another meeting strategy is to block off whatever time you feel is necessary to meet with yourself. That’s right, you need time for recovery, strategic thinking, and everything else that life throws at us. Having time blocked off on your calendar enables you to commit to that time, not scheduling over it or letting your peers also know that time isn’t available. Using this method can be a very dynamic and powerful process, and is likely to change frequently, but making it a true habit can reveal the benefits of balance.

lil flow

Discipline

Discipline requires mindfulness. Immersing yourself deeply in what you’re doing, without distractions, requires training and practice. It’s a skill, not a habit that you already have and just need more time for.

Discipline your life to allow time for deep work:

  • Social Media consumes more time than you’re willing to admit;minimize it during work time.
  • Set work hours that are organized for success.
  • Try not to let your mood dictate your day.
  • Be comfortable with being annoyed by people; emails happen, notifications happen, but the way you manage that can dictate how much quality work time you can obtain.
  • Challenge!! Flow Tally: Set a daily or weekly goal to have a reality of how much time you’re spending on deep work so that you’re confronted with a visual. Record it on your calendar so that it’s “protected” in the future.
  • End-of-Day Ritual: Ramp down every day in your own way so that your work doesn’t bleed into your evening or family life. You have to systematically review what you have done each day, ensuring that nothing urgent is left hanging. It’s important to stick to a habit that allows you to definitively shut down and balance your time appropriately so as to avoid burnout. Additionally, you can set stretch goals for the next day so you have some clearly set priorities ready for you in the morning when you return to work.

Have you ever taken a vacation and completely unplugged—without internet, without social media, and completely shut off from work? I did this recently and discovered that when I came back, I saw things that I wish had been a part of, but more importantly, I also saw that everything was fine in my absence. It dawned on me that I’m not as indispensable as I thought I was. This is a psychological driver for the part of me that’s unwilling to actually cut myself off; aside from discovering that I’m not only more productive during my time of absence from my distractions, but while unplugged, the work gets done and does just fine (thank you very much) without me in it.

I challenge you to close Slack, email, and put your phone on airplane mode for 2 hours each day this coming work week to protect your productivity. Cut yourself off and you may even see that your overall feeling of meaningfulness and usefulness will increase. At the end of the week, assess what you’ve accomplished and confront where there are distractions in your life keeping you from producing a deep, purposeful time of sustainable flow.

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