Let’s get it clear from the start: we’re not talking about rivers. By saying “flow”, we mean a psychological state that leads to ultimate concentration and productivity. Imagine an athlete competing in an Olympic Games final. He’s concentrated and confident. Four years of preparation pound through his veins. Time dissolves around him and the finish line is the only thing that matters. He’s in flow.

The concept of “flow” was initially developed by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and relevant to many more than just Olympic champions. It can be achieved by anyone, and most importantly, can have significant effects on productivity.

When do you need flow?

Typically, a natural state of flow appears when one starts something new. Think of that time when you started learning programming or thought that an old fridge and a pair of wheels could eventually be turned into a decent bike. You were excited about these fresh projects and jumped into “the zone” with ease. But as time passes, your productivity slows down. Derailed focus can have devastating effects, which means that identifying the signs is crucial. Vera Budean, a certified expert in high performance culture, distinguishes two signs of the utmost importance:

– You arrive earlier or leave work later. Not because you have too much work on your plate, but because you have no opportunity to concentrate during standard working hours.

– You procrastinate until the very deadline and experience additional stress performing tasks at the very final hours. That’s what Vera calls “using urgency planning” and it’s hardly the best way to make plans.

At the end of the day, if you notice that you’re experiencing one of the above, then you should learn how to put yourself back into the flow.

How do you get into flow?

1. Skills to challenges ratio

There are more than 20 different triggers of flow, but the one with the most overall efficiency is called “the skills to challenge ratio”. In a nutshell, this ratio can be found on the border between tasks that bore you to death and tasks that frighten you into sheer panic. The whole thing boils down to the fact that you’ll get into the zone on an achievable, familiar, but challenging project. Without doubt, it’s probably hard to find such a unicorn project, and so you may have to create it on your own.

Let’s look at the example of an illustrator who’s getting tired of drawing basic art. In order to get back into flow, beyond the daily grind of basic artwork, he should walk that extra mile and for instance, look into learning animation. Animating artwork would become challenging, yet an achievable task to put the illustrator in the right mindset.

You don’t necessarily have to make dramatic changes in your career to get into flow. Put a new spin on your routine by adding creative details. Ask for help from senior mentors to deal with the potential anxiety you encounter on the more challenging aspect of a project (it happens to mostly everyone). Strike a balance between boredom and pressure and it won’t be long before you’re in flow.

2. Avoid distractions

Your work environment is another factor that may bring you into the zone. Unfortunately, the modern shift toward open working spaces may have a negative effect on this. You should ideally try to find a quiet place, where you can sit undisturbed for a couple of hours.

Sitting alone, however, doesn’t guarantee that you will get into the flow. There is still a truckload of distractions, like a broken thermostat that turns your room into a sauna, e-mail notification pop-ups, or a tiny scratchy patch at a back of your sweater. To get into the zone you need to nest in a comfortable position, prepare a glass of water, turn off all notifications and focus.

3. Avoid multitasking

Whenever you try to do multiple tasks simultaneously, you risk losing both your productivity and sanity. Set your priorities straight, choose one project and focus on it. You’ll have to put the rest on the backburner if you want to experience the state of flow.

4. Know the final goal

You can’t get into flow if you don’t understand why on earth you are working on your projects. Knowing the final objectives of your job will help you find a meaning in day-to-day tasks.

For instance, according to research by Fast Company, nurses at hospitals perceive their relatively messy jobs as a part of a health care system that saves lives. Instead of picturing dirty bedpans and vomit, they concentrate on their final goal — patients’ health. By doing so they stay productive and have an easier time of achieving flow.

What are the signs that you are in flow?

If you manage to explore some of the above methods for flow generation, there’s a good chance that you’ll succeed. There are signs—both physiological and psychological—to indicate that you’re there.

–          Time distortion. You can’t remember if it was a minute or an hour since you started to work.

–          Relaxed concentration. It means that you don’t have to use your willpower to focus—it happens naturally.

–          Higher productivity, better results.

–          You feel there’s a perfect ratio between challenge and comfort. Your task isn’t easy and it isn’t all-too stressful—it’s just right.

–          Clear understanding of what you do. You don’t stop to ask yourself is it the right thing to do. You already know the answer.

Good luck!