In his famous book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes flow as the mental state in which a person is fully immersed in the activity he’s performing. He’s experiencing the feeling of intense focus, loss of self-consciousness, bliss, and explosive energy. Some claim that when experiencing this in-the-zone state, your physical and mental capabilities are heightened and your brain can process more information, more effectively. Time flies and you don’t even notice any discomfort from long physical exertions.
In my experiences, some activities such as playing games, driving, and programming are more conducive of flow state. This makes sense because according to Csíkszentmihályi, the flow experience often occurs when you are engaged in activities that involve immediate feedback and fit your skill level.
However, if I become very productive in playing video games, driving, and programming, it wouldn’t necessarily help my business. In fact, when I tried to start a business in my early years, I got in the zone with website building regularly. I can code for 10 hours in a day non-stop. But as a result, I avoid other important tasks (like marketing my website). Overall, it hurts my chance at succeeding. So in fact, flow can hinder you from your goal at times, if it can only occur in a narrow domain at the expense of other less flow-like but necessary states.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have the totally immersive and focused experience all the time, no matter what task you are engaged in?
In the past few months, I have been experimenting with a few techniques to induce immersive focused experience — very similar to flow state. What I am after is on-demand productivity, where I can be immersed in creative work on whatever task I want, and whenever I want. I am surprised that it’s actually not that hard to achieve that. So in this post, I am outlining my latest thoughts on the techniques.
How to Achieve Immersive Productivity On-Demand
High Energy State
I found that the ability to trigger immersive productivity depends largely on my energy state. I can most reliably get into the zone right after I wake up (from a long-night sleep or from a short mid-day nap). So when I find it hard to focus, I tend to use a nap as a way to reset my system. I know that this is not true for everyone, so you might have to experiment with a few things to get yourself in an appropriately high energy state.
This is one of the most important tips for me. The problem is not that I don’t want to do work. Most often, I have too much work to do and struggle to pick one thing to do at a given moment. I am constantly wondering whether the one thing I pick is the optimal thing to do. So what I did was to deliberately practice in being more decisive. For example, I will take a piece of paper and write down one important goal to focus on for an hour. I just decide that this is the action with the highest payoff at this time. Then I will force myself to not think about other tasks, as if a gun is pointing at my head, and I need to get this task done ASAP.
A clear goal is really important. Imagine driving at high speed without knowing where to go; it’s just not fruitful.
For people who have attention deficit or mild ADHD like myself, it is very difficult to focus. Our heads are filled with ideas and we constantly want to jump onto the next brilliant idea. So I have been using the Pomodoro technique to combat this problem. If you have not heard of Pomodoro, it’s a productivity technique where (1) you set timer for 25 minutes, (2) focus on one task for the whole period, (3) take a break for 5 minutes, (4) rinse and repeat. It’s incredibly simple and magical. I recommend you try it, if you have not done so.
At first, it was hard for me to do 25 minutes, so I actually started with 3 minutes. Yes, I asked myself to focus for only 3 minutes at first; it was ridiculously easy. Then I gradually built up to 25 minutes. These days I can focus for 90 minutes at a time at my peak energy. With practice, anyone can do it.
Shut Down Mind Chatter
This is another important tip for me. I have to deliberately silence all questions, doubts, and internal dialogue when Pomodoro is on. If I catch myself thinking ‘Is this good enough?’, ‘Am I good enough?’, ‘Ah, I hate this’, ‘This is stupid’ I immediately switch my thought back to the task I’m working on and what I should do next.
Also, shut down all external distractors like cell phones, but every productivity blog has already told you to do so, so this should go without saying.
Practice Being an On-Demand Worker
Getting started is always the hardest thing. I still struggle with this, but I’m getting better. One practice that has helped me is what I call ‘Beep Drill’. I downloaded an app that plays a beep sound every 30 minutes (I use one called Blip Blip on Android, but any app will work.) Then whenever I heard a beep, I dive head first into actions (for example, open Evernote and start writing a blog post). This might sound like a silly game, but it’s designed to condition your mind to get started on any random trigger. After several runs of this drill, I became much better at getting started without overthinking.
These days, in the morning when my energy is peak, I never fail to launch head first into actions. For example, my current focus is writing these blog posts, and I can dive into 1000-2000 words first thing in the morning everyday. I am working on building other habits that will help for other times of the day too.
My favorite part is when I combine all these things to generate real results for my side business. When I have free days devoted to my side business, like Saturday and Sunday, I set up what I call a Bootcamp.
In the world of programming, there are bootcamps that are an accelerated type of curriculum you can take that can guide you from novice to getting a software engineering job in 3-6 months. This type of education is often called ‘immersive learning’. I like ideas of bootcamp and have participated in some online versions. It’s fun and it helps you improve so fast. You can feel limitless and proud after it’s all said and done.
So I tried to set up the same type of bootcamp for my business on weekends. I give it some exciting names, like Content Marketing Xtreme or Social Media Hackathon to motivate myself. I set up a clear major goal and write down a list of good actions to do during the bootcamp. Then, I dive in Saturday morning. I set up Blip Blip for go off hourly. If it beeps and I am not doing something productive, time to pick action from my list and dive in for at least 15 minutes of Pomodoro. I usually get around 8 hours of bootcamp activities in a day before I need to take a long break. But this results in a pretty massive change in the bottom line of my business.