Flow — A Secret to Productivity and Happiness

Imagine you are a professional skier during a national championship. As soon as you hear the shot, you speed down the mountain. You don’t think, you just move. You are fully focussed, but it feels like you don’t need to. Somehow, everything happens naturally. You forget both time and space around you. Only this second matters. You are in the moment.

A Primer on Flow

That is flow. Many professional race car drivers, swimmers, bikers and marathon runners report having exactly those experiences. Yet, obviously, those experiences are not limited to professional sportsmen. You can learn to have these experiences too when working or studying. One of my former coachees applies my flow techniques to university. She dedicates a whole day from morning to night to flow: No distractions, no phone, pure focus. That allows her to be free for the rest of the week, to focus on her own projects and to go travelling. Most interestingly, this actually helped her to improve her grade point average at one of Europe’s top universities.

While flow experiences are described and interpreted since ages, only recently were researchers able to deconstruct the phenomenon and offer scientific explanations. During flow, our brain reaches a certain frequency: It emits so called ‘gamma-waves’. Interestingly, our brain works less during these phases. Researchers suggest that our brain reaches a state of maximum efficiency during that time, using only the parts of the brain that are important for that single task. Additionally, when researchers investigated the brain of Buddhist monks and professional race car drivers, they found that their brains sent generally more gamma waves than the brains of ordinary people. Gamma waves have a very low amplitude and the highest frequency. They are associated with higher intelligence, greater happiness, better self-control and stronger memory. They even occur during REM-phases — the periods of mental recovery during sleep [1][2][3][4].

Yes, flow evidentially makes you happy! The famous researcher on Flow, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, abundantly demonstrated how flow leads to satisfaction and fulfilment in life [1]. Time passes by unperceivedly and the outer world vanishes. It feels as if nothing else would matter. This experience is cathartic, relaxing and makes us hyper-effective at the same time.

Distractions Prevent Flow and Cause Severe Damage to the Brain

During flow phases, we can achieve in only a few hours what might need days of work when we are distracted and less focussed. While many scientific papers highlight the benefits or reaching flow and describe the perils of constant distraction, people these days find it increasingly difficult to reach flow and limit distractions. The miscreant behind all of that is once again the internet and all the permanent distractions it bears. Our mobile phones, our computer and the constant craving for something interesting to happen does not only prevent us from entering flow, but is also severely detrimental to our brains. There are hundreds of studies showing these negative effects such as loss of ability to focus, negative effects on our working memory, et cetera.

To limit distractions, most people focus on minor things, such as turning their phones to flight mode or not listening to music, yet run email programs on their laptops at the same time. You should rather practice actual distraction-free flow phases. Often, trying to reduce distractions on the surface makes room for hidden ones, i.e. those you do not consciously recognise. This can be an odd noise or a flickering light in the background. Those hidden distractions in turn have greater negative impact on your performance than obvious ones and can only be detected and eliminated with practice [5][6].

Practice the Art of Distraction-Free Working

The first step towards more efficiency is practicing the art of distraction-free working. This does not necessarily help you to achieve a state of flow automatically, but it is beyond discussion a necessary precursor to flow. This means: Switch your phone to flight mode, close your email applications, log-out of every social media account and make sure you are in an environment where no one can disturb you physically. Do not listen to music or watch something in the background. Even though listening to music might feel like helping you focus psychologically, physiologically it will not help you to achieve a state of flow.

The longer the distraction-free time lasts, the better. After one hour of heightened focus, make sure to do a break. Studies indicate that brain-wave oscillation, that is switching from heightened focus to a more relaxed state regularly, are associated with greater intelligence and productivity [7]. Especially if you learn something new, give your brain enough time to thoroughly process the newly acquired skill or information.

Action Step

For this week, I have only one action step for you: Practice distraction-free working. Reserve at least one hour in your calendar every day that is completely distraction free. Also, look for hidden distractions and eliminate them. Those are the real productivity killers — and only conscious focus will teach you to detect them.

In the beginning you might catch your mind wandering off. This is completely normal and should not demotivate you. Do not try to ‘force’ your mind to do anything or get angry when your mind wanders off; just consciously and fondly shift your attention back to the task. After a week already you might find it easier to focus and might notice that you get done more in this hour than the rest of the day. I often use this metaphor to describe flow: Imagine you climb up a mountain. With a lot of practice, suddenly, you have surpassed the clouds and a whole new world opens up to you. One that is clear, always sunny and quiet. I find this metaphor eminently intriguing. Every time I enter flow, it is like I have reached the summit of a mountain, looking across the clouds and beyond. I feel free — and happy.

Note that this is article one in a whole series of articles. You can find the subsequent articles as well as articles regarding other topics, such as sleep, on our website. After you have read our articles, not only will you have a thorough understanding of your body and your inner workings, but also will you be able to put that knowledge into use and apply it flexibly throughout your life to design your individual desired plan of winning life.

Sources

[1] Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.

[2] Lutz, A., Greischar, L.L., Rawlings, N.B., Ricard, M., & Davidson, R.J. (2004). Long-term meditators self-induce high amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 101(46), 16369- 16373. https://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0407401101

[3] Doppelmayr, M., Klimesch, W., Sauseng, P., Hoedlmoser, K., Stadler, W., & Hanslmayr, S. (2005). Intelligence related differences in EEG bandpower. Neuroscience letters, 381(3), 309–313. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neulet.2005.02.037

[4] Keizer, A.W., Verschoor, M., Verment, R.S., & Hommel, B. (2009). The effect of gamma enhancing neurofeedback on the control of feature bindings and intelligence measures. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 75(1), 25–32. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2009.10.011

[5] Craik, F.I.M. (2014). Effects of distraction on memory and cognition: a commentary. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 841. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00841

[6] Beaman P., Hanczakowski, M., & Jones, D.M. (2014). The effects of distraction on metacognition and metacognition on distraction: evidence from recognition memory. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 439. http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00439

[7] Gagol, A., Magnuski, M., Kroczek, B., Kałamała, P., Ociepka, M., Santarnecchi, E., & Chuderski, A. (2017). Delta-gamma coupling as a potential neurophysiological mechanism of fluid intelligence. Intelligence, 66, 54–63. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2017.11.003