Sometimes it’s called being “in the zone.” Or a “flow state.” But by any name, career experts say this mental state of operation is the latest buzzword and mental tool to emerge after a year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to positive psychology, a flow state is when you are performing a task completely immersed and with fully energized focus. It helps people complete difficult projects and reduces work-related stress, something that 83% of the US workforce say they suffer. “In flow, time is forgotten, new discoveries are made, you push beyond your perceived capabilities, and a calm confidence emerges as you feel you can conquer hard things,” says Nancy Von Horn, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. We found seven ways to try to achieve it.
Find your passion.
Passion is to flow what coffee is to your mornings. Experts say it’s hard to find flow where there is no passion or some level of interest in your work. “You don’t get into the flow—flow gets into you,” says Sean Carney, a Korn Ferry Advance career coach. When you engage in activities that you’re interested in and bring you joy, flow will find its way to you, he says.
Putting yourself in situations you can benefit from and experimenting with various roles until you stumble upon one that excites you is the way to go, says Tom McMullen, a senior client partner at Korn Ferry and leader of the firm’s North American Total Rewards expertise group.
Prep your physical space.
Setting up your work environment is one of the easiest ways to bring yourself one step closer to flow. For instance, a place full of distractions, clutter, and noise can hinder you from getting in the zone, says Carney. Trying to multitask, going on social media, and any interruptions hinder you from establishing flow, he says. So find a quiet place or use noise-canceling headphones, clean out your workspace, and put away your smartphone, says Von Horn. “Eliminate all distractions, or your concentration will be interrupted,” she says.
Clear your mind.
While finding flow, your mental space is just as important as your physical surroundings. People usually have mental “jams” when there’s too much going on, says Deborah Brown, a managing principal at Korn Ferry. Try not to overwhelm yourself by taking on too many projects at once, multitasking, or overcommitting to people, she says. Brown also says it’s important to practice self-care or listen to calming podcasts or music, because flow doesn’t materialize when you’re burnt out, anxious, exhausted, or hungry.
Endorphins are directly correlated to flow. It is necessary to take care of your physical health and keep your body moving. “Our physical health can prime us for flow,” says Carney. Incorporating some form of exercise, in addition to resting and eating well, will keep you active and increase your likelihood of finding flow, he says. If you’re feeling sluggish and restless, going for a quick run or walk, doing some jumping jacks, or stretching into a few yoga poses can tremendously help in increasing your focus and energy, says Von Horn.
Try “time blocking.”
Flow cannot be found in small pockets of time during the day. You can’t achieve flow in 10 minutes between your Zoom meetings, says Von Horn—you need to chalk out at least 30 minutes to an hour depending on your goals and projects. Hence, planning ahead and blocking out a few hours every day or a few days a week is a good start. Von Horn says to try the Pomodoro technique or set a 20-minute timer to focus only on one task.
Set clear, challenging, and attainable goals. You need some tension or stretch goals to achieve flow—not something too easy monotonous, says Von Horn. For his part, McMullen says to keep pushing yourself and beware of getting into a state of passiveness. For instance, the best athletes are always raising the bar, he says. “LeBron James has won several NBA championships, but for whatever reason, he’s still not satisfied, and he’s always pushing himself, his teammates, and his coaches to do better.”
We’ve all heard the phrase “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” The same applies to flow. Integrate non-work-related activities that you enjoy into your day, as they will lift your spirits and put you in a positive headspace that is conducive to flow, says Val Olson, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. The activities can be anything, from watching funny videos to playing with your pet to listening to music, she says.
By Nancy Von Horn