Smiling young ywoman at work wearing headphones

Albert Einstein once said, “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.” The same concept holds true for how you invest your time at work — it’s all relative. 

When you’re passionate and excited about a project, the day is over before you know it. But if you’re sitting in a meeting that you find frustrating or unnecessary, the minutes may seem to crawl by. When your energy and focus are in the right place, an eight-hour workday can be full of productivity, creative ideas, new connections, and growth. However, when your workday is measured in “seat time,” your productivity, your business and your clients are likely to suffer. 

The recipe for business success, then, is not about how much time you spend working, but how well you manage and maximise your energy during your working hours. If you really want to improve productivity (and job satisfaction!), aim to achieve a higher proportion of hours spent in flow

What is flow?

In psychology, a flow state is when a person is fully immersed in an activity, feels an energised focus, and is enjoying themselves so much that it impacts their sense of time. A flow state could also be referred to as being “in the zone.” 

Traits of being in flow include:

  • Being hyperfocused on the present moment

  • Having self-efficacy, or a sense of control over your situation and environment 

  • A lack of self-consciousness

  • Feeling like time is moving quickly

  • Finding the activity intrinsically rewarding

  • Becoming so engrossed in an experience that you tune out distractions and other people

  • Feeling confident that you can succeed

How to get into a flow state

What puts you into a state of flow may depend on your unique personality, talents, and interests. However, activities that trigger a sense of flow generally share these common features:

  • The activity has a clear goal and easily measurable progress 

  • The perceived challenge of the task is well-matched to one’s perceived skills

  • The task provides immediate feedback (so behaviour can be quickly adjusted to stay in a state of flow)

Fortunately, these attributes link in nicely with a strategy that many individuals and businesses use already to improve productivity: setting SMART goals. A SMART goal is one that is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely.

If your workday to-do list is informed by your SMART goals, you will be engaged in tasks that you perceive as being achievable, that provide time-bound outcomes, and which are specific and measurable — all qualities that can bring on a sense of flow. 


Self-reflection: What energises me?

Tapping into your flow is a process that is as unique as you are. Using your SMART goals to guide your daily activities is one way to begin. Think of the last time you became “lost in your work” then consider the following questions to determine how you can more easily promote a state of flow:

  • Who do I work best around? Am I collaborative or do I prefer to work independently? Who distracts me, and who helps me to stay focused on the task at hand? Who do I find inspiring or motivating to work with?

  • What environment do I work best in? Do I prefer my space to be loud or quiet? Bright or dim lighting? Amongst a crowd, or by myself? Formal or casual setting? With all of my supplies spread out, or a space that is tidy?

  • When do I do my best work? Am I a morning person, or a night owl? Do I need regular breaks to clear my head and refocus, or do I prefer to just plough through? Do I need to finish well ahead of deadlines or do I work best under pressure?

  • Where do I do my best work?In an office, at home, or in a public space? Indoors or outdoors?

  • Why am I interested in the work that I do? Even if a project has been assigned to me, what do I gain by working on it? Do I learn from it? Do I get to help people? Do I enjoy new challenges? 

  • How do I like to work? Do I like using a stand-up desk, or prefer to sit down? Do I work better when I tackle the hardest projects first or do I like to get the little tasks out of the way? Do I use headphones and multitask when I’m on the phone, or do I like to sit down and take notes?

Today’s action steps:

  • Answer the who, what, when, where, why and how questions above. Add any additional questions and answers you feel are relevant.

  • Write down your answers.

  • Summarise your responses. For example, “I get into a flow state when I work independently, in a quiet, well-lit office, early in the morning the day before a deadline. I feel most energised when my work challenges me and lets me put my design skills to use. I like to get the small tasks over with first, take a break to clear my head, then dive in and work on the biggest task for the rest of the day.”

  • After writing your summary, think about how it compares to your usual workday. Write down three things you can change to create the optimal environment for your energy to flow. For example:

1. Arrive at work 30 minutes earlier.

2. Use a workspace near the window.

3. Go for a walk around the block after completing my smaller tasks.

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