Picture this… you’re working on finalizing the strategy for a new digital campaign meant to launch in four weeks.
You have a whole team of content creators, designers, and web developers — and setting goals, expectations, and milestones will set them in motion.
This campaign launch is one of your most important tasks for the quarter.
So you grab your coffee, have a seat, open the documents…
It’s someone on Slack. One of the popups on the website is not working, and the new team member does not know how to fix it.
You give them a quick call.
Now, back to the strategy.
A mere two minutes later, your VP of marketing taps on your shoulder to ask for a report on this week’s social media performance.
Sound familiar? If this is how your workday goes, you are not alone.
Gallup found that the average amount of time that people spent on any single task before being interrupted or switching gears was just three minutes.
The price of interruption is huge. It decreases productivity and makes you feel like you’re constantly busy but never getting anything done.
At the end of the workday, you feel drained and exhausted, but your most important task (the strategy) is still not done. You are unsatisfied with your results and feel constantly under pressure to do more.
You’re running faster and faster in the hamster wheel but with every task you finish, three new urgent tasks seem to appear.
This is especially true for marketers. We are bound to notifications and engagement on social media, we interface with other departments (SEO, SEA, design, copywriters), we present on client meetings and team calls, and we get a flood of emails.
There’s a better way: Flow state.
Getting More Done With Greater Ease
Flow is the state where we feel our best and perform our best.
You know it as being in the zone.
You might be in deep conversation with a friend and all of a sudden, two hours have passed.
Or, you are setting out to write a quick email and it turns into an 800-word essay. We call these experiences micro flow.
Macro flow represents big experiences of oneness when the sense of self vanishes, and time speeds up or slows down. Most importantly, the task at hand feels effortless, novel, and stimulating.
The term flow was coined by the pioneer of positive psychology, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, in 1975. You might have experienced it when you dance, run, paint – or work.
The optimal experience of flow is characterized by:
- Intense and focused concentration on the present moment.
- Merging of action and awareness.
- A loss of reflective self-consciousness.
- A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity.
- A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered.
- Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience.
The benefits of more flow in your work life are clear: You will get more done, with greater ease and better results.
Flow is the antidote to busyness.
How to Trigger Flow as a Marketer
To experience more flow in your work life, it is important to manage your environment and understand your flow triggers.
I learned about flow science from Steven Kotler and the Flow Research Collective, where they train executives and knowledge workers.
Below, I will share some of the practices that have allowed me to reshape my workday. Today, I can confidently say that I experience extended periods of flow several times every week.
In their study about finding and fostering meaning at work, McKinsey found that:
“…when they ask executives during a peak-performance exercise how much more productive they were at their peak than they were on average,(…) the most common at senior levels is an increase of five times.”
If you are interested in being five times more productive, read on.
Create Your To-Dos the Day Before
Flow follows focus. This is why we need to become crystal clear about distractions.
Too easily, our mind gets pulled in all directions with the dopamine rush of notifications and urgent tasks.
Make it a habit to set your daily goals the day before. I know that I can get 2 to 5 important tasks done per day. Writing this article might be one of them – or sending out a detailed proposal to a new prospect of my agency.
Choosing the important tasks the day before allows me to get focused first thing in the morning.
No checking of emails, project management tools, or Slack when I start my workday. I already know what to do, and I get right to it.
Plan Focus Time Blocks
How come you get all client meetings and team calls done, but never the tasks that you set for yourself?
Because these meetings are blocked in your calendar. They have designated cadence and timeframe.
If you are looking for more flow in your work life, start setting appointments with yourself. Make them recurring. I hardly ever take calls in the mornings. My calendar opens up around 2 pm.
If you are doing this for the first time, blocking your entire morning might seem impossible.
But you don’t have to start out so boldly. Start small. Book a 30-minute session with yourself on one day next week. Then book another one. And another one.
Close all your windows, tabs, and tools. Focus on that one task. Once you realize how much you can get done in 30 minutes, you will find it easier to book time with yourself.
Parkinson’s law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
This means you have to get ruthless with your deadlines and time blocks. Create an appointment for your work, and don’t let it expand past that container.
Eliminate Distractions and Notifications
Our phones, Slack, social media, emails, and project management tools are a curse and a blessing. Last year, I was managing six social media channels on top of my regular work – and I ended up getting nothing done.
Between answering all comments after posting, reviewing notifications, monitoring the chat and DMs, I did not have a quiet moment once per day. No focus time, and nothing was done.
To make the most out of your focus time block, you need to turn notifications off.
Close your Slack and email inbox.
Log out of your project management tools and social media channels.
You will feel the cold turkey. Notifications give us a rush, a sense of urgency, and importance. By turning off notifications, you are literally rewiring the reward system of your brain.
Clean up Your Desk
On the topic of decreasing distraction, let’s clean up your workplace. Remove piles of papers, candy bars, and post-it notes. Make sure that you have a clean and open surface.
You will find this reduces friction to start the task at hand and lowers the cognitive load. Instead of so much stimulating and confusing input, you are focusing your attention on the task at hand.
If you are in a busy office (and yes, this might be at home with your family), noise-canceling headphones might help.
Leverage the Challenge/Skill Ratio
Now, here is the thing: by choosing your to-dos and setting an appointment for uninterrupted time, you are focusing your attention. Again, flow follows focus.
However, doing the same old task over and over again might not drop you into flow – even if you blocked the time and turned off Slack.
That is because flow state is triggered by curiosity, passion, novelty, complexity, and risk-taking.
To experience flow, you want to challenge yourself to do something beyond the comfort zone of familiarity. It is important, however, that you stretch and not snap.
We are not looking for the next project that is so big and so unattainable that it keeps you up at night with nightmares.
To experience flow, there has to be a balance between your skill and the demands of the task you’re doing. The magic ratio is about 4% harder than you are comfortable with.
So, that’s 4% of challenge every day with every task to drive your awareness into the here and now, keep you on your toes, and drop you into flow.
That 4% means that you are refining your process of designing a graphic by trying a new technique.
That you are experimenting with copy that is a bit bolder than you usually would.
Or maybe that you aim to rank for a keyword that is a bit harder than the previous targets.
Get a Break for a Walk or Movement
Do you find yourself struggling with a task? Researching, discussing, and brainstorming but never coming to the right conclusion?
We have good news! You are exactly where you are meant to be.
Flow is a four-part cycle:
In your case, it might be time to move from the phase of struggle (input, research) to the phase of release.
Get up from your desk. Take a deep breath. Stretch.
Let go of the thing you are struggling to achieve. The goal is to break a pattern and shift gears.
Anything works to get your mind off the challenge: Take a walk, do yoga for five minutes, prepare your lunch, meditate, or dance around the room wildly.
The method does not matter, the relaxation does.
Struggle gives way to release which creates the space for flow.
Chances are that when you come back to your desk, you will drop right into flow.
Schedule Active Recovery
Remember that I mentioned recovery as a part of the flow cycle just before? Recovery is probably the most overlooked part of the flow cycle.
However, it is one of the most important ingredients to achieve flow states sustainably.
Active recovery is not sitting on the sofa with a bag of chips watching TV. As relaxing as it might sound, the input of the TV is actually not giving your brain a break. Plus, your body has been sitting in a chair all day.
Elite athletes pay a lot of attention to their recovery. However, as knowledge workers and marketers, we tend to completely ignore it.
Try to include a few active recovery protocols in your week. The Flow Research Collective recommends:
- Getting enough quality sleep (dark room, colder temperature, no screens nearby, close to eight hours).
- Cold/heat therapy (like ice baths and saunas).
- Focused breathwork.
- Sensory deprivation chambers.
- Moderate exercise (like a short run or hike in nature).
- Quality conversions that come from uplifting socializing.
- Yoga and massage.
Some are chasing the peaks of flow states.
However, if you include active recovery into your lifestyle, you are making flow a sustainable life choice that will increase your productivity, lead to better results, and make you feel less rushed whilst getting more done.
When Do You Experience Flow?
If all of these tips make sense to you but scare you a little, I leave you with this: The intangible benefits of flow states are quite clear for me – and many flow seekers.
It is not only the state where we perform at our best, but also feel our best.
Flow is what people feel when they enjoy what they are doing when they don’t want to be doing anything else. What makes flow so intrinsically motivating? The evidence suggests a simple answer: in flow, the human organism is functioning at its fullest capacity. When this happens, the experience is its own reward.
– Mihály Csíkszentmihályi
Before you dive back into your busy life on short attention spans and instant notifications, let’s anchor the concept of flow by reflecting on your personal flow experiences:
- When did you experience micro flow today?
- When was the last time you experienced a deep macro flow experience?
- What did you do?
- Who were you with?
- What did your environment look like?
- How did you experience flow states as a kid? What did you love doing?
- When was the last time that you have been interrupted to get an important task done?
- Do you move during the workday or take breaks?
- Have you ever experimented with active recovery?
Take these learnings to create a work environment that is more conducive to flow.
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