Think about the times when you were pushing your skills–whether it was while immersed in writing code or an essay, finishing a run, or engaging deeply in a conversation with a colleague. That in-the-zone feeling is what psychologists call flow, the state where your skills match the challenge–and you’re thus doing your best work.
“It is what the sailor holding a tight course feels when the wind whips through her hair. . . . It is what a painter feels when the colors on the canvas begin to set up a magnetic tension with each other, and a new thing, a living form, takes shape. . . . “
When you’re in a state of flow–when your skills and resources match the difficulty of the task at hand–your conception of time melts away. For a deeper explanation, watch the video above.
But flow doesn’t need to only emerge happily (and haphazardly).
You can be deliberate about it, too. As 99U blogger Sam Spurlin notes, since flow only happens when our capabilities match the work at hand–if it’s too easy, we’ll get bored; if it’s too difficult, we’ll get anxious and want to give up–we can take a few steps to make the boring tasks more exciting and the difficult tasks more reachable. And flow from there.
Make the task a game: Wading through your inbox is a soul-sucking way to spend your day; it’s less terrible to spend 15 minutes answering as much email as you can. Beating the deadline becomes an element of the task, increasing the challenge of the task, which will make doing it more likely to flow and make you more productive.
If you’re in a certain nerdy demographic, you may recognize this strategy from Mario Kart and games of its racing ilk: It’s more fun when you’re trying to beat your best time.
Similarly, Spurlin notes, you can try to ferret out ways to do the task better, then that optimization becomes a part of the larger task. It’s an exercise in training up your problem-solving skills, for example by:
- Learning the keyboard shortcuts for whatever you’re doing
- Finding apps and other tools that can simplify the task
- Rooting out inefficiencies
The point is to raise the challenge of a given awful-boring task to something more rewarding–and that frequently requires a meta-awareness of the task itself. If we can understand what components comprise the task, then we can alter those pieces into something more suitable.
Another option is to rid yourself of the task all together. There are increasing options for automating the super mundane parts of life–such as getting your toiletries automatically delivered so that instead of agonizing over which toothpaste to buy, you can do your most meaningful work.
But what about the tougher stuff?
You need tension to find flow in your workday, in the same way that you need enough of a challenge in a workout to feel satisfied afterward. But too much difficulty–the sort that leaves you feeling outmatched–may leave you flummoxed.
So how do we make that match? You can:
Expand your skills: if you don’t feel capable, up your capabilities. But how?
And you need not head back to formal education to get your learn on: As Spurlin notes, in a world of meet ups, skill shares, and online courses, the ceiling is where you set it.