Ever wonder why some days plowing through your do-to lists is so painful, while on other days it’s surprisingly easy to get in the zone and stay there all day?
The difference comes from tapping into a cognitive state known as “flow,” a term popularized by positive psychology researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and referring to the effortless attention your brain is capable of when it adheres to a certain pattern of electrical activity. In this state, focusing doesn’t actually feel like work because, according to Csikszentmihalyi, you’re mentally poised in between boredom and anxiety–where you can focus but still feel relaxed at the same time. Reaching this equilibrium requires turning down the volume on brain regions involved in self-criticism (one such area is called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) and stress responses that can throw you into worry and stress.
The good news is it’s possible to set up your workspace to get into flow states more consistently. It’s actually pretty easy: The key is to introduce an element of novelty or engagement in small ways, just enough to break out of your brain’s “autopilot” mode. Here are a few ways to do that.
1. Make Space To Move
Get an exercise-ball chair or standing desk in your workspace and alternate between that and your normal seating when you start to feel physically sluggish or mentally stuck. (Don’t want to invest in a new setup right now? Try just physically moving locations in your office, like taking your laptop from your desk to a countertop.) This can help bring awareness back into your body and activate your core muscles.
2. Break A Habit (Even If Just For Today)
Each day, make an effort to break an automatic habit–even if you wind up going back to it tomorrow. If you always sit down on the subway ride to work, stand up today. Go to a different coffee shop or read a different morning paper. Even little changes can add to your brain’s natural love of novelty and help you settle into a flow state when you get down to work.
3. Green Up Your Desk
Workspaces that are lush with green vegetation have been linked to mood boosts and improved attention. Real plants are better than synthetic ones, and spider plants, pothos, and ZZ plants tend to do well even in low-light office spaces that don’t get much natural sunlight.
4. Brainstorm Offline
Reach for an analog brainstorming tool like a whiteboard or even just a legal pad–something that takes you away from your computer when you’re trying to generate ideas. If all else fails, just sit for 15 minutes in a different area of the office, or outside at a nearby park or cafe so you can shift gears mentally, away from online distractions.
5. Take Five Minutes To Declutter
Spend a moment getting your physical desk space organized and clear away clutter–including on your screen. If you’ve got a bunch of browser tabs open that you need to keep open, then minimize the window and start fresh. Not only does the distraction-free space help you focus, but the actual process of decluttering can help shift you into a flow state.
6. Do A Brain Dump
Free up mental headspace and your short-term memory capacity by getting all your current thoughts and preoccupations out of your head. You’re not brainstorming here–the goal isn’t to find a solution to a problem, just to shake loose the cognitive clutter. You can jot down your thoughts in a paper planner or into an app like Asana. Often our brains struggle to let go of our mental to-dos until they’re recorded in a trustworthy place you know you can refer to later.
7. Skip The Caffeine
Running out for a coffee may be a daily ritual, but when you’re trying to reach a flow state, you might want to pass it up. Cutting caffeine intake at work can decrease your stress-hormone level. After your second cup of the day, try refueling with green juice instead–and avoid caffeine altogether after lunchtime.
8. Slow Down Intentionally
Feeling rushed is the cognitive equivalent of running away from an attacking predator; our brains haven’t evolved to distinguish between physical threats and mental ones. Try setting a timer at your desk to take a 90-second mental “reset” every hour to regain your focus and perspective. Simply focus on your breathing and watching your thoughts without judging or reacting to them. This simple mindfulness exercise can activate the prefrontal cortex and breaks stress and worry loops, helping you slide into a flow state afterward, where you’ll be more productive.
9. Engage Your Senses
Focusing on your five senses can bring your attention out of our head and back into your physical environment–this way you can stop rehashing the same distracting thoughts and worries. The “raisin meditation” technique is a classic mindfulness practice to bring your focus externally back to taste (you can also do it with a piece of chocolate): Slowly eat one raisin, focusing on the texture, the flavor, the taste, and eating it as slowly as you can–as though it was your first time ever eating a raisin.
By trying out a few of these simple mental shifts on a regular basis, you’ll give your brain the small dose of novelty it needs to curb distraction and slip into a more focused mind-set. Unfocused mental autopilot is easy to fall into, but fortunately, it’s also easy to kick.