Those of you who know me moderately well will be well aware I am, by nature, an easily distracted person. I have to work hard at being productive. It can take me a long time to ‘settle in’ to a task and get into the ‘flow’ of things.
Flow is the state where you are effortlessly productive. It feels fantastic when you get there. We all know that when things become urgent, it’s easy to force yourself to get into the flow. There is nothing like a deadline to enhance productivity. But this is an exhausting way to live and work, and it’s not sustainable. It’s not very satisfying either. So how can we hit peak productivity without the pressure of a deadline?
In this blog post I share some of the ways that help me stay productive and focused on a single task. There are also productivity techniques to help you get started on tasks and prioritise your jobs, but more on those another time.
Researchers suggest it takes approximately 15 minutes of settling into a task to reach a level of concentration and focus which feels relatively effortless. On average, people then concentrate for between 90-120 mins before fatigue sets in, requiring a break. Repeat.
It is generally accepted there are more distractions in modern life than our predecessors experienced. We are so plugged in and contactable ALL. THE. TIME. Getting into the flow, and staying there, can be a real challenge if you are not conscious of the distractions impacting your ability to focus or pulling you out of your flow.
Working from home, with a young family and many commitments, I’ve had to work hard at finding ways to get into the flow more efficiently, and stay there. I have tried many. In this blog post, I suggest some ways you can stay in your flow. These tips are all about setting yourself up for success. Once you are in the flow, nothing but a fire alarm can pull you out of it. Try any of these below and let me know what works for you!
- When you are ready to start, get a cuppa and get a snack. Also get something to wipe your hands so you don’t dirty your keyboard. Reduce the reasons to get up and down like a jack-in-the-box once you’ve started.
- Get a notepad with a blank page and pop it beside you. I call this my ‘Park-it pad’. This is for jotting down the things that pop into your head and make you want to leave the productivity zone when you are locked and loaded on the rocket-ship to flow. Unlike many people, I can’t use an app on my phone to do this. As soon as I pick up my phone, I see notifications and my focus goes to those. I forget why I picked up my phone and start following the bouncing ball of distraction. When I re-enter the task which was my primary focus, I remember I was supposed to be writing something down, and THEN I go back and put the thought down. For me the ‘Park-it pad’ is super effective. It’s just a blank piece of paper and a pen. That’s it. I don’t organise those thoughts; I don’t even write in straight lines. I just put the distracting thought on the paper and return immediately to my primary task.
- Put away your phone AND put it on silent. Close down your email. Our brains are programmed to react to movement in our peripheral vision and to changes in our environment. This is why pop-ups on a screen are so good at capturing our attention. Tell them who’s boss and turn them off. Almost nothing is so urgent a two-hour response time is too slow.
- Choose an environment conducive to concentrating. Go to a library, a picnic table at the park or a café. I find the environment can have a bit of noise but it has to be fairly consistent white-noise. I can work in a café because none of the noise in there has anything to do with me. BUT if the café is too small and the tables are close together, it can be hard to tune out other people’s conversations. Public libraries are GREAT for forcing you to focus. They are meant to be quiet and the whole point is to get into the flow. Just beware that at certain times libraries can be noisy and busy with school children, playgroups or mums and little kids.
- Consider listening to music with headphones. I can’t do this one. I dance on the inside when almost any style of music is playing. It is a complete distraction for me. I do however know others who do this very successfully to block out external distractions. Having said that, sometimes I wear headphones with no sound coming through them. This muffles the noises around me, turning it to white-noise, and it sends a signal to people around me: “do not disturb”.
- If you work in an office and are very likely to be pulled out of your flow by colleagues asking ‘have you got five minutes’, find somewhere else to go for two hours. You don’t need to be truly uncontactable, you can tell a trusted colleague where you are. Remember, however, almost nothing is so urgent it can’t wait a couple of hours.
- Choose a time when you can stay in the flow once you are there. And be realistic about when this is.
- Pay attention to YOUR body rhythms. When are you usually most productive? First thing in the morning when no one else is in the office? Straight after lunch when your belly is full and you have no excuses? Or are you a night owl who gets into the groove at 9:30pm whenever everything else is quiet. There is no wrong time (unless it interferes with your life) to reach your flow. It’s about recognising your own personal rhythms. For instance, I tend to be VERY productive at about 9:30pm. This is when I find it easiest to get in a groove. For me, there is nothing else for me to do at this time. I’m not hungry; there’s no point in putting washing on; the kids are in bed; it’s too late for phone calls; it’s too late for most work emails. Flow here I come. Conversely, my husband can hardly string a sentence together at that time. His most productive time is about 7am, so he leaves for work early and hits the zone. I have tried to swap, because our society values the early bird, but it doesn’t work for me. I think I am an owl.
- One more cautionary tale about a midnight oil productivity zone. You can’t expect your brain to go from ‘on’ to ‘sleep mode’ straight away. It doesn’t work. You need time to unwind; read a book; have a bath; listen to a guided meditation. Try not to interact with a screen. You are trying to signal your brain to turn off now. I find an easy-read novel is my best wind-down after a late-night productivity session.
Finally, if you need one more hit of procrastination before knuckling down, make sure you read this blog post about ‘Why procrastinators procrastinate’. It is hilarious, and oh so very, very true.
Now go get busy!
Keep an eye out for my next blog on productivity – ways to get your groove on!