The Ultimate Guide For Getting “In The Zone” At Work
> Get “in the zone” by matching your ability with challenges
It happens every once in awhile, not often but when it does, it’s magical.
You’ve got two key project deliverables due tomorrow, several urgent senior management emails to respond to and three weekly reports to complete.
It’s right on the cusp of being a bit too much work but you’ve handled much more workload before. However, on those days, your output and quality of work suffered and you got stressed out to the max.
The good news is that on this day, you only have one meeting on your calendar. And you’re not leading it. There’s also the extra bonus of not having any conference calls to join either.
This day has the potential to be a good one.
First things first. You get to the urgent requests from senior management. You review the requests and pull together the needed data, check it twice and “reply all” with the attachments.
The hour and a half you spent working on these critical requests felt like five minutes.
Next up, the two project deliverables.
You’re about 90% of the way there at this point. So, today will be the final stretch of adding in the last pieces and then, doing a final review.
You hop between Powerpoint and Excel like a tennis match volley.
Back and forth.
Check and review.
Everything is fitting in perfectly. The calculations all work out on Excel and hell, even the formatting on Powerpoint all came out perfectly without funky alignments.
You glance at the clock and it’s already lunchtime - wow.
You head out and grab lunch with the usual crew at the usual places. It’s a nice little break from the office and relaxing to chat with work friends over lunch.
Back at your desk, you do a final review of the deliverables and make only a few small edits. Everything else is spot on.
You put together the email, attach the docs and fire it off to the team.
For the rest of the afternoon, you focus on completing the weekly reports and attend the scheduled meeting. The meeting was actually a nice break from your desk.
With about thirty minutes to spare, you got the weekly reports done on time, before the end of the day. The final step - submitting the reports via email.
You write up the usual blurb on the email, attach the reports, select the usual recipients and click “send”. And it’s this last “send” click of the day that felt so good - like crossing the finish line at a marathon.
Man, what a day!
It was busy but not crazy busy. It was a good kinda busy. You were stressed a bit but not stressed the fuck out. It was like a good pressure. It kept you focused.
It’s days like this when you’re “in the zone” at work. And at the end of these kinds of days, you feel good about your job. You felt productive and even happy.
Why can’t every work day be like this?
Well, the answer is that it can, but it all depends on correctly applying several key methods to improve the probability of it happening.
We’ll get into that but first, let’s start with the basics.
The Basic Science Of Being “In The Zone” Or “Flow State” Of Mind
You’ve probably witnessed professional athletes during games and competitions where they’re not making any mistakes and every single shot, throw, swing, kick, etc is perfect - like textbook perfect.
They’re operating at an optimum pace and have achieved a rhythm that just seems so effortless and unstoppable.
And, you’ve probably experienced something like this too, either at work like the example above or even at home, cleaning and knocking out chores left and right. You were in the groove or “flow state.”
The term “flow state” was coined by Hungarian-American psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (yeah, don’t ask us how to pronounce this) in 1975. His psychological research and studies in the areas of happiness and creativity spawned his theory on flow.
The gist of the theory is this - people are happy when they’re in a state of deep concentration or complete absorption with an activity. It’s when you’re so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.
Ever notice how fully absorbed kids are when they’re coloring?
That’s the flow state.
It happens to us too.
It’s when you’re working, playing sports, hobbying, pretty much doing anything where you are fully immersed and intensely focused on the tasks at hand.
And the combination of one or more of those tasks are not too easy and not too hard. It’s perfectly paired up with your abilities.
We’d bet that you experienced this to some degree while multi-cleaning your house like a champ. This one-minute scene from the 2011 movie Limitless with Bradley Cooper hits the nail on the head.
VIDEO: Tidying motivation video (Limitless Pill Scene)
YOUTUBE: Renáta Végh
> Marie Kondo would be proud of Eddie Morra
> A place for everything and everything in its place
> Clean-n-clear environment allows for clear thinking
Feels familiar, right?
It’s on those days where we’re running like a well-oiled machine, just cranking out and completing tasks, that we get in the “flow state” of mind.
When the difficulty of whatever you’re doing is closely matched up with your abilities, that’s when you’re most able to get in the zone.
It’s the green zone in the diagram below.
This green zone is also something we call eustress (pronounced “you stress”). Eustress is the good kind of stress. It’s that bit of pressure that keeps you on your toes and your senses sharp.
It’s when you’ve got to finish up a presentation by 5pm and it’s 4:30pm and you’re almost done with it. The time pressure is keeping you focused. This good pressure is eustress.
But, when there are multiple deadlines approaching all at the same time with projects that are really hard to manage and make progress on, then that’s when the overall difficulty exceeds your ability.
This is when you get stressed out and anxious - the red zone in the diagram.
The exact opposite happens when there’s nothing going on at the office and you don’t have anything pressuring you. You have excess ability and little to no challenges.
It’s like playing tic-tac-toe with a five year old...for the tenth time. You get really bored - the blue zone in the diagram.
Being in the middle “flow channel” is where you want to be.
It’s the zone of effortless high productivity.
This short 5-minute video by a college professor named John Spencer really gets the idea across. The last few minutes are about applying flow theory to students, so you can stop watching from that point.
VIDEO: Flow Theory in Less Than Five Minutes
YOUTUBE: John Spencer
> Athletes, artists and everyday people can experience flow
> Hyperfocusing on tasks that you enjoy can get you in the zone
> Research has shown that several factors can trigger flow state
When you’re in the zone, you’re hitting the marks and moving effortlessly from one action to the next. It’s like the completion of one task seamlessly blends into the start of another.
And when you maintain this pace and rhythm within the flow channel, that’s when the mojo kicks in. This is when work actually feels good.
Why Being “In The Zone” Feels So Good
If you’ve ever gone bowling and managed to knock down all the pins and get a strike, you get that euphoric high. It’s an immediate reward and instant feedback from your efforts.
Or, if you’re a crafty person, each little thing you make, design, draw gives you that sense of completion. And, the more complex that item is, the greater the resulting joy - that feeling of deep accomplishment.
In both of these examples, your brain is getting a little hit of dopamine each time you accomplish a challenging task.
And, when you’re able to string together several of these wins, you’re essentially hitting that dopamine feeder bar for your brain over and over.
It feels good...really good. Our brains want more.
And, when you can stay in that flow state and give your brain a constant stream of feel-good hormones, it puts you into a sense of ecstasy in an almost out-of-body-like experience.
You lose all awareness of yourself and all the other distractions and worries in life.
You’re just fully immersed in that challenging task and it’s really testing your skills and abilities. And, you’re coming out on top each time.
Put more simply...
You’re making positive progress and winning.
That’s why it feels so good to be in the zone. You’re kickin’ ass!
So, now the question is how can we get ourselves into the flow state reliably and consistently without being hopped up on buckets of coffee or energy drinks?
The Simple 5-Step Strategy For Getting “In The Zone” At Work
There is no one-size-fits-all for getting in the flow state. This because we all have different levels of skills, abilities, talents and different kinds of challenges.
What works for you may not work for someone else and vice versa.
A beginner learning how to ice-skate will have a very different set of challenges than a professional figure skater looking to up their game.
However, there is a common framework strategy that applies to everyone.
It’s like a recipe.
The ratio of “ingredients” is always the same. What differs is the amount.
Baking a single cake or 100 of the same cake will have the same ratio of ingredients, but the amounts are different.
Likewise, what you’re capable of handling should be ideally matched up with the workload or challenges. The amounts will vary but the ratios remain the same. This is what will determine your ideal flow state spot in the zone.
The diagram below shows the progression of a newbie working their way up to an expert level. Take a look at each point on the matrix. Each point reflects the difficulty vs. ability ratio for that given timeframe in the learning curve.
When your ability is greater than the difficulty of the task, we’re not stimulated and get bored easily. So, we’ll up the challenge and take on more difficult tasks to keep things interesting. This brings us back into the zone.
But, when we misjudge and take on more than we can handle, we’ve exceeded our capabilities and start to get nervous and stressed out. So, we either have to dial it back to match up with our abilities or up our skills to match the challenge.
When there’s a 50/50 equal distribution of difficulty and ability, that’s the sweet spot. That’s when the magic happens and the chances of entering the flow state are greatest.
Find a comfortable starting point and then, experiment and make adjustments to the “difficulty” level to get yourself in the zone.
Then, as your skills and abilities improve, you can take on greater challenges. This is when your sweet spot moves further up and to the right in the “flow channel” or zone.
Step #1: Prioritize & Breakdown Your Work Into 25 Minute Tasks
We all have tons of shit to do at work. Our inboxes are overflowing. We’re jam-packed with meetings and calls. And, we’re juggling multiple projects and tasks.
It can be a chaotic mess and often times, intimidating. Just thinking about all the work that needs to get done stresses us out.
And when you take that perspective, you feel helpless and even lost.
The solution is to break things down into the smallest bite-sized tasks as possible. Small enough where you can do them in one 25 minute sitting or less (you’ll see why the 25 minutes is important later).
So, instead of the larger to-do of “complete the entire excel analysis,” break it down to a smaller task like “input and check the preliminary data” as your primary action.
The smaller you can break down the task, the better. It’ll make it much easier to mentally approach and do.
To help you stay on track, we’ve created a simple template that you can download here and print out for the workweek.
Here’s what it looks like:
Before going on any further, print out a copy now and go get it from the printer. You’ll need it for the next little exercise.
We’ll wait for you here. 😉
Okay, now it’s time to think about your main projects and all the associated tasks that you need to do for each one.
1) List the top priority projects for this week only
List your projects only - we’ll get to tasks next. Write down one-at-a-time, up to five projects, no more than that.
To start with, make it really achievable. If you have to, just put down one or two projects to begin with. Then, you can build your way up with each passing week.
This is key because we want you to get that feel-good dopamine hit right away by getting you a few quick-n-easy wins.
Remember, this is like the graph - you’re starting out in the lower left corner. And as you get better, you can add more projects (challenge) as your capabilities grow.
2) For each project, list the 3-5 next tasks that need to be done
These tasks should be the very next things that need to get done. They should all be do-able in 25 minutes or less.
All of these tasks should be moving your priority projects forward that one little step. Each little step forward keeps the ball moving closer and closer to the finish line.
Here are some examples of bite-sized tasks that can be done in one 25 minute session:
- Finish formatting the Powerpoint presentation
- Type up the meeting minutes
- Proof-read the weekly report
- Review the excel calculations
- Scan-n-read the latest contract
Okay, go for it.
When you’re done, come back here.
Now pin or tape this project-task list on your cubicle wall by your monitor. Make sure it’s within forward view, not behind you in the back corner of your work area.
You’ve just given yourself another little mental joy-bump. You’ve gone further than the majority of the people out there.
When you put pen to paper and physically write-out the tasks, it has more permanence to it than just having it in an electronic format or even worse, just in your head.
So, you’re off to a strong start!
Step #2: Set Up Time-Blocks On Your Calendar
For nearly all of us, we mainly use the calendar for scheduling meetings and conference calls with others - whether it’s us making them or accepting them.
With the exception of doctors appointments and vacations, we don’t really use the calendar to schedule stuff for our own work. We just work during the empty slots on our calendar.
This is a really bad thing.
Here’s why - having open availability on your calendar for most of the day allows others to control and dictate your workflow, especially if your calendar can be viewed by other co-workers. And, that’s not good.
However, blocking out your entire day and not allowing open slots for other people to include you on important meetings isn’t good either.
You need to find a balance that allows you to have uninterrupted time for your own work while providing opportunities for others to include you on important meetings and calls.
Here’s our suggestion…
Start with just one time-block, no more. And, set it up for just one day only. You’re just starting out with this concept. So, start out small. Make it easy.
If you go all out and try to time-block all day, all week, you’ll just overwhelm yourself and you won’t pick this up. So, just do one day at a time. It’s easy to add more later.
Let’s do this together, right now.
When are you most productive? Morning or afternoon? Pick one.
Okay, now open up your calendar and take a look at tomorrow’s schedule for that morning or afternoon. Then, block a two-hour time slot for that part of the day and label it as “Project work” on your calendar.
If tomorrow’s all booked up already, check the next day.
Go ahead, do this right now.
Once again, you’ve just given yourself a tiny little hit of dopamine by setting up that time-block...a micro accomplishment.
By starting out small, it’ll be easier to introduce this new behavior pattern into your normal workday and stick with it.
With each day, you can make adjustments as you go along.
You may find that your original time-block for an activity may be too short or too long or maybe in the wrong part of the day for that kind of work. So, experiment day-by-day to find your groove.
Over about a week or so, you’ll definitely find the best set-up for yourself.
The main goals of time-blocking are:
> Protect a block time of on your calendar
> Focus your time and effort in one area
Okay, now let’s move on to the next step.
Step #3: Set-up Pomodoro Sessions
You may or may not have heard about the “pomodoro technique” before. It’s a productivity concept that was created by a guy named Francesco Cirillo sometime in the late 1980's.
Back then, Francesco was a university student looking to focus his attention on his studies. To keep himself focused and on track, he used a 25-minute kitchen timer used for cooking and simmering pomodoros (Italian word for tomatoes).
It was an egg timer for tomatoes.
He’d use the timer to force himself to only do a single task during those 25 minutes. Undistracted and focused, he discovered that he was able to make great progress in his studies.
And, that’s how the concept of the pomodoro technique was born.
Today, we’ll incorporate this into our process for achieving flow state.
Now that you’ve created your project task list and reserved your time-block, the next step is to breakdown that two-hour time-block into four pomodoro sessions.
Each pomodoro session includes a 25 minute work session followed by a 5 minute break. So, in total, it would be 30 minutes. So, in the two-hour time-block, you’ll have four Pomodoro sessions.
We’ve created an additional companion template that you can download here to help you through this step. Go print this now.
It looks like this:
Now, take a look at your weekly project-task list.
Select four priority tasks from that list that must get done. Write one task for each 25 minute pomodoro session. They can be all from one project or from several.
Ideally, they should all be from one project so that the entire time-block can be dedicated to that project. Doing it this way will give you a better chance of getting into the groove of things.
However, you can just follow your overall priorities and let that determine which tasks get into the pomodoro sessions.
Go ahead and complete the form now.
Take your completed time-block pomodoro checklist and put it next to your weekly project-task list. Or on the other side of the monitor, opposite from the weekly list.
Now, you’ve got the makings for an awesome flow state. All of the prep work is done. It’s down to execution now and actually doing the work when the time-block arrives.
Step #4: Eliminate Distractions & Mono-task
When the time-block arrives, there are two key critical things that you must do to ensure the greatest possibility of getting into the zone at work.
First, eliminate all distractions.
Second, work on only one thing at a time - mono-task, don’t multi-task.
If you don’t get both of these nailed down, you’re not going to be successful at this.
Now, you don’t need to be in this isolated state all day long. It’s only during your time-block that you need to block out everything.
Eliminate All Distractions
In today’s world with smartphones, social media, internet, email, phone calls, etc., there’s an endless amount of distractions. And, it’s coming from all directions - our smartphones, computers, desk phones, TV, radio and our fellow co-workers, friends and family members.
Avoiding all of these sources of distractions is absolutely required if you want to get real work done at the office.
Here’s an action list you can follow:
- Put your phone on airplane mode
- Send all office calls directly to voice-mail
- Turn off all desktop notifications
- Close email (unless emailing is in your time-block)
- Close all programs not related to the task
The goal here is to not only avoid reading messages or notifications, but also prevent them from coming in to start with.
Here’s why - receiving notifications is just as distracting as reading them. Even if you don’t respond, your mind is already distracted. And knowing that you have messages waiting will take your attention away.
However, if you know that you can’t receive messages because you’ve temporarily shut them all off, then your mind can stay on track.
Mono-task By Doing One Thing At A Time
You may think you can multi-task, but there is no such thing. When you’re trying to do two things simultaneously, it’s damn near impossible for your brain to process everything correctly.
Don’t believe us?
Give this 1-minute test a try.
VIDEO: Can You Get Through This Multi-Tasking Test?
> Working on two different things simultaneously is impossible
> We failed miserably at this test
> All we got was a cat that likes ice cream, got a driver’s license
So, answering emails while talking on the phone may feel like multi-tasking, but it’s not.
You’re essentially switching from one task to another really fast and this makes it seem like you’re multi-tasking but really, you’re “switch-tasking” very quickly.
And, each time you switch-task, there’s a delay in processing and re-focusing your attention on the next thing takes more brain energy.
All this means is that we end up making more mistakes and taking longer than if we just focused on the single task by mono-tasking.
So, for each of your pomodoro tasks, just work on that task and that task only.
For example, it’s okay to toggle between Excel and Powerpoint if they’re both for the same project. Since it’s the same related item, just paired together, there isn’t that mental switching cost.
What’s not good is when you flip to another totally unrelated task like checking email - that’s when you’ll disrupt your flow.
If you stay focused on a single task, you’ll get it done faster with fewer errors.
And as you complete each task, put a big fat check mark in the box next to the task on the time-block pomodoro sheet.
There’s your little dose of joy. The physical act of checking off that task is like hitting that dopamine feeder bar in your head again.
As you complete each time-block, you’ll be knocking off four priority tasks from the weekly project list. Not bad, huh?
Step #5: Take Breaks Between Sessions
After completing each single pomodoro task, take a 5-minute breather. Go for a bathroom break, walk a lap around the floor or a take a few sips of water.
Just don’t activate and open any of your online distractions!
Beat the urge to check email, social media, internet, etc.
If you let your mind’s curiosity win out here and do a quick check for messages and notifications, you are doomed. You’ll fall into a black hole of wasted time. And the 5-minute break ends up killing an hour.
Instead, tell your mind, “Nice try, but I’m in control.”
When you complete all four pomodoros in the two-hour block, take a longer break of 10-15 minutes before starting another time-block or doing something entirely different like joining a meeting/call, etc.
Get up from your chair, step away from your desk and take a mental and physical time-out.
This is an ideal time to go for a 15 minute stress relief walk outside to get some fresh air and flex your eyesight on something other than your monitor.
For your pomodoro timer, use your phone’s countdown timer to track your work session and break time. Be sure to put your phone in airplane mode to stop all distractions.
Achieving Flow State & Missing Breaks
Once you master this whole process, you’ll find that getting yourself into the flow state will get easier and easier with each time-block.
In fact, sometimes you may get into the zone so deeply that you skip breaks altogether because everything is moving so smoothly and effortlessly.
When this happens, you’ll be dumbstruck at how much time has passed and how much work you actually got done. Congrats, you were in the zone.
Skipping a 5-minute break or two is fine. However, you need to take a break at the end of a two-hour time-block. Sitting and working in front of your computer for extended periods beyond two hours at a time isn’t good for your mind, body and eyes - they need to recover.
So, get up, get outside and move your body.
Find Your Flow And Achieve Happiness
Experiencing an out-of-body like flow state at work is one of the best ways to feel great at the office. It’ll make your job rewarding, fulfilling and dare we say, fun?
By setting yourself up to hit that “sweet spot” of workload vs. ability, you can quickly build up your skill to get into the flow state.
And, when you can easily get into the zone at work, you’ll feel like you’re in total and absolute control, not aimlessly stressed out. It’s like being Tiger Woods at the top of his game. Nothing can knock you off course.
You’ll be making progress on all your projects. And, progress at work equals happiness at work.
Each little task completion nudges the project forward another inch. A few inches turn into feet, feet turn into miles and before you know it, you’ve pushed the project across the finish line.
Now, it’s up to you to follow through on this.
Your work happiness and job satisfaction are not going to be handed to you on a silver platter. And, it’s not something that happens automatically, even if you’re “one of the lucky few” that has a job they like.
It’s all up to you.
You’ve got the knowledge now and the tools. Put them to use to get what you deserve - true joy at work.