Editor’s note: This post was first published in 2015. We’ve updated this post with new research and additional tips.
We live in the most distracting time in history. When else did people have access to so much information with so little effort?
It’s a phenomenon that can be both beautiful and terrible. You can easily stumble upon a new favorite song or a link to a book that changes your life. You can take personalized Portuguese lessons with a native speaker without leaving your house. Or . . .
Cats. So many cats. One click on a Facebook link can send you down the rabbit hole of lost time and missed productivity. Who knows how many hours and dollars you’re costing yourself in the long run.
Even worse, we’re most susceptible to these kinds of distractions at work, where our attention and energy are at their most vulnerable.
Distraction is taking away your time, and it’s taking away your money. But worse than that, it’s taking away the most valuable, important thing you can be doing at work: It’s taking away your flow.
Gloria Mark, at the University of California, Irvine, has done some of the most in-depth studies on digital distraction and how it impacts workday productivity.
We’ve written before about how Mark’s research shows it takes an average of about 25 minutes to return to the original task after an interruption.
That’s a lot of lost time.
It gets even worse.
“I argue that when people are switching contexts every 10 and a half minutes they can’t possibly be thinking deeply,” Mark has said. “There’s no way people can achieve flow.”
What is a flow state, and why does it make us the best we can be?
Steven Kotler, director of research for the Flow Genome Project defines a flow state as an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.”
Or take this description from his book The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance:
“In flow, concentration becomes so laser-focused that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Our sense of self and our sense of self consciousness completely disappear. Time dilates—meaning it slows down (like the freeze frame of a car crash) or speeds up (and five hours pass by in five minutes). And throughout, all aspects of performance are incredibly heightened—and that includes creative performance.”
Researchers are finally starting to understand this state of consciousness that has provided humans with huge advantages for millennia.
Kobe Bryant once described it perfectly:
“When you get in that zone, it’s just a supreme confidence that you know it’s going in. Things just slow down, everything just slows down and you just have supreme confidence … Everything becomes one noise, you don’t hear this or that. Everything is just one thing.”
The advantages of flow states are well documented:
- In an Australian study, for example, 40 subjects were presented with a complicated brain teaser, and not one was able to solve the puzzle. But after having a flow state artificially induced, 23 of the subjects solved the puzzle in record time.
- A 10-year McKinsey & Co. study showed that executives were 500% more productive in a flow state.
- A series of three studies even showed that flow is helpful during periods of uncertainty because it provides you with an immersive experience that diverts you from feeling stress.
And among the discovered benefits:
- Increased pleasure sensations
- Heightened focus
- Increased information-gathering abilities, thus higher likelihood of seeing new possibilities
- Increased pattern-recognition abilities
At work, this means getting more work done faster, yes; but it also means opening up the rest of your day for other activities. Working smart instead of hard creates time for self-reflection that helps you capture important thoughts, figure out patterns, and better understand yourself.
Achieving a flow state isn’t about working harder; it’s about structuring your day around peak times of focus so that you can be freer, happier, and more accomplished.
Identify what disrupts your flow state
Flow doesn’t come naturally. Once you know how to find focus, you need to go on the defensive.
For many, the primary threat is their phone. Smartphones are distraction machines: Every notification is a prompt to break your flow. It’s practically Pavlovian at this point. But quitting your phone cold turkey can be hard to do. Consider restructuring your phone by moving distracting apps to subfolders, setting up time limits for apps most likely to distract you, and downloading productivity tools that can actually help you focus.
For others, it’s work itself. If the tasks never seem to stop piling up, it might be time to write a “stop doing” list that includes all of the bad habits that tend to distract you. Email, for instance, is central to many offices, but if every ping stops you from doing more important work, try giving yourself time to close that tab for an hour or two. Just make sure you reward yourself by crossing off every bad habit halted.
The key is to set yourself up for success. Flow is powerful, but it’s fragile. To achieve this inner state, you need to work on your outer state.
Why distractions are the enemy of flow
Flow involves a lot of feedback that is conditional upon your brain being in a certain state. If you’re pulled out of that state, you won’t be able to respond to the feedback in the same way.
If you’re solving an engineering problem in a flow state, for example, your brain has a heightened sense of all the available information that can solve the problem. All of the “noise” is pushed away. Think of it like clearing a chalkboard of all information except the problem at hand and the potential solutions. Once you leave the chalkboard and come back, you bring tons of irrelevant information. You start picking up a lot less signal and a lot more noise. And you’ll get a lot less done.
P.S. If you liked this article, you should subscribe to our newsletter. We’ll email you a daily blog post with actionable and unconventional advice on how to work better.