Nerd Productivity

Using Flow and Deep Work to Increase Productivity

Research shows people working in a state of flow are five times more productive than they’d otherwise be.

Flow has been written about extensively by Hungarian-American psychologist and professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as well as popular science author Steven Kotler. Another concept related to flow is Deep Work. This concept has been popularised by Cal Newport, an American author and computer science professor.

Csikszentmihalyi’s research focused on the psychology of happiness and optimal experience. He developed the concept of flow to describe the state of complete absorption in an activity that is both challenging and rewarding. Flow is characterized by a sense of timelessness, a loss of self-consciousness, and a feeling of complete control.

According to Kotler, who built on Csikszentmihalyi’s work, flow is a state of peak performance when we are fully engaged in the task at hand and we are able to perform at our best. There is a sense of effortless action, where tasks feel easier to accomplish than normal.

When we are in flow, we are often so engrossed in the task at hand that we lose track of time and we experience a sense of joy and satisfaction. In fact, flow is probably one of those rare states that are enjoyable in the short term but that also yield rich long-term dividends.

Deep Work and Flow

According to Cal Newport, deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.

While the concept of flow is largely referred to in the context of competitive or adventure sports and more creative pursuits such as art or even coding, deep work has a more mundane connotation and is used mostly in the context of productivity at work.

While flow is a powerful state that can be harnessed to improve our performance in all areas of our lives, deep work is the ability to work deeply on a cognitively demanding task, without distraction.

When it comes to our mundane day-to-day work, deep work can be a gateway to flow. Deep work by itself can multiply your output both qualitatively and quantitatively. But when deep work leads to a state of flow it can unlock your creativity and innate intelligence leading to exceptionally high performance.

Ideal Conditions for Flow

The time it takes to get into a state of flow can vary depending on the individual and the task at hand. However, research suggests that it typically takes around 15 minutes of focused attention for someone to enter a state of flow.

The common underlying condition for both deep work and flow is the complete absence of any distractions or interruptions. A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that interruptions as brief as two to three seconds were enough to double the number of errors participants made in an assigned task. In fact, studies have shown that each time a flow state is disrupted it takes fifteen minutes to get back into flow, if you can get back at all.

Additionally, according to Csikszentmihalyi, for flow to occur there must be a match between your skills and the complexity of the task. Tasks that are either too easy or too difficult are not great for getting into flow. Similarly, according to Cal Newport, for deep work, the task must be relatively cognitively demanding.

Csikszentmihalyi also states that there should be clarity of goals, a feedback loop on whether your effort is moving you closer to the goal as well as a sense of personal control and agency over the task.

Getting into Flow

While flow seems like an unattainable concept for most of us, it is not difficult to get into if you can get through the initial discomfort and stay focused on the task at hand for about 15 minutes.

In my experience, just these two conditions are more than enough to help you get into a state of deep work and flow:

  1. Working with single-minded focus without any distractions
  2. A moderately challenging or cognitively demanding task

Slow down, there’s no rush. Just stare at the screen (or piece of paper) for a few minutes. As long as you’re not getting distracted, you will inevitably end up getting engrossed in the task.

This is my daily ritual for getting into a deep work session, which usually leads to a flow state:

  1. Set a timer (25 to 60 mins)
  2. Put your phone on airplane mode (or put your phone in another room)
  3. Wear headphones – pick from 1 or 2 ‘focus’ playlists to listen
  4. Close all chat apps and disable all notifications
  5. Work on ONE ‘cognitively demanding’ task
  6. Take a break when the timer goes off
  7. You can get back to your phone/ chat/ email now 🙂

I aim for just one or two deep work sessions per day. This is a very achievable daily goal, and makes such days infinitely more productive and rewarding.

Ultimately the goal of any productivity system is to help you create the time and mind space to work deeply and get into flow more often.

In fact, if you can identify your highest impact priorities and work on these every day, in a flow state, you will find you can accomplish more in a week than you would in months!

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