The current focus on organizational innovation and how to get teams to be more creative isn’t misplaced — a recent survey pegged creativity as the most in-demand skill for leaders. Yet creativity and innovation remain underdeveloped in most business teams and organizations. Even with an innovation or change management strategy in place, companies are looking for new ways to invigorate the creativity and work results of their teams.
Coming out of the pandemic, the explosion in remote work created a similar increase in productivity tracking and employee surveillance. These drastic measures do little to help workers or companies make the performance gains they’re hoping for. Not only do they fail to adequately measure actual output (instead of just the number of hours spent), they also tend to undermine team belonging and safety, key components for individuals to access and leverage their creativity, and for teams to work better together.
A superior tactic is to focus on how teams can work better and smarter: What tends to matter most, and move the needle, is the quality and quantity of work output rather than the number of hours spent.
We need to understand how time at work can translate into high-level performance and results that transform organizations.
Enter stage left: Deep work and flow.
These have in the last several years become increasingly trendy topics in the world of self-improvement and personal development, particularly related to the idea of accessing and harnessing creativity.
Deep work and flow state are often talked about interchangeably. And while they’re interconnected ideas, they’re not quite the same thing.
So what are these techniques exactly, and how are they related?
Defining Deep Work & Flow
Deep work, a phrase coined by Cal Newport in his book of the same name, refers to the ability to focus without distraction on cognitively demanding tasks. Most deep work consists of undistracted periods of intense concentration.
As Caveday founder Jake Kahana, who Charlie recently joined for a deep dive, puts it, “deep work is the idea of blocking off a chunk of time for focusing on a demanding task. Putting distractions away and monotasking on something important.”
It’s about tackling a particular, cognitively demanding task with full attention — and therefore avoiding anything that even might be a distraction, such as email, social media, or messaging.
Flow state, meanwhile, is a mental state defined by a sense of effortless concentration, a loss of self-consciousness, and heightened productivity, creativity, and enjoyment. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first publically used the term in this sense in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
It’s not a technique or discipline like deep work. It’s a state of consciousness.
Flow is a natural phenomenon that can arise spontaneously in different moments of our lives. Almost everybody can recognize experiencing it at some point: it’s just being “in the zone”. It’s when we’re fully absorbed in an activity, and feel as a result a sense of energized focus and even joy in the process.
Deep work techniques can initiate a flow state. When you are immersed in a task without distractions (i.e., deep work), it becomes easier to slip into a state of flow.
Why Aim for Deep Work & Flow?
Deep work, and the flow state it can prompt, are incredibly valuable given their potential to enable higher-quality work, often in a shorter amount of time, than people create in less-focused, or stressed-out states.
We’re talking not only increased productivity but also stress reduction, and improved mood and happiness levels. Neuroscience tells us even small amounts of creative flow and deep work can boost your relationships and general cognitive function.
Studies indicate that flow has positive impacts in every aspect of life, and as well as going so far as to mitigate burnout symptoms.
Flow state and deep work have been popularized by figures like Cal Newport and Andrew Huberman, who point to results in increased individual creativity, easier mastery, and even brain growth.
By focusing intently, it turns out your brain solidifies learning routes and enhances the links between neurons, enabling them to activate more quickly.
When you direct your attention solely on a particular skill, you’re essentially reconfiguring your brain to assist you in executing that skill more effectively. Moreover, studies suggest that this brain restructuring only occurs when you dedicate your attention to one task at a time and steer clear of distractions, which is essentially the concept of immersive learning.
What Flow State Feels Like
When you enter a state of flow, you’re likely to feel as if the world outside whatever task you’re doing has ceased to exist. The usual distractions of normal life: the ticking clock, the hum of a city or traffic, even the whispering thoughts of everyday concerns, dissolve.
Focus sharpens. Time passes without your noticing. These are some of the hallmark characteristics of being in a state of flow.
To summarize, you can recognize when you’re in flow state by looking for the following signs:
- You’re completely focused on the task, with no distractions or thoughts about other things.
- Time seems to pass quickly, and you might lose track of it altogether.
- You feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction from your work.
- You’re not worried about what others think or how you appear to them.
Flow state occurs when a person’s skill level and the level of the challenge they’re facing are both high, leading to a sense of complete absorption in the task at hand.
The main brain chemicals that are activated in flow state are norepinephrine and dopamine, which are both performance enhancing. When people enter a flow state they talk about feeling like their senses are incredibly heightened. These chemicals particularly affect motivation, creativity, and learning – all important factors in creative or knowledge work.
How Deep Work Helps You Achieve Flow
Deep work sets up many of the prerequisites for achieving a state of flow.
From a neuroscientific perspective, deep work can facilitate the transition into a flow state through:
- Focused Attention. Deep work requires sustained, focused attention on a single task. Neurologically, this is associated with activation of the prefrontal cortex, the brain region responsible for executive functions such as attention regulation. But in a flow state, you move even further into a phenomenon known as “transient hypofrontality” where the prefrontal cortex temporarily deactivates, allowing for uninhibited cognitive performance and creativity. The initial intense focus cultivated in deep work may help trigger this shift.
- Challenge-Skill Balance. Flow states are often achieved when individuals are engaged in tasks that are challenging but within their capacity to complete. Deep work often involves tackling complex problems or tasks that fit this criterion, thus promoting the necessary neural conditions for flow.
- Clear Goals and Immediate Feedback. The neuroscience of flow suggests that clear goals and immediate feedback are crucial for maintaining a flow state. Deep work practices often encourage the setting of specific objectives and the seeking of rapid feedback, both of which can facilitate the dopamine reward pathways in the brain, reinforcing the behavior and promoting sustained engagement.
- Elimination of Distractions. Interruptions and multitasking can disrupt the neural synchrony associated with flow states. By eliminating external distractions, deep work promotes a state of uninterrupted concentration, thereby fostering conditions conducive for the occurrence of flow.
Deep work, by design, seems to engage the various neural networks and cognitive processes that underpin the flow state. It’s a viable strategy for anyone seeking to harness the benefits of flow.
Getting Into Deep Work (and After, Flow)
So it sounds great, right? The question then is how we can more frequently and easily enter this state. Some practical tips and steps for setting up deep work, which can help you slip into flow state, include:
- Schedule the deep work, or focus block. At PF, we often refer to the equivalent of deep work as focus blocks. These deep work or focus blocks are for your highest impact tasks and projects. Scheduling these first, and in advance, will radically improve your chances of actually getting to your deep (and generally most-important) work.
- Get rid of distractions (and notifications). Find a quiet space, turn off your phone if possible, and minimize any other potential interruptions. Tell your family members, spouse or roommates you’re set to monotask and work deeply on something important. Be sure you don’t have anything nearby that would tempt you to multitask.
- Set clear goals. Be very clear about what it is you want to accomplish during your deep work time. Make sure it’s not too big or abstract: define it clearly (what does “done” look like?), and chunk down projects into smaller, manageable tasks. Knowing exactly what you have to do will help you get it done.
- Create rituals to increase your focus. Types of rituals to consider might be anything from being consistent with your environment (choosing the same room or office — or for other folks, switching up your space) to choosing the same time of day to work, when you know you tend to work best (what we call, heat mapping). For other people what may help is support items like coffee, water, headphones, or a watch. Aubrey Marcus, in his book Own the Day, Own Your Life, speaks to how smell can trigger our ability to increase focus and enter particular states like flow. Essential oils, scented candles, and other smells can help here.
If You Have Trouble Finding a State of Flow
If you find that it’s hard for you to get into something that feels like a flow state, there could be a couple things blocking you. If it happens, try these strategies to get around the blockers and to more of your best work:
- Identify the cause: Were you interrupted? Did you start trying to multitask? Was there some specific anxiety or thought that entered your mind, or that always enters your mind when you try to focus on a particular task?
- Refocus: Take a few deep breaths, and consciously redirect your attention back to the task at hand.
- Adjust the challenge: If the task is too easy or too difficult, modify it to better match your skill level.
- Change your environment: If external distractions are causing the break in flow, consider moving to a quieter space or using noise-canceling headphones.
- Take a break: Sometimes, stepping away from the task for a few minutes can help you regain focus and re-enter flow.
How Planning Ties into Deep Work and Flow
The Momentum Planning Method (whether you use a printed/digital planner or the Momentum app, or both) is designed to encourage deep work and flow. Time-blocking involves scheduling 90- to 120-minute focus blocks to keep you concentrating on the most relevant tasks and projects. The system encourages you to focus on fewer projects and to chunk them down into manageable tasks — some of the first steps to set yourself up for deep work and flow.
Better planning equals more devoted deep work time in your calendar for the undistracted, focused work that will help you get to that state of flow.
The biggest challenge most team members and leaders face are the extensive demands placed upon their attention and time by meetings, busy work, and constant messages from email or Slack. In the future we might be able to look forward to and benefit from more productive, less stressful deep work on the job.
Having the space to do deep work and tap into a state of flow has the potential to radically transform work and business outcomes, no matter what industry or line of work you’re in. As companies increasingly see the numbers and results, and the wide-ranging, and ever expanding body of scientific studies on the topic, structures for deep work and flow will soon be more commonplace.
In the meantime, if your organization doesn’t recognize the benefits yet, you might find it helpful to consider implementing a deep work/flow/focus block structure for yourself — and to use your improved results as proof of the effectiveness of this approach.
Here at Productive Flourishing, we have all sorts of resources and support for you to do more of your best work, with the help of deep work and flow.
Learn more about focus blocks and Momentum Planning through our digital Momentum Planners, Momentum app, and Charlie’s book Start Finishing. If camaraderie and accountability helps you focus, consider joining the Academy, where we host many deep work coworking sessions each week, in addition to many other resources and teachings.