Improve your productivity by getting in ‘the zone’

Do you sit down with your laptop ready to do some work but then get distracted? Do you get to the end of the day and wonder what on earth you have done despite being busy all day? Does your productivity increase when get in ‘the zone’?

The distractions of working from home

Working from home is the new normal that we keep hearing and reading. The COVID-19 pandemic will change the way work looks for a lot of us as companies and employees realise the benefits of home working. However, whilst the distraction of colleagues and tea rounds has gone there are other distractions in the home that can take our attention away.

I’ve worked from home for a number of years and understand first-hand how easily it is to get drawn into other activities: emptying the dishwasher, hanging the washing out, prepping dinner, watching Phil and Holly, checking social media. And now, I have two children at home all day too!

I remember pre-COVID-19 days when I would get home from school drop-off and have a 6-hour stretch ahead of me to get stuck into my work. I knew if I didn’t allow anything to distract me, I could get loads done. However, one of my biggest time stealers was my inbox. So, I knew that if I had a specific piece of work that needed to get done, avoiding my emails for the day was a must. That way I could get into the zone or flow of it.

So, what do I mean by being in the zone?

Being in the zone or flow state is the mental state in which a person becomes fully immersed in an activity feeling focused and involved. Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes flow as:

‘Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.’

When I get into the zone, I can accomplish such a lot. However, it can be difficult to maintain as even the smallest distraction can interrupt our flow. It is believed to take 23 minutes to get back into flow once distracted. So even a 1-minute check of your social media feed can have almost a half an hour effect on your day.

Is flow the root to happiness?

Csíkszentmihályi talks about flow in terms of happiness. In a study that he quoted it showed that happiness wasn’t improved as wealth increased. Once people got a little over the basic wage their happiness stabilised despite any increases in wealth. Csíkszentmihályi believes that happiness is a state of consciousness and that by increasing our challenge and improving our skills level we can reach higher levels of happiness. This is the state of flow.

What does being in a state of flow look like?

Csíkszentmihályi established 10 factors that are present when in a state of flow. Not all of them need to be present at the same time however.

  1. Having clear goals about what you want to achieve
  2. Concentration and focus
  3. Participating in an intrinsically rewarding activity
  4. Losing feelings of self-consciousness
  5. Timelessness; losing track of time passing
  6. Being able to immediately judge your own progress, instant feedback on your performance
  7. Knowing that your skills align with the goals of the task
  8. Feeling control over the situation and the outcome
  9. Lack of awareness of physical needs
  10. Complete focus on the activity itself

So, how can I achieve a state of flow and increase my productivity?

  • Have a goal or plan of what you want to achieve
  • Make sure there is an element of challenge and that you can stretch your skill level
  • Have an activity that you will enjoy or are passionate about – not always so easy
  • Remove your distractions
  • Create progress markers by setting mini goals
  • Choose the best time to work – are you an early bird or night owl?
  • Sort your environment – do you have enough chargers, good internet connection, desk setup etc
  • Get your food and drink organised for the day so it doesn’t consume too much of your time
  • Protect your time as much as possible
  • Have a consistent schedule

Other thoughts on productivity and focus

Sam Owens a millionaire consultant and one of the Forbes 30 under 30 Entrepreneurs, talks in his YouTube video, ‘Death by a thousand cuts’, about how to manage distractions and focus on the main goal. He says that it is all the little tiny distractions or cuts that add up to affect your level of productivity. Just having to find your charger out of your laptop bag or having to go out to grab lunch all have an effect even though the actual time spent on this may be minimal. If you’ve got half an hour to spare, then it is well worth a watch along with some of his other videos.

Stephen Covey, famous for his work, the ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, discusses this in his habits – ‘Begin with the end in mind’ and ‘Putting first things first’. Knowing what we want to achieve can ensure our ‘busyness’ is focused on our greater goal. Does checking my email help me achieve my goal for the day? Covey encourages us to analyse how we spend our time by using his time management matrix. Check out my article on the topic here.

If like me, you are a procrastinator and you put off things until the last minute then a brilliant book to read is ‘Eat that frog’ by Brian Tracy. Tracy asks us to identify the task or frog that we must get done and that we may procrastinate over, and to do or eat this first thing as we start work. Thereby eat that frog! This is a short book and doesn’t take too long to read but has loads of great practical tips.

Antonia Violante, a Senior Associate at a non-profit firm that uses behavioural science to solve real-world problems, researched a project on work-life balance. She found that our mental bandwidth narrows in the face of stress or lack of time. This is called tunnelling. Whilst we could tunnel our energies towards our real goal, often we tunnel towards those proximate, low-value tasks that are staring us in the face. We then can become busy fools.

We enjoy being busy but there is a difference between being busy and being productive. Email is one of the worst offenders for this. In a 2015 study it was found that people who check their email on a schedule rather than constantly, felt happier and were less stressed out. Some of us can spend about 5 hours per day checking our inbox! So, if you can, decide to only check your email at certain times of the day.

Should I be concerned with productivity when we are in a global pandemic?

By focusing on what really matters, having clear goals and removing distractions, I can hope to get into the zone and get more done. Great! How practical this is at the minute when many of us are working from home under unusual conditions is questionable. However, as lockdown eases and businesses start to reorganise and plan for the future, our ability to get stuff done is even more important. As employers and employees, we must consider what we can realistically achieve in our own individual personal circumstances and this is the challenge for many businesses to be able to manage going forward. Homeworking is here to stay so we all need to figure out how we can make it work for everyone.

Are there some simple, easy to achieve changes that you could make to improve your productivity?

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