A version of this article was first published on Search Engine Journal.
Does this sound familiar to you? Your goal for the day is to finalize the strategy for a new digital campaign. It is meant to launch in four weeks and the team involves content creators, designers and web developers.
Setting goals, expectations and milestones will set the whole team in motion. The campaign launch is one of your most important tasks for the quarter.
So, you grab your coffee, sit down, open the documents — and get a loud PING from Slack. One of the popups on the website is not working, and the new team member does not know how to fix it. You give them a quick call.
Now, back to the strategy. But, a mere two minutes later, your VP of marketing taps on your shoulder to ask for a report on this week’s social media performance.
If this is your work day — you are not alone.
Gallup found that the average amount of time that people spent on any single task before being interrupted or before switching was about three minutes. Imagine that — only three minutes.
The price of interruption is huge. It decreases productivity, makes you always feel busy and like you are never getting anything done.
At the end of the work day, you feel drained and exhausted, but your most important task (the strategy) is still not done. You are unsatisfied with your results and feel constantly under pressure to do more.
You are running faster and faster in the hamster wheel, but with every task that you finish, three new urgent tasks seem to appear.
This is especially true for marketers. We are bound to notifications and engagement on social media, we interface with other departments (SEO, SEA, design, copy writers), we present on client meetings and team calls, and we get a flood of emails.
If you have a suspicion that there must be a better way — I have good news for you.
More Than Just A Productivity Hack
The answer to getting more done: More time in flow.
The term flow was coined by the pioneer of positive psychology, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, in 1975. You might have experienced it when you dance, run, paint — or work.
The optimal experience of flow is characterized by:
- Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
- Merging of action and awareness
- A loss of reflective self-consciousness
- A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
- A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
- Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience
Flow is the state where we feel our best and perform our best.
You know it as being in the zone. You might be in deep conversation with a friend and all of a sudden, two hours have passed. Or, you are setting out to write a quick email and it turns into an 800-word essay. We call these experiences micro flow.
Macro flow represents big experiences of oneness when the sense of self vanishes, time speeds up or slows down and most importantly, the task at hand feels effortless, novel and stimulating.
Flow is the antidote to unproductive busyness. You will get more done, with greater focus and better results.
How Do I Trigger Flow As a Marketer?
I learned about flow science from Steven Kotler and the Flow Research Collective, where they train executives and knowledge workers.
First and foremost I want you to understand that flow is not a simple on and off switch.
Flow is a four part cycle. Struggle – Release – Flow – Recovery
Whilst you might want to focus on the flow phase (I sure did when I learnt about the concept), the magic lies in the other phases. Once you learn your flow triggers and design your environment accordingly, flow will naturally follow as a result.
By effectively navigating the four phases, you will be able to drop into flow more consistently and reap the benefits.
The following practices are designed to help you through the entire flow cycle.
Struggle is not always as bad as it sounds. But it is the time before the breakthrough. In marketing, it is when you research, brainstorm, discuss and try to figure out all the pieces of the puzzle.
You are loading up with information such as customer interviews, market analysis and reports.
However, an overflowing inbox or a missed deadline might throw you from challenging research into a straight up panic attack. In the struggle phase, we spend a whole lot of time thinking and worst case, things spiral out of control. Thanks, cortisol.
The following practices will allow you to struggle better. We want your brain alert, not freaked out.
Why Creating Short To-Do Lists Is The Way To Go
Flow follows focus. But too easily, our mind gets pulled in all directions with the dopamine rush of notifications and urgent tasks.
That’s why it is good to make it a habit to set your daily goals the night before.
It allows you to get focused first thing in the morning. For me, there is no checking of emails, project management tools or Slack when I start my workday. These activities only increase cognitive load and create distraction.
The trick of creating a helpful to-do list is to make it short and tangible (Steven Kotler calls them “clear goals”.)
In my case, I know that I can get 2 to 5 big tasks done per day. They are tasks so important that I want to use my flow time for them.
These tasks are mission critical but not urgent which means they usually drop on a busy day – despite them being the 1.000 USD/h strategic tasks that could really move the business forward.
Plan Focus Time Blocks
How come you get all client meetings and team calls done, but never the tasks that you set for yourself?
Because these meetings are blocked in your calendar. They have designated cadence and timeframe.
If you are looking for more flow in your work life, start setting appointments with yourself. Make them recurring. I hardly ever take calls in the mornings. My calendar opens up around 2 pm.
If you are doing this for the first time, blocking your entire morning might seem impossible. But, you don’t have to start out so boldly. Start small. Book a 30-minute session with yourself on one day next week. Then book another one. And another one.
Close all your windows, tabs and tools. Focus on that one task. Once you realize how much you can get done in 30 minutes, you will find it easier to book time with yourself.
Parkinson’s law states that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
This means you have to get ruthless with your deadlines and time blocks. Create an appointment for your work, and don’t let it expand past that container.
Eliminate Distractions and Notifications
Our phones, Slack, social media, emails and project management tools are a curse and a blessing. Last year, I was managing six social media channels on top of my regular work — and I ended up getting nothing done.
Between answering all comments after posting, reviewing notifications, monitoring the chat and DMs, I did not have a quiet moment once per day. No focus time, nothing done.
To make the most out of your focus time block, you need to turn notifications off. Close your Slack and email inbox. Log out of your project management tools and social media channels.
You will feel the cold turkey. Notifications give us a rush, a sense of urgency and importance. By turning off notifications, you are literally rewiring the reward system of your brain.
Do you find yourself struggling with a task? Researching and brainstorming but never coming to the right conclusion?
In your case, it might be time to move from the phase of struggle (input, research) to the phase of release. We transition from cognitive overload and over-thinking to a moment of calmness.
The release phase is the reset button.
Get a Break for a Walk or Movement
Get up from your desk. Take a deep breath. Stretch. Literally, let go of the thing you are struggling to achieve. The goal is to break a pattern and shift gears.
Anything works to get your mind off the challenge: Take a walk, do yoga for 5 minutes, prepare your lunch, meditate, or dance around the room wildly.
The method does not matter, the relaxation does.
Struggle gives way to release which creates the space for flow. Chances are that when you come back to your desk, you will drop right into flow.
“Flow is what people feel when they enjoy what they are doing when they don’t want to be doing anything else. What makes flow so intrinsically motivating?
The evidence suggests a simple answer: in flow, the human organism is functioning at its fullest capacity. When this happens, the experience is its own reward.” (Mihály Csíkszentmihályi)
In their study about finding and fostering meaning at work, McKinsey found that “when they ask executives during a peak-performance exercise how much more productive they were at their peak than they were on average,(…) the most common at senior levels is an increase of five times.”
Leverage the Challenge/Skill Ratio
Flow does not like boring. To experience flow, there has to be a balance between your skill and the demands of the task you’re doing. The magic ratio is about 4% harder than you are comfortable with.
Doing the same old task over and over again might not drop you into flow — even if you blocked the time and turned off Slack.
That is because flow is triggered by curiosity, passion, novelty, complexity and risk-taking.
To experience flow, you want to challenge yourself to do something beyond the comfort zone of familiarity. It is important, however, that you stretch and not snap. We are not looking for the next project that is so big and so unattainable that it keeps you up at night with nightmares.
So, that’s 4% of challenge every day with every task to drive your awareness into the here and now, keep you on your toes and drop you into flow.
That 4% means that you are refining your process of designing a graphic by trying a new technique, that you are experimenting with copy that is a bit bolder than you usually would, or that you aim to rank for a keyword that is a bit harder than the previous targets.
Elite athletes pay a lot of attention to their recovery. However, as knowledge workers and marketers, we tend to completely ignore it.
Some people are chasing only the peaks of flow states.
However, if you include active recovery, you are turning flow a sustainable lifestyle. It will consistently increase your productivity, lead to better results and make you feel less rushed.
Schedule Active Recovery
Try to include a few active recovery protocols in your week. The Flow Research Collective recommends:
- Getting enough quality sleep (dark room, colder temperature, no screens nearby, close to 8 hours)
- Cold/heat therapy (like ice baths and saunas)
- Focused breathwork
- Sensory deprivation chambers
- Moderate exercise (like a short run or hike in nature)
- Quality conversions that come from uplifting socializing
- Yoga and massage.
Now, It Is Your Turn!
If all these tips make sense to you but scare you a little, I leave you with this: The intangible benefits of flow states are quite clear for me — and many flow seekers. It is not only the state where we perform at our best — but we also feel our best.
Before you dive back into your busy life on short attention spans and instant notifications, let’s anchor the concept of flow by reflecting on your personal flow experiences:
- When did you experience micro flow today?
- When was the last time you experienced a deep macro flow experience?
- What did you do?
- Who were you with?
- What did your environment look like?
Take these learnings to create a work environment that is more conducive to flow.