You know that feeling when you are so completely immersed in what you’re doing that you lose all sense of time and everything else just fall away? Nothing matters but the thing you are working on. You exist in a state of flow. You are in the zone.
Everyone experiences this at one point or another. For writers, it often happens when we are writing a scene or working on dialogue. For artists, it can happen in the middle of creating something new. Of course, this flow state isn’t limited to writers and artists. Athletes slip into the zone when running or playing. Musicians can become so focused on a piece of music that they stop thinking of notes entirely, playing by feel. Scientists, mathematicians, coders, designers, builders, and even construction workers; they can all experience flow while practicing their trade or skill.
A state of flow is an amazing thing. In it, you are completely focused, devoting all of your mental energy to a single task. You are free of distraction and work with a surprising ease, even when the work is challenging. You do your very best work in this state and when you are finished, you feel amazingly satisfied with your work. But, I probably don’t have to tell you that. At one point or another, you’ve probably been there yourself.
We all experience flow. We all want to experience more of it. But we know that we can’t create this state. It has to happen naturally. Doesn’t it?
One of the biggest misconceptions of our time is that the state of flow is some magical mystical thing that can’t be controlled. We give it names like “muse” and “inspiration” and create little rituals to improve our chances of being blessed by its presence. But while I’ve always loved the romantic idea of sudden, unprompted inspiration, I think I like the truth even more.
Inspiration, flow states, and being in the zone are not things that happen to us. They are mental states that we can easily create ourselves.
But if they’re so simple, why aren’t we inspired all the time? Why don’t we live, work, and play in a constant state of focus, shifting from one zone state to another as we change tasks?
The answer is simple.
Our lives are filled with multi-tasking and distraction. Every day, we are barraged with phone calls, text messages, status updates, work memos, tweets, event invites, assignments, projects, and much more. Yet, somehow we are expected to focus on the things that are important to us. Our jobs. Our families. Our hobbies. Our novels. We have goals to complete and roles to fill, yet no matter what we are working on at any given moment, five or fifty other things are vying for our attention. It’s hard enough just trying to keep up with needs to get done and we constantly need to remember a dozen different things at any given time. No wonder we see a state of flow as an impossible thing.
Over the past few years, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about focus and flow. I’ve always had difficulty focusing. I have mild OCD which can pull me away from the heart of a task, causing me to pay too much attention to little details and not enough attention to the actual project. I also struggle with pain on a daily basis. I’ve had terrible headaches since I was a teen. The doctors blamed it on an inoperable birth defect in my brain essentially, I was told to just deal with it. As I got older, the problem got worse… and more complicated. My joints began to hurt. Not just normal wear and tear pain. Ran several miles after twisting my ankle pain.’ Do you think this might be broken’ pain. Occasionally my joints would slip, bending backward, my tendons jutting out where they shouldn’t. Eventually, I hurt everywhere all the time. It was frustrating. Not just for me, but for the people around me. The people who wanted to help but didn’t know what to do. And through all of this, my ability to focus on anything for any real length of time plummeted.
I’ve recently begun to get a handle on my health problems. I’m finding a balance between moving too much and moving too little. I’m getting stronger, bit by bit. I’ve found a balance of medicines and alternative therapies that are working for me, for now. I’ll adjust as I need to. And I’m relearning how to focus.
I think people give the phrase “attention span” way too much credit. Your ability to focus and pay attention to something isn’t a trait you are given and have to live with. It’s a skill that you can develop or lose over time. Of course, some things can dramatically lower your ability to pay attention. Medicines, drugs, illnesses, and disabilities can make focusing difficult and make you more likely to be distracted. But no matter your situation, you can develop a stronger attention span, learn to focus better, and develop the ability to intentionally create a state of flow.
Focus is a skill that you build by practicing. The more you focus, the easier it becomes to get absorbed in what you’re doing. More and more often, you’ll find yourself slipping into the zone, finding a state of flow. Everything feels right. Problems become challenges that you’re able to solve in more creative ways because you are using all of your mental resources on a single task, problem, or project.
So, how do you get to that state? What does practicing focus look like?
Simply put, it looks exactly like what you’re already doing, just with fewer distractions.
You have to put everything else aside, cut, close or unplug anything that might distract you, and think only about what you are doing. It’s difficult at first. It may even seem impossible. You’ll want to check your phone notifications or glance at your facebook chat window. You’ll think of things you need to do and want to just take care of that real quick. It will feel like you are fighting against yourself. And in a way, you are. You’ve spent so long multi-tasking and being instantly available that it will feel like you’re doing something wrong when you try to cut all of that off. You’ll feel all sorts of unexpected things. Guilt for not being available if someone messages you. Anxiety that applying all of your mental resources might cause you to forget something. And probably worst of all, you’ll actually crave the stimulation of constant distraction. But the more you practice, the better you’ll get and all of those bad feelings will be replaced with good feelings.
You’ll feel more confident in your ability to complete tasks. You’ll feel pride at knowing that you’ve actually done your absolute best. You’ll feel relief at not having to respond to endless notifications throughout your day. You may even find that you feel more satisfied with your life, now that you’re more immersed in it.
You just have to break through the mental resistance.
Luckily, there a ton of guides and tips on doing this.
To build focus, I use the pomodoro technique. I set a timer for 25 minutes and focus only on the task at hand until the timer goes off. When it does, I immediately stop what I am doing and do something else for the next 5-10 minutes. I check my phone. I check facebook. I look over my day’s plans in my bullet journal. Then I set my timer for 25 minutes and do it all over again. Every few hours I take a longer break.
It works. And the funny thing is that all of the things that seem so pressing when I get started, don’t even seem to matter a few hours in. Even my breaks become more productive. I don’t worry about facebook notifications or whether my latest tweet was retweeted. I check in with the people who are important to me. I answer emails. I set up a spread in my bullet journal. I create a list of tasks that I want to do later or make a note about something important that I need to remember. And then I go back to work.
This practice has done so much for me. It’s still a struggle, but that’s okay. It’s worth the struggle. Your attention span is worth fighting for.
As a freelance writer and editor, I need to be able to focus. I need to be my best self and do my best work. I’m able to focus more now than I could two months ago. I can see the progress. I am building mental strength and it feels good.
A few days before November 1st, I started getting asked about NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, a 30 day novel writing challenge that I’ve participated in several times. At first, my answer was no. I have too much to do to work on my novel right now. But I love the thought of participating in a monthly challenge. And I’ve been on the rebel side of NaNoWriMo many times; sometimes editing something I’d already written and sometimes combining my freelance work into a word count challenge of its own. That gave me an idea. I could combine my love of challenges with my focus building project. And in doing so, I could share my love of building mental focus with others. Maybe someone might even join me. I can always use another productivity buddy to help keep me accountable.
The project is simple. 300 Pomodoros (25 minute focus sessions) in 30 days.
That’s 10 sessions or 5 hours of focused work a day.
300 opportunities to get in the zone and do my best work.
It’s going to be a lot of work, but it will be worth it. And the best thing is, it won’t get in the way of the work I’m already supposed to be doing. In fact, it will help me to work faster and better, to write more creatively, and to express my thoughts more clearly.
Right now, doing NaNoWriMo with a novel would make reaching my current goals more difficult. But participating as a NaNo rebel with my Productivity Project would not. In fact, it would help!
So, this year I am a NaNo rebel, working to build focus, create a sense of flow, and get more done. And I want you to join me. Whether you’re writing a novel for National Novel Writing Month or just want to get more done, consider starting your own productivity project. Try to complete at least 1 half hour of completely focused work each day, or go for a larger goal of 5 or even 10 sessions a day. And let me know how it goes! I’m constantly inspired by the efforts and achievements of others. So send me a little inspiration this November!
Are you building mental strength or using the Pomodoro technique? How is it going? Let me know in the comments or tweet #NaNoPomodoro!