Find your flow


Working in a state of flow produces a feeling of fulfilment and it is when we do our best work. Experts weigh in on how to maximise our ability to enjoy a state of flow.


  • A state of flow occurs when we are completely absorbed by a task. A sense of time passing disappears and research has found that a 500% increase in productivity occurs.
  • Flow requires certain pre-conditions to be met: such as the task being challenging enough, without being overwhelmingly difficult.
  • Minimising or eliminating distractions is necessary to maintain a state of flow.

By Jessica Mudditt

Whether it’s gardening or cycling, gaming or putting together a presentation, most of us have experienced that sometimes elusive human condition psychologists call flow. A state of flow describes a heightened sense of focus on a task. It is a state of optimal and peak performance, where you’re totally immersed in an activity.

“When you’re in flow, you’re so deeply focused that you often lose track of time,” says Kirsten Forgione, psychologist and co-founder of Myndly. “Flow is a beautiful experience, where you’re completely engaged and energised.”

She adds that research has found that the experience of flow is universal. Anyone can experience flow, provided you find the activities that allow you to harness it. These activities vary from person to person, depending on your strengths and personality.

According to US human performance researcher Steven Kotler, flow triggers neurochemical changes that strengthen your motivation, creativity and learning. The brain produces feel-good chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin and endorphins, and brain waves occupy a state between daydreaming and dreaming. Time flies.

“Flow is a psychological state where an individual is fully immersed in something,” says Reem Burrows, founder of Sydney firm Dreem Coaching and Consulting. “It feels great because you are laser focused. We know that people get a lot of satisfaction from their work while they are in a state of flow.”

A productivity boost

A 10-year study by McKinsey found that people operating in a flow state were 500% more productive.

“Imagine if you could improve your productivity by 500%? Or even half that?” says Huw Thomas, strategic change leadership expert at Huw H Thomas & Associates. “What this says to me is that whoever masters focus will likely outperform the average worker by a long way.”

He explains that flow also produces a feeling of fulfilment that encourages us to repeat the task.

“We derive positive emotions from the process of working on the task, as well as satisfaction as a result of completing it. This fulfilment motivates us to focus once again and restart the flow state.”

However, flow does require certain conditions to be met, including avoiding interruptions and distractions.

“Most of the time it’s a struggle to maintain a state of flow, particularly if you work in an open-plan work environment,” says Donna McGeorge. McGeorge is a productivity expert and author of the series, It’s About Time, that explains the way you plan your day is the key to productivity.

“Anyone can just walk up to your desk for a quick chat. You could put up a sign asking people not to disturb you – but in the accounting world, being clientfocused means that if a client calls, you drop everything.”

It also requires the right level of challenge. “If [a task] is not challenging enough, it’s likely going to feel boring,” explains Forgione. “If it’s too challenging, you may feel anxious. There also must be a clear sense of purpose or a goal that you’re working towards, such as developing a budget or forecast. And you need to be receiving feedback so you can adjust the level of challenge accordingly – an example is whether a calculation or a formula is correct, or whether it needs adjusting.”

“Imagine if you could improve your productivity by 500%? Or even half that? What this says to me is that whoever masters focus will likely outperform the average worker by a long way.” ~ Huw Thomas, Huw H Thomas & Associates

Strategies for finding flow

McGeorge recommends time blocking as a strategy to assist in promoting flow – because it’s unlikely to happen by accident. If you work in an open-plan office, try booking a meeting room for deep work, and put your phone on silent and turn off desktop notifications.

McGeorge is a productivity consultant who has used the Pomodoro Technique to write 11 business books. The technique was developed in the late ’80s by Francesco Cirillo, who conducted extensive research on concentration and wrote the 2018 bestselling book, The Pomodoro Technique. It involves using a timer to do focused work for 25 minutes, which is followed by a fiveminute break. Longer breaks of between 15 and 30 minutes are taken after four consecutive work intervals.

“The hardest part can be pulling myself out of a state flow after I’ve been enjoying it for 20 minutes,” says McGeorge. “When the timer goes off, I get up and go for a walk, stretch, wander around or grab a drink of water.”

Rules of engagement

To keep the flow going teams should develop rules around minimising disruptions. Agree on a collective signal that indicates that deep work is being done and create some rules about the circumstances when it’s OK to interrupt someone.

It could be something as simple as putting up a ‘do not disturb’ sign on the back of your chair, or an ‘away’ status on your desktop, and agreeing that colleagues will not be interrupted unless there is a genuinely urgent situation to attend to. Technology is an enabler of greater productivity, while at the same time being the source of never-ending distractions that can undermine it, says Thomas.

“Focus is the main dimension that suffers,” he says. “A recent [Statista] study revealed that people spend an average of 17.5 hours per week on social media. More than two full business days, every week! Much of this time is during work hours. How can one focus when friends and entertainment are in the palm of your hand?”

Be here now

While minimising external disruptions is critical, creating the right mindset is also a precursor to achieving a state of flow.

“Cultivate an ability to be in the present moment,” says Brisbane psychologist, and flow and performance consultant, Sue Jackson. “Developing skills in mindfulness and concentration is useful to accessing flow.”

Nowadays there is an abundance of online courses and meditation apps to choose from, such as Smiling Mind, Headspace and Calm.

“There isn’t a flow ‘switch’ that we can just turn on and off,” adds Jackson. “However, we can learn to focus our attention on a task better. If we want to be productive at work and get the important tasks done, we have to prioritise and have the skills to focus our attention. This means not being distracted.”

She explains that accessing a state of flow requires the development of certain psychological skills. The first is understanding the preconditions to flow, one being it may come about during a challenging situation.

“Developing skills in being in the present moment is critically important and mindfulness is a great way to do this,” says Jackson. “I think it is important to focus on what is within you as a person, rather than external factors, because flow is a psychological state. Training your psychological skills to enable you to focus your attention fully on a task and become absorbed in what you are doing are ways to facilitate flow state.”

The dangers of multitasking

When there are many competing priorities at work, the ability to multitask is often praised – but it is the antithesis of flow. Multitasking is useful for routine tasks only, where it is possible to switch from one to the next piece of work without requiring a singular, sustained focus. This could include straightforward data entry, scheduling client appointments or writing emails to colleagues.

“The concept of flow doesn’t align with the idea of multitasking,” says Forgione. “For instance, it’s incredibly difficult to analyse data or to keep accurate records if you’re constantly switching between tasks.

Flow relies on undivided attention and deep immersion in a single task. Attempting to multitask while in flow can make it difficult to reach and sustain.”

She recommends being deliberate and intentional with switching between different ways of working.

Women have often been praised for their ability to manage multiple tasks at once, however McGeorge says that ‘task hopping’ is unlikely to produce the best outcomes.

“Men tend to be more single-minded. They might say, ‘Today is lawn-mowing day. I can’t do anything else but mow the lawns.’ The problem is that you can’t really do two things at once – at least, you can’t do them well. Anyone who attempts multitasking will find that one or the other task is disrupted. You’re much better off focusing on one task for a set amount of time.”

Top tools to help find your flow

  • Noise-cancelling headphones.
  • Coffitivity app recreates the sounds of a cafe. Research has found that a moderate level of ambient noise improves performance on creative tasks.
  • Forest is an app that gamifies concentration. It involves planting a virtual seed that will grow into a tree if you don’t check your phone. If you do check it, the tree dies.
  • The Beeminder app combines gamification with financial incentives – you set a time goal for focused work and if you fail to meet it, it takes money from you. It’s about putting your money where your mouth is.
  • Work management platform Asana can organise your workday and carve out time for deep work. “It’s all task related. You can send tasks to people and share documents all in one space,” says productivity expert Donna McGeorge.
  • Schedule your daily to-do list in your calendar, along with all meetings and personal commitments, such as exercise and kids’ commitments. “Having it all in one place makes your commitments visible and motivates you to work rapidly. For example, getting that task done by 5.30pm so you can make it to the gym before dinner,” suggests leadership expert Huw Thomas.
  • So you can focus on one activity at a time close down every window on your computer, especially email and Microsoft Teams. “I try to only check email three times a day. People don’t generally expect an instant response, so why check it more than that?” says Thomas.
  • Try not to sit at your desk all day long. “Being glued to your desk limits blood and oxygen flow to your brain; reducing your brain’s executive function makes you feel stale,” says Thomas. “Thinking about a problem while taking a walk can mean you gain clear thinking, so progress is immediate once you return to your desk.”

This article was first published by Acuity Magazine at the following URL: