February 23, 2021 9 min read
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Last night I planned out how I was going to spend today. My alarm was set, clothes laid out and meals were prepped. I had my priorities on my calendar.
Of course, it’s very rare that things go exactly as planned.
While I still woke up on time and partook in my morning routine, I just couldn’t focus when it was time for work. I’m not exactly sure why, but I’ll pin it up to just having one of those days.
In the past, I would have just shrugged my shoulders. I would assure myself that it wasn’t the end of the world if I didn’t work right now, I’ll get around to it. As a consequence, I would waste my valuable time.
Occasionally, that’s not all that bad. If it becomes too frequent, that could lead to falling behind on your work, missed deadlines, and putting your reputation and business in jeopardy. Before you let that happen, you need to find ways to enter the productivity zone faster.
From my experience, here are seven ways that I’ve been able to get in the zone when I need to.
1. Have a pre-work ritual.
You don’t have to be an avid sports fan to know about athletes and their pre-game rituals. You’ve probably seen the LeBron James powder toss. Or, you may have heard about the bizarre and superstitious pre-game rituals, like Rafa Nadel taking a freezing cold shower before a match and how he carefully places his water bottles.
These might seem irrational and inconsequential. However, research shows that they are, in fact, beneficial to athletes.
Lysann Damisch, a social psychologist at the University of Cologne, conducted four experiments to test how effective superstitious rituals really are. The results, which were published in a paper entitled “Keep your Fingers Crossed! How Superstition Improves Performance,” found that these pre-game rituals are beneficial.
The reason? Engaging in a pre-game ritual boosts self-confidence in an individual’s abilities. They can also be helpful in calming pre-game jitters. And, it gives them a chance to clear their head and stay in the moment by only focusing on the routine.
But, what about you, the non-professional athlete? You can also benefit from something similar. In this case, a pre-work ritual can help get you into a work rhythm, maintain your energy, and shift your perspective.
Best of all? A pre-work ritual doesn’t have to be complex or elaborate. It could be as simple as powering up your laptop, putting your phone in a desk drawer or reciting a daily affirmation.
The main idea is that you should have a consistent routine to follow before work. It can help you transition into work mode, and it can get you in the right mindset for the day.
2. Curate a playlist.
“I’ve noticed over the last couple of years that I listen to music mostly when I’m working,” writes Deanna Ritchie in a Calendar article. While not the case for every single person, research throughout the years shows that:
- Background music encourages you to become more immersed in your work.
- It improves cognition and mood.
- Music can help you maintain focus.
- It also boosts mental and physical performance.
- It improves the efficiency of work when performing repetitive tasks.
- Music increases morale.
Michael Lewis, the author of bestsellers including Moneyball and Liar’s Poker, creates a new playlist when embarking on a new project. Here’s what he told Tim Ferriss;
“But whenever I’m writing, I have headphones on and I have a soundtrack I write to and the soundtrack changes; it changes book to book and it’s got to the point where both my wife and my kids will recommend songs for the soundtrack for whatever the next project is. And I’ll build a soundtrack out of — intentionally, and the music is, you know, it’s all over the map, it tends to be very up, but it tends to be music that I just stop hearing.”
He’s right. When curating your playlist, you need to be intentional. You can do this by factoring in the musical structure, lyrics, and difficulty of the task.
3. Clear mental clutter.
As a part of my pre-work ritual, I grab a notepad and jot down everything on my mind at the moment. Why? Because it gets all those random thoughts out of my head.
That’s kind of a big deal. After all, it’s impossible to focus on your work when your brain is preoccupied. I’m talking about remembering to call a client, put your laundry in the dryer, or pursue a new business idea.
With everything on paper, I then organize my thoughts. Some were just random ideas that can be tossed. If there’s something important, like making that phone call, I’ll add that to my to-do-list. And, for less important tasks, I’ll schedule those whenever I have a “free” block of time.
You don’t have to use a pen and paper. You could use a whiteboard, to-do-list app or voice recorder. You can filter this out however you please. The gist is that if you want to get in the zone, you need to start with a clean slate.
4. Create a forced deadline.
For some people, deadlines may send a cold chill down their spine. However, you shouldn’t fear deadlines. You should embrace them.
Deadlines keep you accountable, prioritize your schedule and help you reach your goals. Research has also found that they can help reduce the likelihood of procrastination.
What if you don’t have a set deadline? Go ahead and make your own. Just keep the following in mind when you do;
- Don’t be vague like “complete first draft of my book next month” Deadlines need to be concrete, such as “complete first draft by March 2 at 5 p.m.”
- Deadlines also must be realistic. If it’s February 28, and you haven’t even begun work on your book, that March 2 deadline isn’t going to float.
- Make sure that your deadlines are meaningful. In other words, you need either external or intrinsic motivation to follow through. So, if you missed your March 2 deadline, you can’t go on your planned vacation.
For larger, distal goals, establish deadlines for proximal goals. These smaller, attainable goals can be accomplished in a short period of time. They may not seem like they have much value, but they’re more effective and add-up.
5. Build a fortress against interruption.
“Anything that might distract or tempt us away from single-tasking needs to be taken care of before we drop into ‘The Zone,” advises Christine Carter, Ph.D., a Senior Fellow at the Greater Good Science Center.
So, to counter this, here’s what Dr. Carter does to find flow:
- Cleans and organizes her workspace.
- Opens only the documents or applications she needs for work. Any other apps or browsers are closed.
- Puts her “smartphone into ‘do not disturb’ mode and moves it out of sight.”
- “I go to the bathroom and bring a glass of water, snack, and a cup of coffee to my desk,” she writes.
- Dr. Carter also closes her office door and puts on noise-canceling headphones if she’s not alone.
While distractions are inevitable, you can at least thwart most of them before they interfere with your flow. Take a couple of minutes to anticipate everything you need. And, you might want to take note of what distracts you and when so you can plan accordingly — like if your kids come home at 2 pm, you should wrap-up your work before then.
6. Use social facilitation to your advantage.
Recall when you were back in college. There was an exam coming up, but you would rather hit the town. Luckily, you had a friend that pushed you to study.
How about the times you didn’t want to go to the gym? Your gym buddy encourages you to go, and you do the same when they aren’t feeling it.
Having someone else to nudge us along and hold us accountable can be greatly beneficial. In fact, social psychologists have been examining this phenomenon for over a century. For instance, social facilitation was first observed in 1898 when Norman Triplett found that bicycle racers achieved better times when racing together than when alone.
Even in digital workplaces, social facilitation can be effective. But, you must be aware that there are drawbacks like distracting each other or social loafing. Overall, if you partner with someone responsible, supportive, and knows when it’s time to work and play, this can help you get into a flow state of mind.
7. Follow the Goldilocks Principle.
You remember the children’s story, “The Three Bears,” right? It’s where Goldilocks tastes three different porridges until she finds one with the right temperature. She also does this when finding a bed to take a nap in.
This principle has been used in fields like astronomy, biology, economics, engineering and developmental psychology. It can also be applied to guide you into entering the productivity flow.
How? Well, you want to focus on work that is neither too challenging nor too easy. “If there is a good balance between the challenge and the skills, then you start feeling flow,” says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor of psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., and author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. That’s because tasks that are too difficult can be overwhelming, while the ones that are too simplistic can make you bored.
Sometimes, however, this is unavoidable. But, you can try to gamify mundane tasks to make them more exciting. If you find a task too difficult, ask for help and improve the skills or knowledge that you’re lacking.