The zone is where it is at. That is where the magic happens, where you are the most productive and… yes! Happy. Getting there on demand is hard, but with a little planning, the zone may not be out of reach.
The Hungarian psychology professor, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, wrote of the intersection between productivity, creativity, and pure happiness, the place where workers and athletes alike flock to produce impressive results. Flow, the zone, the groove, it is all the same: it is the magnetic place where you are at your best, and where you produce high quality and high value work.
I do not get to sail much at the moment, so I do not reach the athletic Zen nearly as often as I would like. A couple of weeks ago, I spun records as a guest DJ in a Lucerne club as my not-so-secret alter-ego, DJ Nordic. That evening, I could certainly recognize the exhilarating flow I used to feel when working on the boat with the team in high winds. The music, the happy dancing crowd, and the ambiance made the tracks and the time fly by. It was great – and it is good business, too!
Large and innovative companies like Google have made a science out of creating spots where employees can achieve work flow together or alone, playing with colors, shapes, themes and space to create a place where this magic can happen. For example, Google has invested in ski gondolas in the Zurich office, a pub-like meeting room in Dublin and sidewalk cafe in Istanbul, and they claim that the product of their HR or People Operations Department efforts can be measured in double digits. I am sure they are right.
It does not take a budget to create happiness
Most companies, however, do not have the budget, nor the headroom to build ski gondolas. Workers must settle for the occasional quiet room or quiet corner and in some cases, working from home or outside of the office in a coffee shop, for example, is the only option to obtain the elusive flow. I have found that there are some – I would not call them short cuts because that would be selling the emotional and physical journey of reaching flow short – but there are some guiding principles that I find can help me get there:
Find the right surroundings. Maybe it is not your office. It may be your living room or a coffee shop. To me, the environment is crucial. I find that I get into the zone easier when I have people around me, but at some distance – my office with the door open usually does the trick. However, I have friends who need absolute silence and some who work their magic in the kitchen when the kids are in bed and the only sound is that of the humming dishwasher.
Find your props. It may be that your best work is not done on your laptop, but on your 2-in-1 devices or on your tablet. I like working on my laptop with a pad and pen handy – it enables me to make a note or calculation without having to grapple for a pen and risk falling out of the zone while I look. Or indeed, later find that the key calculation is in the trash, as it was scribbled on the back of a grocery receipt (true story).
Silence or sound? I am a music man myself, so I like nothing better than the tunes – they often shoehorn me right into the zone. I find that the sound/no sound question is critical and actually the big divider on which people have the strongest opinions. I have a friend who says that music has her humming or singing along in her head, losing focus. Other people, like me, get carried away on the emotional highs of music which lands them right where they need to be. It is deeply personal, so choose your flavor.
Find your ultimate rhythm. I love evenings and get my best work done after 8 p.m. While I find that I can get in the zone at all times when the task is fitting, evenings are my best time. I can get a lot of super good work done in 90 minutes before I have to come up for air with a break and maybe then do another stint of an hour or so.
Find you level. It is not all activities that can get you in flow. Flow demands that you find the activity that is just hard enough so that you need to concentrate, but not so hard that it will interrupt your train of thought. Doing something for the first time will not get you there, for example. Finding a task which is too easy will lead you to drop your focus, disengage, and you may end up losing a hand in the machine.
Flow is all about an emotional state of undiluted focus – and it is not easy to attain, but it can be practiced and it gets easier as you go. I hear meditation is good as well, but have not tried it myself. There are plenty of paths to the zone and you will have to find yours. Once you get there, it will be worth it.
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