A Super Ninja Secret for “Finding the Time” and Inducing a Flow State
Photo courtesy of halseike.

A Super Ninja Secret for “Finding the Time” and Inducing a Flow State

Written by Emilie

Topics: Productivity

I flew back to Portland a week ago and it’s been a nonstop flurry of house hunting, settling in, and hustling hard on multiple projects (such as this one).

I’ve also managed to squeeze in a few nights out and brunches in with friends, and I’ve been popping in on a yoga class, which is a totally new thing for me. On top of everything, the CMC orchestra director called me yesterday and begged me to return. Apparently they’re desperate for Second Violins. The concert’s in three weeks. Guess I’ve got some practicing to do…

A lot of people ask me how I get so much done. Or more specifically, when you’ve got all of these scattered commitments in your life, how do you make sure that your passion projects happen?

Piecing Together Your own Time Management System

There are a lot of productivity strategies you can use, such as identifying your 1-5 priority projects, oscillating between focus and scanning mode, using ritual and reminders, the pomodoro technique, and even getting yourself some accountability partners.

If you’ve got kids to take care of, you can use some of Barbara Sher’s techniques that involve inviting your kids to take part in your projects, setting a “mommy gets one hour when she returns home from work” rule, or delegating chores. If you’re a total masochist, you can even try the GTD approach (not puttyapproved. ;)

All of these strategies can work, and you should try them out and put together your own system. However, I’ve found that there’s one super simple trick that works better than any of these…

Separate your Creating from all other Forms of Activity

I’m using the term Creating broadly here. It might mean writing or making art. But it could also involve conceptualizing and outlining an idea, brainstorming, or writing an email to your community. What’s important isn’t the specific activity you’re engaged in, but the part of your brain you’re using.

When you’re engaged in the process of Creating, you’re using a very different part of your brain than when you’re answering emails or reading blog posts. Problems arise when you try to combine Creating with activities that use other parts of the brain.

The Three Cs

What are these other sorts of activities besides Creating? Well, as is often the case when I come up with a cool idea, there’s already someone who has articulated that idea more fully. In his book Focus, Leo Babauta divides all work-related activities into three categories: Creating, Connecting and Consuming.

Connecting involves activities like responding to emails, tweeting and social media, replying to comments, etc. Consuming is any activity that involves research, absorbing, learning. This could mean reading books, blogs, watching movies, listening to podcasts, and so on.

Both Connecting and Consuming are really important for your own development. Human connection is what life is about, and developing your mind and exploring new interests? I’d say that’s pretty damn important too.

I will never tell you to shut off your email or avoid multitasking altogether. That stuff is great (necessary even, as it stimulates the multipotentialite brain). The key is to respect the combining rule.

The Combining Rule

Connecting and Consumption activities can be combined, but should never be combined with Creating.

This means that you can go ahead and check your email, read your favourite blogs, listen to podcasts, flip between books, and multitask to your heart’s content. But whatever you do, don’t combine any of these activities with acts of Creating. You’re lighting up two different parts of your brain.

The Best Way to Induce a Flow State

You know those rare times when the world fades away, and the only thing that exists is you and your work? You become totally entranced and come up with the most brilliant, inspired ideas. It’s magic. You feel like you’re channeling the creative gods.

Yogis refer to this state as being present. It’s the state where you’re deriving all joy, not from the fruits of your work, but from the act of doing the work itself. In fact, when you’re in a flow state, you’re completely detached from results. The work alone is the reward.

You want to learn to induce flow states as often as possible, and your best chance of getting into one quickly is by separating Creating from the other two Cs.

Time Expands for You when you’re in a Flow State

I only need one of these flow states per day to make serious progress on my work. And you know what? These spurts of work can be short! Some of my most inspired stuff has come out in twenty minutes (though usually I try to sustain a flow state for up to 40-90 minutes).

Often when a multipotentialite tells me that they have no time to work on their projects, it’s not so much a time management problem as it is an issue of learning to induce flow states so that time expands and the genius arrives.

Chances are, they’re trying to Create, while also Consume and/or Connect with others. But when you’re “in state,” you don’t need much time at all, because time slows down for you.

Try taking “Connecting & Consuming” Breaks

Sometimes when I’m Creating, I’ll feel the urge to check my email or get on Twitter (though I usually forget about that once the flow state kicks in). What I often do is take short breaks between spurts of Creating, where I can do all the Connecting and Consuming I like. Then I put those toys away and go back to Creating only.

Experiment with these ideas for yourself and see if you can’t induce a flow state or two.

Your Turn

Have you tried separating your Creating time from other sorts of activities? Got any other tricks to induce a flow state?

28 Comments

  1. Louise says:

    This is great! One thing I really wanted to change this year was to “participate” more, meaning less reading and scheming, rather DOING things. I definitely have trouble with getting into the flow state and putting my head down and doing the work. Would love more advice and tips on this. Thanks for another great post!

    • Emilie says:

      Thanks Louise! Have you tried linking up with someone else who has their own goal and acting as support/accountability buddies for each other? Barbara Sher is famous for saying that “isolation is the dream killer.” It gets much easier to take action when you put yourself within a supportive context.

      Also a side note– this is one of the things I want to try to foster in the Puttytribe once it launches.

      • Louise says:

        I have friends I get together and work with at coffee shops, but we never really talk to each other about the individual things we are creating. I haven’t thought about the reason why, until now! We’ve always gotten together because it can DEFINITELY be lonely to work at home by yourself all the time. But we could also be utilizing the opportunity to hold each other accountable and encourage each other to do more and better creative work. Something I will think about now!

  2. Sharise says:

    I’ve kind of been shifting into this sort of working style in the last year or so, but I still sometimes tried to combine creating with consuming or connecting activities. It rarely worked well, and now I know why! Thanks Emilie! I will definitely remember The Combining Rule. :)

    • Emilie says:

      Hi Sharise,

      Good to hear from you. (Real name too! :)

      I found myself moving in this direction through experimentation too. It just seemed to work best. Now I think to myself “what sort of activity am I engaged in right now?” btw at the moment, I’m in Connecting mode, definitely. And so my email program is open (and yes, I’m proud of that. :)

  3. Cherilyn says:

    Incredible suggestions! Giving myself permission to give a task 10-15 minutes just to make any headway at all helps my perfectionism a lot. Without the pressure of having to do it all right now, I feel more relaxed and able to keep moving forward. Now I’m hoping to get my flow going for longer periods.

    The authors of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working said that top-end musicians only do highly focused practicing for 90 minutes at a time, and then they know they need a break for optimal learning. Great tip.

  4. Denise says:

    Brilliant, Emilie.

    I just recently decided to stop combining creating with other activities, so this post came at the perfect time. I’ve noticed that I tend to do a lot of creating even with the kids present. It doesn’t work. Even if I involve them, because once they’re involved it becomes about them, so I still don’t get much creating done.

    So, I’m getting a little help with babysitting and trying to wake up earlier before anyone’s up.

    Sooo many great tips here! Thanks for this :)

  5. Brilliant! I really needed to read this, thank you. I have been in flow states and it’s AH-MAZING. Usually it’s when I’m in the habit of writing on 750words.com every day. This makes so much sense. To really block off that creating time and NOT combine anything with it. I’m going to give this go! xo

  6. Holli says:

    Love this. I really don’t like multitasking when I’m creating. I just couldn’t do it. And, now, I don’t feel so bad about that.

    I do a lot of writing at night once the kids are asleep. It’s kinda like I induce a flow state, because it’s usually the only time I’ve got. Mind you, I get spurts of inspiration or ideas, and jot them down in a little journal (have a few: one in my bag, in the kitchen and by the bed). Then, as I’m washing the dishes or scrubbing the bathroom, my mind works on those ideas. Then, when I have my time to just write, it usually flows rapidly. I have some “unproductive” times, but I still write just the same.

    And, I have had to experiment over the year to figure this all out.

    • Emilie says:

      I love this. Your process is very similar to mine actually. One concentrated Creating time per day, but sparks of inspiration throughout the day that need to get written down and then percolate in my subconscious.

      It really is about experimenting and listening to yourself to find out what works. For sure.

  7. Very, very interesting. I hadn’t seen it in that way before. I took myself off all electronics last week (and a few other things besides) and found myself sooooo easily getting into the flow state. Those connecting and consuming processes can really mess with that and now you’ve explained it, it makes so much sense! Thanks.

  8. Lisa says:

    I love this post! It is exactly what I needed to read right now. I think you are spot on about the three C’s. I never thought to separate my activities into those categories, but it makes so much sense. I find that I don’t allow myself enough time to be in the creative flow state, and allow myself to be taken to consumption and connecting. I will be implementing your concepts right away. Thanks for writing this.

  9. Matt says:

    Hey Emilie. Nice tips. Not sure if I qualify as a multipotentialite myself — (slacker and/or short attention spanned media junkie maybe) – Makes it hard to get art made or stay stoked about ideas long enough to follow through. I do seem to be constantly juggling projects and trying to find time to get stuff done. I’ve no personal anecdotal advice that trumps this yours other then just brute will power and chunking my tasks into manageable bits (i guess that is essentially what you are saying here) — putting on a good record while I work also helps

    Just wanted to say I’m enjoying your blog.

    • Emilie says:

      Haha the two aren’t mutually exclusive. You’re probably both. ;)

      I see you’re from Montreal Matt. I’m a Montrealer, but recently moved to Portland, OR (I’m back from time to time though). Did coms at Concordia. Good fun. I’m curious if you heard of my stuff through a mutual friend, or if it’s just a random coincidence?

      Thanks for swinging by!

  10. Matt says:

    I’ve only been in Montreal a couple of years. I think I found you via a link off my friend Sherwin’s FB page. He knows everyone in Montreal maybe.

    cheers
    /m

  11. Nadira Jamal says:

    (I know I’m posting late, but I thought I’d comment anyway.)

    I didn’t realize it until I read this post, but I have a system for separating creative work: I do it on paper.

    I do most of my connecting and consuming on my laptop, but when I sit down to brainstorm a new idea or outline an article, I usually do it on my big notepad.

    And when I do try to do my creative work on the computer, I’m much more distractible, even if I’ve quit my email program, closed all other tabs, etc…

  12. Candace says:

    I’ve had to learn that the world will not fall apart ifI don’t try to do everything at once. I think there is a time for multi-tasking, but when you’re doing your important work isn’t it. That requires focus, and more than anything (for me at least), giving myself permission to focus on only one thing.

    I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t mean I’m neglecting other things, but rather honoring the whims of my spirit and in reality, I actually get things done much faster most of the time.

  13. Bryan Pena says:

    I’m new to this site, but I have always had various interests but like you and many others I have been told to focus on only one thing, it has proven to be impossible for me! My main goal is to become more disciplined and organized so I can accomplish my goals. I want to learn a lot before this ephemeral life ends.

  14. dobbo says:

    What about collaborative creativity?
    Connecting inspiring and creating through shared experimentation?

  15. Todd says:

    I fall easily into flow states, often turning off any awareness of my surroundings, which really frustrates my wife sometimes. She has learned that she only needs to say my name to get my attention, but she still bristles sometimes at having to take that step. She doesn’t always understand why I can’t hear everything in a room at once like she can. On my end, I would like to figure out how to move toward her as well. This idea of separating my creativity from my other two C’s is intriguing. I have a responsibility, I suppose, to be more in control of my moments of focus or flow states, rather than allowing myself to fall into them whenever the urge hits me. Making time for connecting and consuming are important priorities.

    • Mel says:

      Hi Todd,

      I am no expert, and feel a bit awkward for answering, but i loved your comment, and would like to give a feedback to encourage you. like a good multipotentialite :)

      Have you tried explaining all this to your wife? That you are much more productive this way, and this is the reason why you turn off and can’t hear nothing? That you can feel it is annoying to her and would like to find a solution somehow?
      Because i have the feeling that just letting her know all these would help a lot. If you communicate what is happening and that you are aware of her problem as well makes a significant difference. And it makes finding solutions much easier.

      Good luck, you are awesome! :)

  16. Desiree says:

    I have been having an intensely difficult time making the transition from my day-to-day non-creative mode that I exist in as a nurse into the free-flowing, creative person that I long to be. I know I have it in there somewhere, but I feel like my profession has made it increasingly more difficult for me to get into that “flow state”. I’ve also found that the opposite can be true – once I’m in that creative flow, I find getting back into the “real” world quite difficult, and I remain in a sort of foggy state for a while. I’m not sure if there are any good exercises that you’ve discovered which aid in this transition. If so, I’d love to hear them.

  17. Foxie says:

    I am a phd student and I find that working on some homeworks requires creativity as well as some consuming / research (and if I am desperate, connecting with other students to find advice). This often means that once I research on internet, I soon get distracted and follow a stream of blog or news articles (such as this instance… I have read through about 7-10 articles on puttylike and only now have come through all my opened tabs after about 40 minutes of distraction from homework). It feels unnatural to divide time for research and for actual problem solving. And yet I see that this way often leads to distraction. What am I doing wrong?

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