How to Induce a Flow State on Command
Photo courtesy of derya.

How to Induce a Flow State on Command

Written by Emilie

Topics: Productivity

Productivity is one of the biggest challenges for multipotentialites. Having so many projects on the go can be downright overwhelming and paralyzing. How do you tackle everything you want to get done and still satisfy that curious mind that thrives and grows from wandering?

This month that I’m spending in LA is really testing my ability to be prolific. I am trying to write an album, revise a book, launch a few new projects, and see Los Angeles all at the same time. It’s been difficult, and I’ve had to really revisit the most potent tools in my productivity toolbox.

In this article I’ll share three techniques I use to induce a flow state very quickly when I need one.

1. Remind Yourself that Hard Work Actually Feels Good

The lizard is sneaky. He fools us into believing that Hard Work is painful. We forget that when we are in a flow state, allowing our art to come through us, we feel alive and unstoppable.

Time stops when you are in a flow state. The world dissolves and you are focused on only what matters, unaware of the things like judgement, praise, the future, the past. It’s the best feeling in the world. Yet every time it ends, it’s like we are hit with a wooden 2×4 and then we forget how good it feels the next time we sit down to work.

2. Create Rituals and Cues around Your Flow State

To induce a flow state, you must have rituals. Create a set of cues that your body can associate with being in a flow state. Things you do regularly around your work time. Once your brain has made the association, you can use these cues to signal to your body that it’s time to go into that hypnotic state. For example, my body associates flow with morning, tea, coffee shops, and earbuds. At this point, if I get some, or preferably all of these cues in place, I’m usually able to dive into a flow state fairly effortlessly.

Interesting observation: I say earbuds, not music because I noticed once when I was working that I had my earbuds in, but had forgotten to turn on my music. And yet, I had sat there for two hours, in a total trance, pumping out great work without even realizing that I had forgotten to turn on my music. I hadn’t become distracted by the conversations around me.

This taught me that my body only needs to feel the earbuds in my ears to produce the same result and go into that trance. Knowing this is helpful. I usually listen to (lyric-less) music, but sometimes I’ll just put my earbuds in, particularly if the cafe is already playing loud music.

3. Set Low Expectations for Yourself

Agree that if you get a good chunk of work done on one of your projects, you will be done for the day. If you finish more than one thing, that’s fantastic, but striving to accomplish too many tasks in one day will only leave you feeling anxious and unproductive.

A lot of people are surprised when they hear me say that I aim for one thing per day. One thing? Blasphemy! But the truth is that having low expectations is one of my biggest tricks for being prolific and making progress on multiple projects at once. I usually end up working on more than one project anyway, but there’s nothing like a small win early in the day to build momentum, and help you appreciate your dabbling time.

I am living/working with a good friend of mine right now and we have very different mindsets around this. I notice that I will often say, “we should try to finish this song today,” and she will reply with, “we should try to finish this song AND finish that other one, AND write another one AND work on the website.” I usually just nod my head, but I know that if we finish one song, I will feel very happy. That is concrete progress. However, if we aim to finish three songs and only finish one, I will feel like a failure, forever playing catch up.

4. Do a Pomodoro

If you are still having trouble getting started, do a Pomodoro. Set an alarm for 25 minutes and tell yourself that you can stop if you’re still fighting with yourself after that. But go crazy during those 25 minutes. Separate your Cs (no Connecting or Consuming when you are Creating), and go full speed for 25 minutes. Sometimes you just need to break the seal for your body to remember that it actually feels good to be in a flow state.

When I open my co-working space one day, I’ve decided that I’m going to start each day with two (optional) office-wide pomodoros. We’ve done group pomodoros before in the Puttytribe and it always really helps to know that other people are going hard for a short period of time too. You’re in it together.

Your Turn

These are some of my most powerful tools for inducing a flow state and I use them all the time. But now I want to hear from you.

How do you induce a flow state? I’d love to hear about your techniques in the comments.

37 Comments

  1. Marc says:

    a few good tips there

    headphones (particularly over-ear ones) are great ‘do not disturb’ signs when out in public.. there’s also a few good iOS apps (android too i’d imagine) like Sound Curtain (around £3/$5 I think) that uses your mobile’s mic to filter out background noise..

    think I’ll look at changing the way I set out my work schedules.. I’ve got two/three things I want to do, but usually set a weekly schedule & time slot for them like a class timetable

    maybe I’ll go for a ‘menu’ approach where I can choose from a selection of tasks to do and if I do any one of them, that’s a win.. if I’m in the mood for something quick & easy I can choose a task that takes little prep.. or if I want something new.. I hit the books / tutorials :)

    • Emilie says:

      Yeah, I find that I switch between productivity methods. I think that’s normal. I like the menu approach though, knowing which 4-5 projects I could work on and selecting one of them depending on my mood.

      I just downloaded Sound Curtain. Thanks!

  2. Cassie says:

    Emilie, I swear, YOU ARE IN MY HEAD. In the past two weeks, I’ve loosely developed concepts for three ebooks…and now (as in, right before heading to Google+ in frustration and seeing this post) I’m having a really hard time making progress on them. This is my first stab at writing an ebook, and I guess that simple fact makes the task seem so daunting. I can lose several hours composing blog posts or working on my renaissance business, but when I sit down to work on these books, my mind just won’t focus.

    I realize now, though, that I haven’t exactly been setting myself up for success in terms of using rituals — my schedule has been crazy, and I’ve been trying to force writing out of myself in environments outside my norm, while not taking care to try to create the atmosphere I’m used to writing in. Noted.

    Also, I love your third suggestion of setting low expectations, and I use two other related strategies for writing specifically (that, ahem, I obviously need to make use of in my current situation):

    1) Remind yourself that it doesn’t have to be long. (I psych myself out of writing something before I ever get started because I subconsciously equate “respectable” or “important” with “long.” This isn’t even true, of course, but I also find I tend to end up writing something “long” anyway — I just need to commit to a little to get started.)

    2) Give yourself permission to do a shitty job. (It’s like I forget I’m allowed to edit or something. When I tell myself to just write some crap and make it quality later, the pressure’s gone, and things start flowing.)

    • Emilie says:

      Awesome, Cassie. Glad I could help. And yup I agree. I think you’ll have a much better time if you’re easier on yourself. When I was writing my spec script, I had a rule for myself that each day I would write for either 40 minutes or until I finished 1 scene, which ever came first. It’s crazy how if you do 1% each day, it really starts to add up.

  3. Brian Gerald says:

    After reading this I downloaded a simple free pomodoro app, packed up my bag, and went to a coffeshop in my neighborhood (actually, I got out of bed, showered, and then went to the coffeeshop) and have been through 3 cycles so far.

    There goes the timer on my 5-minute break. Back at it. Thanks for the inspiration today Em!

    • Emilie says:

      Aw yay! That makes me so happy to hear.

      Also, it’s great to hear from you. You know I’m in LA right now, right? Don’t suppose you’re around here too huh?

  4. Jessie says:

    Setting a timer has saved me quite a few times. I like the idea of setting an amount of time to work, rather than choosing a single item on my to-do list to finish. I always give myself too big a project, don’t finish it and get depressed. But if I say “just work on this project for 1 or 2 hours then you can stop” I end up doing tons of work, feel great and often want to keep going.

    As for creating the flow state, I now spend 20 minutes cleaning up my desk or studio before working. Even if I think my space looks clean enough I find picking up any lose papers or just giving the floor a quick sweep helps to set the mood for my work. I’ve cleaned the “ritual space” now I can create.

    When in doubt I’ve also learned to leave my apartment. I’ll go to either a coffee shop, bar or library. Just changing my atmosphere really helps change my mental state. I know this isn’t play time, its work time. I also know that I don’t want to spend all day in a coffee shop so I tend to be more efficient. I’ll give myself a 2-3 hour limit. I can literally sit down and write for 2 hours straight when I do this.

    • Emilie says:

      Thanks for sharing, Jesse. I too find that leaving the house helps big time. I actually have a very difficult time working from home.

      I haven’t tried the cleaning trick, but that sounds pretty good. I’ll give it a shot.

  5. Jo says:

    I’m attempting the ‘just focus on one or two things a day’ approach this week. I’m kind of nervous about it, but also excited because I end every day feeling rubbish about having only completed a fraction of the things on my to do list. It’s a good motivator knowing that it works for you.

    Thanks :-)

    PS The only technique that I can think of that works for me is getting up and going into my dad’s offices even though I don’t need to be there. Because everyone else is working hard and not checking Facebook or getting snacks, I act the same and get more done. I guess that’s why people go to coffee shops etc. Peer pressure!

    • Emilie says:

      Awesome. Let me know how it works for you.

      And yeah, the peer pressure thing is huge. I love a cafe with lots of working people. Coffee Division in Portland feels like a cross between a coffee shop and library. It’s my favourite.

  6. David Delp says:

    The formula our Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi came up with is pretty specific:

    There is a clear goal.
    You have a task you have a chance of completing.
    You have the opportunity to concentrate on it.
    You have control over the outcome.
    There is immediate feedback.
    The task is intrinsically rewarding so it feels effortless.
    Your sense of self disappears.
    Time disappears.

    Setting a timer is great, but you need to tune the timing to the project. Sometimes it’s micromovements that lead to Flow so the timer needs to be in seconds. Sometimes when I write I set the timer for 15 minute intervals. If it’s video editing, it can be hours. The key I think is a small goal you know you can do and an appropriate timeframe.

    Oh, and triggers…. Set up triggers so you automatically start your path into Flow. Your earbuds were an unintended trigger. That’s awesome. Here’s more on triggers: http://pilotfire.com/triggering-one-way-to-beat-back-laziness-distraction-and-doubt/

  7. I’m a big fan of Pomodoro – I used it just yesterday to get through a frightening amount of work I had on my plate against a deadline.

    Thought you might be interested to know that the flow state you talk about with earbuds is actually a hypnotic technique called “anchoring” – because listening to music helped you reach a flow state (when you started) your body learned to recognise the physical sensation of earbuds in your ears with a laptop in front of you as being “time to work”. Because of this they work without music now because it’s conditioned in your body.

    I’ve used anchoring for confidence in the past, too, but the success of it as a technique requires practice and habit, so if you’re trying it for the first time, cutting out the background noise will certainly help, but don’t panic if you don’t feel “flow” straight away.

  8. cotey bucket says:

    I’m a big proponent of the coffee shop technique for sure. I’ll work as much as I can at home but I notice the longer I’m here the more I’m tempted to refresh my scrabble game or something equally as distracting.
    I’m something of an old school note taker so I have a couple books and pens and what not with me at all times {not only for referencing ideas but doodling new ones while I’m working} and the first thing I do when I sit down is get all OCD on that junk. I carefully organizing my work space both functionally and aesthetically.
    Then, like an astronaut in my control module I know where all the dials and nobs will be, that way when disaster or inspiration strikes I’m ready for the challenge.

  9. Ann-Sofi says:

    Thank´s Emilie, exactly what I needed right now – I especially love the first one! I´m just starting to try to be a little creative again after the birth of my daughter. (she´s soon 5 month). officially I´m still on parental leave, but ideas keep popping in my head, I just don´t manage to get into work mode in the small chunks of time that i do have. Since I´m not in control over WHEN this time slots appear – and how long they will last – I really need to learn to get started on command (wich is very far from my normal way of functioning).

    One tool that i find wonderful for writing is Write or die (http://writeordie.com/#Web+App ). If i remember to use it, it really helps me to focus. I usually write very slow, and stop to think all the time, but by telling the program i will write 200 words in 15 minutes (very fast for my standards…) I actually do it! And get this wonderful feeling of being producive, that makes me want to go for another 15 minutes.

    For other things, it helps me if i can have the stuff i need ready to use. For example I´m lucky enough to have a room where my sewing machine can stand ready to use when i get an idea – and where i can leave a mess if (=when) I get interupted…

  10. Josh says:

    “I noticed once when I was working that I had my earbuds in, but had forgotten to turn on my music”

    haHA! That is totally me, too.

    I wrote about this awhile back.

    I was talking about inducing a flow state with another person around. In my experience it just means getting on the same page with that person, wether just by talking or by spending time together.

    When my podcast / music partner and I write a good song, it really feels great, and then other things come more easily from that.

    When we just take little swipes at a huge list of tasks, it feels kind of forgettable.

    Often for my collaborator and I that means doing a sleepover, when we wake up we have a ton of ideas and are ready to go.

    I like your idea of just aiming at accomplishing one thing in a day. I’m going to try that next time. Thanks, Emilie!

    • Emilie says:

      “When we just take little swipes at a huge list of tasks, it feels kind of forgettable.”

      Beautifully said. And I LOVE the idea of sleepovers! Will have to try that with my collaboration buddies. Maybe one day we’ll have a giant Puttytribe sleepover and collaboration party. Hm.

  11. Erin says:

    Hi Emilie! Thanks for sharing these great tips!! My biggest struggle is the fact that I work 40 hours in a draining job I don’t enjoy and have an hour commute each way and by the time I get home and make dinner I’m exhausted and lately it’s been hard to get anything done. Instead I tend to sit looking at my computer feeling unmotivated and frustrated because I have such a small amount of time to work. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!!

    • Danzier says:

      Hi Erin,

      I ran across the pomodoro idea as “The Timer Is Your Friend” on Flylady.net. Even though the flylady focus is housekeeping, there are a ton of ideas on how to motivate yourself that are really helpful. One of their key phrases is “Remember: You can do anything for 15 minutes–even ____!” And everyone fills in the blank with whatever’s bugging them. If 15 minutes is too long, the timer makes it easy to set shorter times. Even three minutes can be an effective work time. Little baby steps of progress are more progress than none, and even babies get across a room when they toddle. It just takes them more steps.

      Hope that helps! :)

    • Ann-Sofi says:

      Hi Erin, that sounds pretty exhausting, don´t be hard on yourself if you don´t manage to do anything more after such a day! But the 15-minutes thing from flylady really is great, I use it a lot too. But i would like to know – could you by any chance use some of your commuting time for something more creative? With the help of earbuds, maybe? ;) In periods when I had to commute I read large amounts of books, but I also used the time for idea work, sketching, writing, knitting – or simply relaxing (there are some meditation exercises that also can be done on a buss), so i would have more energy when I got home… Bev at kickass creatives also has a lot of good thoughts nicely presented in her Time machine e-book: http://www.kickass-creatives.com/free-stuff/

      • Erin says:

        Hi Ann-Sofi, thanks for the support :) Unfortunately I commute into Boston everyday with barely any space around me and no opportunity to do anything other than read a book (which is sometimes also difficult). I’ve been trying to get flexible with my time and appreciate your idea!! I’ll have to check out Bev’s book – thanks for the recommendation!

  12. David Delp says:

    Wow, the day I read this was my worst Flowy day in a long time. I set timers, I inserted vigorous exercise to get blood in my brain, and I even made little accountability appointments to check in with people. Sometimes Flow eludes.

    The following day all that stuff worked and Flow flowed again. Go figure. Maybe it was the weather. Or the lack of chocolate cookies.

    Okay, besides the chocolate which really does work, (I ate half a bag of chocolate chips) I think what worked is this idea of “What’s next?” Instead of looking at the overall task at hand, I finally broke it down into what is the very next tiny thing I need to do? That really helped.

    • Emilie says:

      Two very good points. Sometimes we just have a dud day and it’s ok. Often when I’m insanely productive one day, I find that the following day I can’t get anything done, and vice versa. Best not to be too hard on yourself when this happens.

      Also, focusing on the very next step is a great idea. I do that as well.

  13. Claire says:

    Hi Emilie,

    I love this post, it just reminds me that we all get distracted/stuck/disheartened, but it’s such a great feeling to get into flow again!

    Love all the tips, especially identify with Jessie who talks about cleaning, I find that if I set myself one cleaning task (clean the bath or sink or give the kitchen a tidy up) you get a little bit of satisfaction to get back to whatever you were doing again.

    Being able to chat to other people who I know struggle with getting things done, helps us both get excited about projects, and therefore easier getting into flow.

    I know you are a big fan of Steven Pressfield’s, The War of Art. I love the part where he writes about ‘the act of sitting down at the desk and starting’ releasing something. It’s magical.

    Thanks for such a great post.

  14. Erin says:

    Earbuds totally work for me, too! Even without the music. I need them to be plugged into my computer, though, not an iPod or something. It’s like I need to be tethered to my laptop so that I don’t feel tempted to wander off for a snack. I used to use the Pomodoro approach, especially when doing schoolwork. I don’t like it as much for most of what I do now because I find the timer disrupts my flow. But setting a low bar for success…I’m ALL about that. Not only is it easy to “win,” I usually end up doing more than planned. But I don’t have to, which is key.

    • Emilie says:

      Nice! I’ve been using the pomodoro timer all morning and it keeps buzzing and then I hit resume. So I’m sort of cheating and not taking breaks, but the up side is that I’ve hit that button 5 times now and so I feel uber productive!

      I’m a fan of continuously changing up your productivity approach. Things work and then they stop working. I think it’s normal.

      Thanks for the comment Erin. I’ve been wondering how you’ve been doing.

  15. Awesome. Earbuds or cans in the studio always work great, and I too have found myself sitting there for an hour with earphones on and nothing playing, because Spotify didn’t get to the next song and I just was plugging away. I use things for mac, and i try to get a power 3 done for the day, 1 very important thing and 2 supporting things. I have noticed if i stock up my list with things to do I am usually putting them to next column at some point in the day. Having open to do’s totally makes me feel like a failure by the end of the day and catch up is probably the biggest stress causer in my life. I used to do this all the time and feel frantic. Now if I get 3 things done I feel great and it usually pushes me to do more. I also never put the most important thing at the top that is a sure fire way for me to procrastinate with it. Instead I try to warm up, like i was exercising. Warm up with a simple task, to get the quick winfall of feeling good and before I know it I will reach for the big ticket item on the list.

    I am not sure why we all seem to paint a painful picture of work, in the book the War of Art, they say the more creative and talented the person is the more they will have a propensity to procrastinate, and it stems from an over active imagination. Lot’s of artists their creativity it backfires on them, because they can create great works they also create a crazy scenario in their mind, that they have to overcome, and it has to be great, and this paralyzes us. I noticed the moment i get into the “flow” or “zone” i feel relaxed, my breathing slows, I don’t think of really anything expect just crushing the work with me. Sometimes with various outbreaks of desk “air lead solo guitar” but hey whatever works. ;) Love this blog.

  16. Lakshmi says:

    Thanks for this wonderful post. The comments are truly enlightening, too. We get stuck on the outcome so often that we forget the joy of creating.
    Ironically, sometimes, the best work is produced in a state of serenity, without worrying about the outcome.

  17. Toby says:

    Nice post! I can’t listen to music and work at the same time. I use earplugs :)

37 Comments Trackbacks For This Post

  1. DIY Inspiration | Young Ambitions

Leave a Comment