How To Improve Your Focus and Enter a Flow State

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We’ve all been there. You need to get a task done but for some reason or other you just can’t concentrate. There are so many other things that seem to be far more interesting than what it is you really need to be doing right now.

Being able to focus on what you are doing at any one moment is so important if you actually want to get things done. In today’s world, where distractions are a strategic part of online commerce, it is even more difficult than it used to be. 

“Lack of direction, not lack of time, is the problem. We all have twenty-four hour days.”

Zig Ziglar

Your smartphone is a tiny little distraction box silently goading you to pick it up and play one more online game or check that your friends still like you. Focusing on your task becomes a battle of willpower. Willpower is only going to get you so far before it is exhausted.

Improving your focus is something that is often overlooked and certainly not developed as a skill by most people. But it is a skill that can be added to your abilities like any other. You are not just someone that isn’t very good at focusing, you just haven’t exercised your focus muscle!

Working hand in hand with focus is ‘flow’. You may have come across this term before and dismissed it as something only attainable by the super achievers or sports stars. Getting into a ‘flow state’ helps you speed up your work and enhances your ability to focus.

Have you ever been engaged in an activity and wondered what happened for the last couple of hours? You know you did well and it felt really good, but you don’t quite remember all the details? That was a flow state and you entered into it naturally for several reasons. We’ll look at them later.

Focus is the first step of getting into a flow state and it’s important to understand both. It is possible to train yourself to improve focus and enter a flow state and we are going to show you how.

How to Improve Your Focus

Even if you are reasonably good at getting things done, you can move up to another level of focus and really start working to your full potential.

Observe Your Lack of Focus

The first step is to find out why your focus is not as good as it could be. Keep a note of everything that happens in a notebook (let’s call it your focus journal) that distracts you or blocks you from getting your task done. To do this you need to be mindful of when it happens. Keep a prominent note somewhere in your field of vision reminding yourself to check whether you are staying on track.

If you notice you are procrastinating, daydreaming, checking your phone or just staring blankly into space, grab your focus journal. Note down what you were doing, why you think you were doing it and what you think you could do to solve it. You could also make a note of the time of day and how long you were working before you found that you lost focus.

Don’t try and force yourself to work if there are things holding you back, you need to solve these issues. It might be that you are not able to work for longer than a certain time in one session right now. That can be improved, but you won’t know what to improve until you see it happening and write it down.

Keep Your Body Fighting Fit

There are so many reasons why you might not be able to focus at any one time. Sometimes it’s about making sure all bases are covered and that starts with your body. You simply can’t focus properly if you are dehydrated, hungry, tired or sick. Make sure all of these issues are dealt with every time you get ready for a task.

Drinking water regularly, getting good quality sleep, exercising regularly and eating the right food are simple keystones of health. Check out our article on the Keystones of Good Health to find out more about little improvements you can make in these areas.

Get Rid of Distractions

This sounds pretty obvious right? Yet here I am sitting at my laptop writing this and my iPhone is right next to me ready to distract me at any moment! Luckily I’m pretty focused on this article as it’s a topic close to my heart. Nonetheless, I should have set aside this time for focused work and put in on Airplane mode (which I have just done).

Look at the space you are working in or performing your task in. Is it clutter free? Do you feel completely comfortable in it? If your working in a mess then part of your mind will be thinking about that the whole time. To dive more deeply into how your environment affects your ability to achieve, check out our article on just this topic.

Often we do not feel we have control over distractions that come our way. It could be a co-worker asking questions or perhaps your child wanting to play. You do have control though, you can dedicate blocks of time to work on a specific task and ask to not be distracted. If you’re in charge of your kids at that time then perhaps it’s the wrong time to be getting things done!

Don’t Multitask!

You might think multitasking is a great way to catch up on a load of things you’re behind on, but it just ends up slowing you down. It goes back to distractions, you can’t focus on two things at once. 

According to a summary of research by the American Psychological Association, you can lose up to 40% of your productive time by trying to switch between tasks. [1]

Plan Ahead

If you sit in front of a blank screen wondering how to start writing or are faced with a room full of junk that you need to sort, it can be incredibly difficult to get going. Make a plan before you try and tackle the task.

For the writing example it might be creating an outline and some bullet points of the document you need to write. For the junk sorting you could assign three boxes for ‘keep’, ‘donate’ and ‘throw’ and then go around the room clockwise. 

You just need some kind of plan of attack so that you are not telling yourself that it’s impossible to even start. It also keeps you going by breaking the task up into manageable actions.

If it helps, try visualising what finishing the task will look like and how good you will feel getting it done.

“Whenever you want to achieve something, keep your eyes open, concentrate and make sure you know exactly what it is you want. No one can hit their target with their eyes closed.”

Paulo Coelho

Do one thing at a time and have a clear idea of what that is. When you are finished, make sure you reset and get clear on what the next thing is. 

Break Up Your Day with Power Breaks

It’s incredibly hard to focus for long periods of time. Most people can’t manage it, although we will look at techniques to try and do just that later in the article.

If you find that you can only concentrate for short periods of time then take a break, but make it a power break! What do I mean by that? Here are some examples, going from the sublime to the ridiculous:

  • Make a cup of herbal tea
  • Call someone to update them on your progress and get some encouragement
  • Enjoy a quick Yoga routine
  • Do a creativity exercise (here are some examples)
  • Meditate
  • Do a breathing exercise (Check out the Wim Hof Method)
  • Take a cold shower (welcome to the ridiculous!)

These powerful activities take your mind away from the effort of focus, help you reset and give you energy to get back on it!

Unless you find yourself in a flow state (which we will talk about next) then having an incredible mid-task power break can spur you on to extend your focus.

Learn to Be a Focus Machine

Focus is not something you have or don’t have. It is something that can be learned, trained and improved. You can become a focus machine if you work at it.

Every time you notice your focus straying from the task at hand, gently guide it back. Don’t be hard on yourself, just be grateful you noticed and move your focus to the task at hand.

Over time, carrying out this simple practice will give you a laser focus that will be hard to break. It is like a muscle that you can train, we’re just not taught to train our mind muscles in the same way we train our body muscles.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

Will Durant

It can help having a post-it or some form of reminder with the simple word ‘Refocus’ written on it. This will initially help you notice when your focus is lost and to get back on track. Eventually you will not need this anymore as your mind is trained in the art of kung-focus.

I just made ‘kung-focus’ up, but I like it!

Use Performance Enhancing Drugs

Eh? Don’t worry, this is totally legit. I’m talking about foods and drinks that can elevate your concentration slightly. It’s OK to use coffee strategically to gain a little more focus if you need it. If you’re dead against coffee try a peppermint tea, a citrus fruit or a berry smoothie. Whatever works and fits your values!

What is a Flow State?

A state of flow can be described as:

“..being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Getting in the zone, coined as ‘flow state’ by positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is something we only imagine sports stars or characters in the Matrix are able to do. It is totally accessible to anyone though, as you will see.

It does not only have to be related to work. You may well find yourself in flow when driving, having sex, snowboarding, playing music, dancing, almost anything! It is a very powerful way to get things done (that’s not how I view sex by the way!) and should be used with a little caution as it can become addictive. 

As an example, gambling or being a workaholic can be a result of flow in their own way but are not exactly desirable traits!

The flow state was recognised by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi while he was researching the times in life when people were most happy. It is often the case that we enter a flow state when carrying out a certain task because we are really enjoying what we are doing. 

So how do we enter a flow state even if we don’t think we enjoy what we are doing? Well, we will answer this as part of the next section, but as you will see, enjoyment of a task is still a big influence on achieving a flow state.

How to Enter a Flow State

You’ll be happy to know that you don’t need to travel to the deepest, darkest corner of South America and engage in a ritualistic ceremony and drink the blood of a virgin in order to find a state of flow. Thankfully.

A lot of the preparation has been covered earlier when we looked at how to improve your focus. If you can focus on a task well then you will find it easier to enter a state of flow. That is why I have combined the two in this article.

Work On Something You Enjoy

This is probably the easiest way to achieve flow in what you do, yet possibly the most impractical for most people. If you love your work or whatever it is you are trying to succeed at then you are off to a great start, but many people will not be in this situation.

If you are not doing something every day that you enjoy, then perhaps it is time to contemplate why that is. That is a discussion for another time though!

You do not need to be in love with everything that you do though. There are going to be tasks that even people who enjoy their career will not particularly like doing. There are ways to look at tasks from a different viewpoint.

  • Look at the outcomes of completing a task rather than the task itself. Perhaps you would be more invested in the outcome. For example, getting your taxes sorted for the year might mean a great weight lifted from your mind. Picture how that would feel and link it to your task.
  • Make your workplace an enjoyable place to be, regardless of the task.
  • Think of what you can learn from the task you are doing and how that might help you in other ways.
  • Fake it! Our minds are amazing, but can be easily influenced. Every task you do, tell yourself it’s really enjoyable and that you’re going to have a great time completing it. You’d be surprised how far this actually gets you!
  • Work with people who do enjoy it and ride their wave!

Something I should repeat at this stage is that not every task needs you to enter a state of flow. But if there is something you feel would benefit from it and you’re not feeling the love, then you can always use these tricks to help you out.

Work on Something Challenging, but not Too Challenging

There is a sweet spot to find in which you will be able to maintain flow and it is usually when the difficulty of a task matches, or slightly exceeds the level of your abilities.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi created an excellent graphic to demonstrate this. 

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Model of Flow

This makes complete sense when you start to look at different combinations. If your task far exceeds your abilities then you will get anxious at the thought of not being able to complete it. If the task is too easy, you might find it boring.

Your brain will thrive on being challenged, but not too challenged. It wants an interesting problem that it knows it can solve with a little effort.

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The great thing about the diagram above is that you can start to see how you can move from one state to another. If you are in the ‘Control’ state you may well be happy with your state, but are you setting the bar high enough to fulfill your potential? Perhaps you could challenge yourself more and reach that flow state in your work that accelerates your success.

Create a Routine that Acts as a Mental Cue

When you sit down to a task, or are about to start whatever it is you want to dedicate some serious focus and flow to, have a routine that you gets you into a flow state.

There might be a bit of trial and error figuring out what this might be, but for me it involves this routine:

  • A quick declutter of the work area
  • Noise cancelling headphones on and a binaural beats soundtrack playing
  • 1 minute of Wim Hof style breathing
  • A countdown from 5 to 1…
  • …ending in my power mantra ‘Time For Deep Focus!’

There are going to be a million variations that you could try out as your flow-inducing routine, but that should give you an idea of the kind of powerful intro you can use to get you in the right frame of mind.

If you repeat your routine (once you have found something that really inspires you) over and over again before a session of flow then it will become a trigger that sets off your flow state every time.

Feedback Your Success to Your Brain

Once you start seeing improvements in your focus and achieving a flow state, build on it by feeding that back to your brain.

Journal your progress daily by noting how much more you get done, how much happier you feel being productive and how it all affects your success.

Look back over your journal as you go. The tangible representation of your progress gives your mind an incentive to keep improving.

Don’t Break the Flow

Once you’re in a flow state it’s best to try and stay with it until you’ve completed everything you wanted to do.

You will inevitably come across stumbling blocks that will try and throw you out of your flow state. It might be a slight writer’s block on how to convey a certain message, it might be an incoming message you received because you forgot to turn off notifications.

The best thing you can do is make a quick reference note to deal with whatever it is later. In my writing, if I get stuck on something I simply write ‘TK’ and perhaps a note of what I need to figure out, then I move on. TK is a combination of letters that doesn’t appear in many words in the english language, so if you search for it in your document you will find all the bits you need to go back to and finish.

I mentioned in the focus section taking a power break and coming back more focused. This is something you will just have to try out in relation to flow states.

You may find a power break completely takes you out of the flow state and so are not a good idea. Alternatively you may find they boost your flow when you come back to your task. 

Practice Makes Perfect

The main tool to getting into a flow state is practice. This is something you will get better at the more you attempt it.

If you struggle to concentrate on your work then you may have a longer journey than others. Start with improving your focus, then work on getting into flow.

Be relentless in your pursuit of flow. It is attainable to anyone, but does require a determination to train yourself to achieve it.


Summary of Improving Focus

  • Observe and understand your current level of focus.
  • Prepare your body (hydrated, exercised and well rested).
  • Eliminate distractions.
  • Don’t Multitask!
  • Work on one thing at a time and be clear what you need to do.
  • Take power breaks.
  • Train yourself to be focused.
  • You have permission to drink coffee!

Summary of Achieving Flow

  • Work on something you enjoy.
  • Work on something challenging, but not too challenging.
  • Create a routine to get in the mood for flow.
  • Feedback successes to tell your brain that flow is good!
  • Once in flow, ride the wave!
  • Practice, Practice, Practice.

Conclusion

If anything, this article should have highlighted why you might not be getting as much done as you believe you could. When you see people being super productive the likelihood is that they have mastered focus and are getting into flow regularly.

You should also be able to see that none of these methods to focus better and get into flow are actually difficult at all. They might take a fair bit of practice, but anyone can do it. 

Some things will make immediate improvements, such as eliminating distractions. Some will take longer, such as training your mind to be a focus machine. But they are all just habits that you can introduce slowly and build up your skills.

You’ve read this article because you need to be more productive, perhaps you’ve started a business and need to put the work in. Getting into a state of flow is a supercharger to success. You will feel like a superhuman that is unstoppable. It really is that powerful.

We’d love to hear your successes and struggles with this concept. We’re constantly improving as much as any of you and if we can feedback great ideas to the Better Life Heroes community then everyone wins!

[1] https://www.apa.org/research/action/multitask