Achieve Flow by Pushing the Envelope

AF-4, Flt 136, Hi-AOA Testing w/ Spin Recovery Chute (SRC) Insta

Think of America’s first test pilots. The guys who had what Thomas Wolfe referred to as The Right Stuff. When the pilots talked of pushing the outside of the envelope (and then hauling it back in), they were referring to the flight envelope – a set of parameters in which the aircraft could safely operate. Test pilots often have to push beyond these limits, to determine what the limits are. Do you think test pilots can sustain their focus? What about when all the bells and alarms going off?  In both cases, yes. If you want to survive, you learn to sustain your attention, but then quickly acknowledge and make decisions about warning signs in your environment – you are in flow.

The flow state of mind. It’s that state where you’re completely focused on the task at hand, you move unconsciously, doing the right things at the right times and in the right places – your brain and all of your senses are fully engaged and you actually are enjoying yourself. When you’re done, you feel more energized than when you started. Time has not stood still of course but you don’t notice the passing of it. You are in the zone.

Flow is the experience people have when they are completely immersed in an activity, stretching the mind and body to the limit to accomplish a challenging and worthy goal, (Hammerness & Moore 87). As kids, many of us experienced flow – it was called playtime. Our attention was completely focused on what we were doing and who we were with. What got us out of flow? We got bored. The same thing happens to us as adults.

The second step in getting ourselves and our lives organized is to sustain attention (Hammerness & Moore 87). There is a limit to our how long we can pay attention to something. The average attention span for an adult is about an hour. It’s about 15 minutes for someone with actual ADHD, unless there is some pressing deadline or it involves something that is particularly interesting (Hammerness & Moore 79). Developing the ability to sustain attention will help you develop the ability to enter the flow state.

There are two modes of attention, goal-directed and stimulus-directed (Hammerness & Moore 81). Goal-directed comes from within from our own goals and aspirations. Stimulus-directed is usually an external force, such as a pop-up on a screen, an email or text alert, or someone darting towards you (Hammerness & Moore 81). Fortunately, our minds have the ability to switch between the two and we can also develop the skills of sustaining our attention where it needs to be. Even people with ADHD can stay focused for hours on a video game or other item of their interest (Hammerness & Moore 85).

  • Take inventory of when you’re in flow state. When do things feel effortless and seem to just fly by? 
  • Flow often is achieved when you are challenged to your limitations, forcing you outside your “envelope” just a bit. Too little challenge and you’re bored. Too much and you tend feel it’s useless to try.
  • Clean up your environment – turn off the cell phone, the email alerts and fully engage in the activity (Hammerness & Moore 90). Also, defend your time.
  • Develop some strategies for distractions. When someone asks, “gotta a minute,” actually tell them you are in the middle of a project and see if there is a time later you can get with them. Usually, the problem solves itself in the meantime, and when it doesn’t you’ll be in a better frame of mind to handle it. Other strategies may be a sticky note pad and pen to jot down those interrupting moments of “oh, I’ve got to. . . “, so you can write it down and get back to it later.
  • Pay attention to the moment – take a breath and notice where you are, you had this skill as a child. A few moments of silence, and reflection will help bring you back home.
  • After intense periods of focus, take a break of no more than 90 minutes. You’ll be surprised how much more focused and alert (and easier to re-enter flow) you are after a break.(Hammerness & Moore 90)

If the activity you are doing seems boring, add some spice of your own. Either some music or give yourself challenges. I do this with my email in the morning – I set a timer and see how much email I can clear (either by responding, reviewing, deleting or adding a to-do) in the set period of time. Or maybe put yourself into the mind of a test pilot who is totally focused on the airplane yet still able to handle the distractions, prioritize and refocus.

Hammerness, Paul Graves., Margaret Moore, and John Hanc. Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life: Train Your Brain to Get More Done in Less Time. New York: Harlequin, 2012. Print.


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