Want to improve your productivity? Find your flow

4 mins read

Forget time management, what you need to thrive in today’s world is attention management.

Sound ridiculous? Well not according to a growing body of research into how the human brain functions.

Allowing your attention to jump from task to task kills complete concentration as part of your brain is still focussing on the old task. To really get things done, you need to work deeply in long periods of uninterrupted concentration – something many of us find increasingly hard to do.

Professor Cal Newport explores our inability to focus in his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. He terms tasks that don’t require full concentration as ‘shallow work’ and says this approach stops us from achieving our best work and creating new ideas. Newport agues the ability to work deeply is now one of the most valuable skills a knowledge worker can possess.

Productive and happy

So what is deep work, or hyperflow as it is sometimes called?

According to Chris Jackson, Professor of Business Psychology at the University of NSW’s School of Business, the idea of deep work or being ‘in the zone’ has been around a long time. “It’s about being very focussed and attentive to the task at hand. You forget to do other things and focus completely on getting the task done.”

The mental state is also characterised by losing a sense of time. “This is due to you only having a certain amount of cognitive resources. They are all focused on the task, so there is none left for noticing time,” he explains.

It’s easy to think ‘shallow’ activities like answering emails and ticking small items off your to-do list is being productive, but using periods of hyperflow can really make a difference.

“Flow allows you to progress a task and develop skills as you work through it. It is also pleasurable as you are meeting sub-goals towards achieving the task, so there is a sense of elation,” explains Jackson.

“Another benefit is that the challenge required to be in flow will help you get a little bit better at the task, so you develop skills more quickly in the flow state.”

Watch the downside

Although using deep work can be great for innovation and knocking over a complex task, Jackson warns it does have a dark side.

“It sounds fabulous – especially for employers. But at the same time, 100% focus on the task isn’t necessarily a good thing, as the greatest success of humanity is our ability to consider multiple factors,” he explains.

“If not, you can make mistakes. For example, you can forget other deadlines if you only focus on the task at hand and the other deadlines may be more important.”

Although flow is beneficial, it needs to be used in moderation. “Employers who want to create a state of flow among their employees may find problems if it is used too much.”

Open plan offices designed to encourage collaboration can also be the enemy of deep work, says Jackson. “If you want your people to do it, then you need to allow them time to settle into the task. You also need to provide them with a quiet area.”

5 tips for deep work

  1. Practice deep work regularly
  2. Set a weekly ratio of deep-to-shallow work
  3. Measure the time you spend in deep work
  4. Put your smartphone aside for set times
  5. Train your brain to tolerate boredom

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Important: This article has been prepared without taking account of the objectives, financial or taxation situation or needs of any particular individual. Before acting on the information, you should consider its appropriateness to your circumstances and if necessary, seek appropriate professional advice. Any information used in this article is for illustrative purposes only. University of NSW’s School of Business is an external entity that is not a member of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia Group of Companies (the Group) and the content or any view expressed by University of NSW’s School of Business and its employees does not represent an endorsement, recommendation, guarantee or advice in regard to any matter. CBA, nor members of the Group accept any liability for losses or damage arising from any reliance on external parties their products, services and material.