a guide to flow states & deep work while working from home
Working from home isn’t going away any time soon. The latest Gallup poll shows nearly half of all full-time workers are still working remotely in some capacity. Nine out of ten workers want it to stay that way, pandemic or otherwise.
And why not? Remote work comes with a lot of perks: You don’t lose hours of your life commuting to and from an office. You can work in your pajamas. You get to spend more quality time with family and pets. You can blast music as loud as you want. The enhanced independence and reduced oversight can be a boon for many employees.
But remote work presents unique challenges, too. Without a supervisor breathing down your neck, it’s easy to goof around on your phone. In fact, it’s easier to get distracted by just about anything these days, with constant panics about climate, politics, social unrest, or our own relationships crumbling at alarming rates.
With 24/7 access to all of the web’s dopamine-dosing delights, how can a remote worker stay “in the zone” consistently enough to get work done, on time, with promotion-potential quality? Can we will ourselves into “the zone,” or is it reserved only for the things we love doing? (In other words, not work.)
Fortunately, we now have some solid science behind the modern Art of Zen — specifically, how tapping into “flow states” can majorly benefit productivity, regardless of location. So, close Twitter and those Reddit tabs, and let’s explore how you can tap into these mindsets to enhance your brain and therefore your output.
Psychologists today have a technical term for “being in the zone.” It’s called the “flow state.”
However, a flow state isn’t just a matter of simply focusing on a task. To truly flow, one must be utterly engaged and energized by the task. It must instill a sense of enjoyment. The euphoria must be so consuming, so driving, that your sense of time gets distorted (time flies when you’re having fun, right?).
Although the flow-state concept has been around since ancient times, psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi brought it to mainstream psychology back in the ‘70s. Initially, he wanted to understand why chronically happy people could maintain an unshakable sense of happiness, even when experiencing hardship or tragedy. This inquiry led him to another seemingly unrelated question: What drives creativity, even when there’s no expectation for reward or recognition?
Csíkszentmihály’s research ignored the everyday aspects of happy and creative people’s lives. Nothing about their day-to-day existence made them unique. What made them unique were short-lived but frequent windows of ecstasy, a state where the individual is so mesmerized by joy that their ego vanishes. These people didn’t need external rewards to be productive because they intrinsically rewarded themselves through their work.
So, basically, the trick for getting in the zone isn’t intense focus. It isn’t Red Bull or Adderall.
The trick is to know that an immutable version of you does not exist.
OK, so how is the average staffer supposed to attain Bodhisattva status when they’ve got a big report due in two hours?
Cal Newport, a computer scientist at Georgetown University, proposed some modern-day solutions to this timeless problem in his book Deep Work. The book builds heavily on Csíkszentmihályi’s ideas with a pragmatic approach. Basically, Newport says people nowadays are too fixated on social media activity to focus. In addition, late-stage capitalism rewards us for mechanically going through the workday’s motions, with little mental effort required to complete our menial, nihilistic tasks.
Newport calls this daily dead-end pattern “shallow work.” Shallow work doesn’t challenge you. In fact, shallow work reinforces the (false) idea that you’re powerless, that you’re merely the product of external forces beyond your control. This is why shallow workers are so easily distracted by social media — it’s an insatiable journey for likes, shares, and compliments, wherein our self-worth is determined by other people reacting to our posts.
Newport’s solution is straightforward. Challenge yourself, hone your skills, and turn off your damn phone when you’re trying out something new. When we study, work, or practice a talent without distraction, we’re engaged in “deep work.”
And when we’re engaged in deep work, our environment no longer determines our sense of self-worth. Only the task-at-hand and our progress can do that.
Legends Who Swear by Flow States and Deep Work
So what if two authors you’ve never heard of are telling you how to be your best, most creative, and happiest self? What would they know?
The thing is, artists, scientists, and philosophers have been discussing these exact same principles since, well, forever. Plato believed creative people drew their inspiration from an otherworldly realm of eternal ideas, not from their own lives or minds. Many Romantic and Transcendental writers claimed their poems flowed through them from some higher power.
Surrealist filmmaker David Lynch calls his creative process “catching the big fish." As in, you catch small fish in shallow waters, but you catch the big fish if you delve deep into the subconscious, far, far away from your obsessive-yet-trivial surface thoughts.
Or take Bruce Lee. His advice for becoming practically superhuman? “Be happy, but never satisfied,” and “Life itself is your teacher, and you are in a state of constant learning.”
Or how about Frida Kahlo, who once said, “I am my own muse, I am the subject I know best. The subject I want to know better.”
Or Aretha Franklin? “Be your own artist, and always be confident in what you're doing.”
Does all of this sound familiar? This is basically what Csíkszentmihályi, and later Newport, have been trying to tell us. It’s not a mystery. It’s not a secret. Any of us can attain it. We just need to make the effort and stick with it.
Strategies for Reaching the Flow State at Home
So, back to that report that’s due in two hours. The deadline is fast approaching. You’re sweating. You already drank so much coffee you’re peeing Taster’s Choice. What can you do?
Try the Pomodoro technique
Business guru Francesco Cirillo coined the term “Pomodoro technique” after the pomodoro (tomato) timer he used in college to get his studying done. You just take an egg timer or something similar, set it to 25 minutes, and devote yourself entirely to a single task until the timer goes off. Afterward, take a break for about five minutes. Once you complete four Pomodoros, take longer breaks of around 30 minutes.
This strategy has produced some stellar real-world results. Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk uses a similar method with an egg timer in one-hour intervals.
Again, you don’t need to become the next Buddha to pull this off. Meditation isn’t as difficult as most people think it is. There’s a misconception that successful meditation means you’ve completely emptied your mind of all thoughts.
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a monk, calls the everyday chatter in our brains the “monkey-mind.” Many people think meditation means silencing the monkey mind. In fact, concentrating too much on that task causes us to over concentrate, which defeats the point of meditation.
Rinpoche’s advice: Give the monkey-mind a job to do. Just count your breaths to four. Once you hit the fourth breath, start over. You can do this anywhere, any time, for any length of time.
Meditation isn’t magical mumbo jumbo, either. Studies show meditation can relieve stress, reduce workplace absenteeism, all while improving mood, motivation, health, and productivity.
Like with the Pomodoro technique, meditation produces real-world results. David Lynch, mentioned above, performs transcendental meditation twice a day to help him solve creative problems and complete his projects.
Try disconnecting from your devices
This one’s easier said than done, especially when we use our devices for work. However, if you need to keep your phone or computer on while you’re in the zone, check out this list of helpful apps. These apps schedule shut-off or silence times for the other apps that could distract you, like your messengers or email apps. Schedule some shutdown time while you’re working under an egg timer or meditating.
If adding yet another app to your phone or computer sounds unappealing, you can simply turn off your notifications, too.
Try taking care of yourself
One of the biggest challenges with working from home is, well, we tend to sit on our asses all day. Being sedentary causes all sorts of problems, such as chronic muscle and joint pain, migraines, lack of focus, depression, and overall poor health. Some doctors even recommend we get at least one measly minute of exercise a day, since not exercising at all can lead to early death.
This isn’t merely motherly advice, either. During the pandemic, the global shift to remote work triggered a shortage of hand, wrist, and arm braces for treating sprains and carpal tunnel syndrome. Depression rates have skyrocketed.
So, get some exercise, even if it’s only for 60 seconds a day. Stretch regularly. Drink plenty of water. Eat a healthy, balanced diet with lots of leafy vegetables. Get quality sleep. And chill on the caffeine, which causes anxiety.
For tips on how to exercise from home, visit my previous article for The Pursuit on that very topic.
Treat yourself often, and treat others whenever you can. Go on (sensible) shopping sprees. Replace your wardrobe. Dye your hair or get a plant.
Try changing your environment
To prevent your environment from controlling you, try taking control of your environment instead. Get new bedding. Rearrange your furniture. Redecorate your walls with that money you aren’t spending on gas and car repairs. If you always work in your home office, try working in your kitchen instead. If your home is getting overbearing, work at a nearby coffee shop, library, or public park.
If you can’t stand your job, well — it’s our job market right now, ain’t it?
Try something new
Circling back to flow states and deep work: Essentially, to help yourself get into the zone, you need to try something new — constantly and consistently.
Entering a flow state means you’re challenging yourself, but not too much. Believe it or not, certain types of stress, at moderate levels, are actually good for us. We evolved to grow stronger from manageable sources of stress. Overcoming the challenges we set for ourselves makes us see ourselves, and our world, in a brighter light.
If you want to become proficient at a musical instrument, you’ve got to get through the painful process of sounding like crap at first. If you want to bulk up, you’ve got to deal with aches after lifting weights. If you want to write a novel, you need to toil through those first drafts filled with cringey cliches.
Or, if you’ve got a report due in two hours, force yourself to sit down and crank it out. But this time, try something different. Push yourself. Go beyond the bare minimum. Set a goal — one just for you; not your boss, not your coworkers — on top of completing the required task. After all, if you’re trying to get in the zone, that’s the best path to achieving it.