3 Ways to Go From Burnout State to Flow State

Illustration: Dadu Shin

There’s nothing like that state of flow, when you get so absorbed in a project that time seems to stand still. But if it was once a rare state to achieve, it now seems impossible.

As famed psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote in his 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” In this state of “flow,” people “want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake… The sense of the duration of time is altered: hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours.”

In our current world, mired as it is in political, social, and medical quicksand, flow seems like a relic from another time. One of our main limitations these days is of course: interruptions. With constant interruptions from kids, roommates, and colleagues sending Slack messages to ask if you read their emails, there is little opportunity to be fully absorbed in anything.

But “little” is not the same as “none.” Achieving the bliss of flow is possible — even now — with a few smart strategies.

Figure out what times of day are least likely to be interrupted

Many people like to rise before their households solely to experience peace and quiet. Maybe you and your spouse trade off childcare duties, so 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. is a possibility, and your colleagues seldom start pinging you before 9:30 a.m. This leaves you a chunk of early morning time to work with. Maybe your roommate reliably vacates the premises on Saturdays. Analyze your schedule until you know what chunks of time might be available, and if there’s more than one chunk, figure out when you have the most energy. If you get in your groove after 9 p.m., and your household is quiet then, that can work too.

Match the right work to the right time

Slot projects that allow for full absorption into the time slots where flow is possible. Creative and analytical projects are good choices; I like to write and edit in open, uninterrupted chunks of time, so I’m careful to schedule such work for hours when my older kids are mostly occupied with their virtual school classes, and my younger kids are in childcare.

Achieving flow is not just about getting things done, though. It’s an important experience in and of itself. If your paid work doesn’t offer many flow opportunities, consider whether making time for hobbies might give you a big boost in life satisfaction. Flow is, as Csikszentmihalyi writes, an “optimal experience” — a source of great pleasure. An early morning painting, woodworking, or scrapbooking session could set the tone of your entire day.

Set yourself up to succeed

When you’re in a state of flow, the experience can be pleasant enough to preclude actively seeking out disruptions, but some can still find their way in.

So take a moment before you begin to set the stage. Turn off phone or computer notifications. Keep a water bottle handy so thirst doesn’t stop the flow prematurely. And keep what I like to call a “later list” next to you. This is where you jot down any semi-useful thoughts (“I should take the meat out of the freezer for dinner”) that pop, unbidden, into your head. You will deal with these later, which is when you’ll handle email and other things that can be done in between the kids demanding tech help or the dog barking to be let out.

Those sorts of things will never lead to flow. The work that does should be treated as special. And making time for flow is an important part of everyone’s mental health.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management books including Off the Clock and 168 Hours. She blogs at LauraVanderkam.com.

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