Can’t focus at work? Constantly checking your SMS when you should be preparing for meetings? Stuck in a Pavlovian loop of diminishing returns desperate for that next dopamine hit from your favorite social media platform? Well, you’re not alone—and in a world of digital distraction, concentrating at work is fast becoming among the most important skills on your CV. It’s no longer just a matter of a little harmless procrastination, but potentially a very real issue that can make or break your career.
We all dream of being more creative in our jobs. More available to our families. More supportive of our friends. But balancing all of these responsibilities is hard. Sure, there’s an app for all that, but for some, technology has created as many problems as it has solved. Now, we’re looking towards digital detoxes to combat our tech addictions—slowly turning off all those pings, bleeps, and notifications so we can, quite simply, concentrate on our work.
However, maybe turning off is not the answer we are looking for. Instead, maybe turning something on is the key, helping us to not only focus better at work, but also at home, in the gym, and perhaps most importantly, during those ultra-competitive games of Christmas Trivial Pursuit with your arch-nemesis (i.e your sister-in-law).
Effortless Concentration at Work and Beyond
In a TED talk from 2004, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described his discoveries relating to something he called “flow”. Flow is forgetting yourself. Flow is feeling part of something larger. Flow is being able to cut off all those annoying distractions and become totally immersed in whatever it is that you’re doing. Most importantly though, flow is a way to make every aspect of your life, every task or chore, worth doing for its own sake.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is a trance-like state of absorption in the task at hand, a state that leads to effortless concentration and a sense of clarity–encouraging greater focus at work and beyond. He noticed that it was most prevalent in artists, musicians, athletes and even monks and shepherds, but he also thought it could be reached by anyone.
Attaining this state may be challenging, and it’s elusive nature often means it can be difficult to hold on to. However, there are a few ways you can encourage your own flow:
- Be present — Mindfulness has heavily linked to the flow state, and focussing on the here-and-now is key.
- Get feedback — Try to figure out what’s working and what’s not. This will help you be an active learner and aid the next step.
- Be skills practitioner not a goal seeker — See the bigger picture and see skill development as a journey rather than focussing exclusively on the final product.
- Challenge yourself — Repetition is part of practice, but boring tasks will allow your mind to wander. Find a way to challenge yourself in everything you do.
Flow states are encouraged by quiet environments and reduced distractions—something that’s easier said than done in our hyperconnected world. However, refining your working practices and employing tools to keep you focused at work is one way to increase your chances of finding your flow. Productivity apps have come a long way in recent times, but the sheer number of those designed to streamline our working day is now overwhelming. Ideally, you want to combine as many of the tools you need in one simple app that keeps distractions down to a minimum.
Of course, losing the distractions is just one way to encourage flow, and you’ll definitely find it easier to reach this near-transcendental state by doing something that you love every day. Additionally, and arguably a little counterintuitively, tasks that are well-practiced and often-repeated can also help you find flow—think of the virtuoso jazz musician on long and winding improvised solo (or Slash from Guns n Roses if you’re so inclined). Whether your job is mostly managing email or organizing after parties for a load of greasy old metalheads, discovering a state of flow might just be the answer you are looking for when it comes to the question of how to focus better at work.