Think of an activity you enjoy that completely immerses you. When you're doing it, your attention is fully focused, and you are so absorbed that you lose track of time. You feel free and effortless. That state of total concentration is called "flow," and the people who love their jobs experience it often while they're working.
"It's what keeps you going," says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the leading researcher on flow states, a professor of psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., and author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008). "Flow creates an experience that is so exciting and so stimulating that you would do [the activity] even if you didn't get paid."
Entrepreneurs are especially likely to experience flow at work because they have the freedom to choose their own challenges. "The ability to take risks in a calculated way helps create the dynamic that makes entrepreneurial activities flow-producing," Csikszentmihalyi says.
To experience flow and stay focused on a regular basis, try these four tips:
1. Choose challenges that fit your skills.
To experience flow, your skill level needs to be sufficient to tackle the challenge with confidence. "If there is a good balance between the challenge and the skills, then you start feeling flow," Csikszentmihalyi says. If the challenge overwhelms your skill, you’ll be anxious, but if it underwhelms, you’ll be bored.
As you work, notice when your skill-challenge match is out of balance. If you find yourself anxious, then work on improving your skills. If you're bored, then increase the challenge. "Every activity will take hundreds of these adjustments," Csikszentmihalyi says. Staying attuned to these imbalances will help you adapt and reenter flow.
2. Know the steps to reach your goals.
Full immersion in any task can only happen when you know how to accomplish it. You need to have some idea about how to get from point A to point B. "That constant awareness of what is next is what keeps you focused," Csikszentmihalyi says. "That's where the engagement comes from."
Much of entrepreneurship is new or unfamiliar, so at the beginning of a new project or task, make yourself a roadmap. Talk to a mentor or peer about how they would proceed, especially if you're at a loss. You may go down several dead ends, but having a path to try is all you need to experience flow.
3. Set aside distraction-free time.
Flow can only happen when you are uninterrupted. Open office spaces or constant email notices prevent complete focus, so give yourself the time and space to really get in the zone. Close your email, turn off your phone, find a quiet space, and signal to others not to interrupt you.
For example, John Reed, the former CEO of Citigroup, kept his office door closed from 7am to 10am every day, refusing to take any calls or visits until he opened his door. You might adopt a similar strategy, set aside one day a week, or work from home sometimes. Just find a system that works for you. "Otherwise, you're like a marionette that’s being pulled by strings," Csikszentmihalyi says. "You have to cut the strings to feel good or produce any flow."
4. Get feedback on your work.
To build your skills enough to achieve flow, you need to know if what you did was right or wrong. "You have to know how well you’re doing," Csikszentmihalyi says. That feedback empowers you to improve so that you can find your flow -- a state that only occurs after you've mastered the learning curve.
Initially, you get that feedback from your boss or an older colleague, but as you become more expert, you learn to give yourself that feedback autonomously. If you are your own boss (as most entrepreneurs are), then look to peers or mentors for honest feedback about your work. That constant drive to improve will make flow a regular part of your work life.