No, you don’t (although meditation can improve your ability to concentrate). And Flow is anything but mystical — it’s very practical, and achieving it isn’t mysterious.
It can take practice, but you’ll get better at it. Here are the key steps to achieving and benefiting from Flow:
If you dread a task, you’ll have a hard time losing yourself in it. If your job is made up of stuff you hate, you might want to consider finding another job. Or consider seeking projects you love to do within your current job. At any rate, be sure that whatever task you choose is something you can be passionate about.
There’s work you love that’s easy and unimportant, and then there’s work you love that will make a long-term impact on your career and life. Choose the latter, as it will be a much better use of your time, and of Flow.
If a task is too easy, you will be able to complete it without much thought or effort. A task should be challenging enough to require your full concentration. However, if it is too hard, you will find it difficult to lose yourself in it, as you will spend most of your concentration just trying to figure out how to do it — either that, or you’ll end up discouraged. It may take some trial and error to find tasks of the appropriate level of difficulty.
This is actually two steps grouped into one. First, you’ll want to find a time that’s quiet, or you’ll never be able to focus. For me, that’s mornings, before the hustle of everyday life builds to a dull roar. That might be early morning, when you just wake, or early in the work day, when most people haven’t arrived yet or are still getting their coffee and settling down. Or you might try the lunch hour, when people are usually out of the office. Evenings work well too for many people. Or, if you’re lucky, you can do it at any time of the day if you can find a quiet spot to work in. Whatever time you choose, it should also be a peak energy time for you. Some people get tired after lunch — that’s not a good time to go for Flow. Find a time when you have lots of energy and can concentrate.
Aside from finding a quiet time and place to work, you’ll want to clear away all other distractions. That means turning off distracting music (unless you find music that helps you focus), turning off phones, email and IM notifications, Twitter and Growl, and anything else that might pop up or make noise to interrupt your thoughts. I also find it helpful to clear my desk, even if that means sweeping miscellaneous papers into a folder to be sorted through later. Of course, these days there isn’t anything on my desk, but I didn’t always work like this. A clear desk helps immensely.
This takes practice. You need to start on your chosen task and keep your focus on it for as long as you can. At first, many people will have difficulty, if they’re used to constantly switching between tasks. But keep trying, and keep bringing your focus back to your task. You’ll get better. And if you can keep your focus on that task, with no distractions, and if your task has been chosen well (something you love, something important, and something challenging), you should lose yourself in Flow.
Losing yourself in Flow is an amazing thing, in my experience. It feels great to be able to really pour yourself into something worthwhile, to make great progress on a project or important task, to do something you’re passionate about. Take the time to appreciate this feeling (perhaps after the fact — it’s hard to appreciate it while you’re in Flow).
Again, this takes practice. Each step will take some practice, from finding a quiet, peak time for yourself, to clearing distractions, to choosing the right task. And especially keeping your focus on a task for a long time. But each time you fail, try to learn from it. Each time you succeed, you should also learn from it — what did you do right? And the more you practice, the better you’ll get.
Aside from the pleasure of getting into Flow, you’ll also be happier with your work overall. You’ll get important stuff done. You’ll complete stuff more often, rather than starting and stopping frequently. All of this is hugely satisfying and rewarding. Take the time to appreciate this, and to continue to practice it every day.
“To be able to concentrate for a considerable time is essential to difficult achievement.” – Bertrand Russell