To get in the zone, work on something that you already know how to do for 5 to 60 minutes. Then, once your mind has spun up and you’re working efficiently, move onto the task that you’d like to do. Make sure that each task is broken into many small steps, each of which is neither too easy nor too difficult, and ensure that you can easily notice when you succeed at each step. Avoid falling out of flow by minimizing any distractions.
Our human brains come with some features that make it easier for us to stay on track and get things done.
First, we have a mental inertia which makes it easier for us to keep on doing something we’re already doing. Second, our brains constantly and unconsciously ping us to get back to things we’ve not yet finished. And third, when we’re doing tasks that we can perform optimally, we move into a state where we don’t really notice the passage of time.
But there’s a slight problem.
The exact same systems that enable us to work optimally on some tasks can make it feel impossible to get started on others, or even on those same tasks when we’re not yet doing them. We can end up procrastinating and having no idea why.
This is easy to work around once you know how the system works.
What is flow or “the zone”?
Flow is the state that we move into when we become fully absorbed in a task, we’re being challenged exactly the right amount, and each step seems to flow almost effortlessly from the next.
Even when we have to think about what to do.
Sounds familiar, right?
I find that I enter flow all the time. It happens automatically when I’m hypnotizing people, when I’m presenting on stage, when I’m telling stories, when I’m working on math and physics, when I’m working on my boat, when I’m writing code, and a whole host of other times.
There are other things I do, like writing articles and books, where most of the time I only enter flow if I intentionally send myself there.
For each of us, there are tasks where we tend to enter into flow automatically, and others where we won’t unless we intentionally do something to send ourselves there.
Because it depends to some extent on our skill, our enthusiasm, and our approach to each specific task, those tasks where we automatically enter flow are different for each of us.
If you’re like most people, you probably don’t automatically go into flow states when you do math problems.
But you will have been into flow, or the zone, many times.
What’s needed to get into the zone?
Think back to some task that you really enjoy doing. It doesn’t have to be something that you’re good at. Remember, flow happens when you have the right amount of challenge that you can become fully engrossed in a task. Think back to just one such task, and notice what that was like when you were in the zone.
Pay attention to what kinds of things you were doing mentally.
The more skilled you become at a task, the more challenging that task can be.
Video games are brilliant at leading people into these places. They do this by making it easy to focus on just the next step, by keeping us engaged, and by having overarching themes. In short, we go on quests where we are guided in almost what to do at each step along the way. But not quite enough that there’s no challenge. As our skills improve, the game becomes harder, and we don’t really notice because our skills have improved.
It turns out that there are a handful of things that we need to move into flow. When these things are present, flow becomes almost inevitable.
To get into the zone
- We need some way for the task to become meaningful for us. This does not have to be huge. It can be as simple as a quest-giver in a game giving us a mission. Or as complex as our lifelong pursuit of finding a cure for cancer. When a task has no meaning, it’s very difficult for us to continue doing it for any length of time.
- We need to clear out any other distracting thoughts. This tends to happen automatically when we move into flow. But sometimes there are other things going on that we need to set aside first.
- We need very clear short term goals. This enables us to focus on only the next step. When we want to enter into flow, being focused solely on the task at hand is of vital importance. This is why musicians and software developers can find it very easy to move into flow: their tasks inherently have many short term goals.
- We need immediate feedback. Without this, there’s not really any way for us to tell how we’re doing. If we’re playing a complex piece of music, we can hear when we hit the wrong note. If we’re solving math puzzles, we can check our answer.
- We need the activity to be in the sweet spot between too hard and too easy. If it’s too hard, we can become frustrated and give up. If it’s too easy, we can become bored.
How to clear your mind of unwanted thoughts
Whenever we want to move into flow, the very first thing to do is to clear our mind of unwanted thoughts.
If we don’t do this, what tends to happen is we end up cycling endlessly around those thoughts rather than focusing on the thing we’d like to get done.
There are lots of ways that we can clear out our thoughts. It’s easiest to learn just one way that works for you, and become expert at it.
As a rule, we want to do things one or two layers out from the thoughts themselves to cause those thoughts to dissipate. It takes about 2-3 minutes to run the entire process from beginning to end.
To clear your mind before you begin
- Take 3 slow, deep breaths. As you’re taking these breaths, focus on the physical sensations associated with your breathing. This could be your chest rising and falling, the feeling of the air as it flows through your throat, the sound made by your inhale and exhale, or anything else at all that you can notice.
- Scan through your body looking for any physical sensations associated with whatever has been troubling you. Notice what these sensations are, but don’t try to do anything with them. Maybe your hand’s shaking. Perhaps your heart’s beating faster than usual. Whatever it is, notice it.
- Scan through your body again, and notice the color of each of those sensations. Usually they will all be the same color. Sometimes not. Either is better. Be curious.
- Step back and watch as those colors transform. After you’ve noticed all of the colors, allow them to transform to the color they’d like to be. This part typically requires less than 90 seconds.
- Bask in the afterglow of your transformation. Once the colors have transformed, you’ll notice that you’re feeling fantastic. Glowing even. Allow yourself to smile and bask in that for a few moments to let it set in.
That’s really all there is to it. I’ve written about this in more detail before, so if you’d like to know more about clearing your mind you might like my article on How to Stop Thinking About Something That Bothers You.
Find your meaning
When we want to move into flow, it’s important that the overall task has some meaning for us.
So take a few moments and work out what you’re going to get out of this task. Why is it important to you? What’s the big, overarching reason that you’re doing it?
For me it’s often enough that I will grow in some way as a result of doing the task. Other times it’s because I’m curious about how stuff works. For some people, family is a key driver, while for others it’s status.
Steven Reiss discovered that there are 16 core motivational drivers that cause all of us to do stuff. I’ve written about this previously, so if you have trouble figuring out why a specific task is important, you might enjoy my article on 16 Ways to Get Motivated in which I cover his model.
Regardless of how you do it, the few moments it takes to figure out why a specific task is important to you is time very well spent.
How to get in the zone and stay there
Now that you’ve got a process for clearing out unwanted thoughts, and you’ve set your overall purpose, it’s relatively easy to set things up so that you can move into flow on demand.
I’ve found that for most tasks, the simplest approach to get started is to work on something that’s related to the thing I want to do, but that I know I can do easily. This prevents overwhelm and procrastination.
For example, suppose you have to study for a math exam. There’s a good chance that you can easily do the work from a year or two earlier, since it will have set into your mind. So choose a few problems like that, quickly go over the old notes to make it really easy, then work through those problems. Then once your mind has spun up, seamlessly move on to studying and working on problems for the current exam.
But there’s a problem.
How do we get over the mental inertia?
This is where self-hypnosis comes in.
Once you get good at it, self-hypnosis can be used to automate all of the things that allow you to move into flow states. When this happens, being in the zone tends to become a habit.
To hypnotize yourself into the zone
- Work out why this specific task is important to you personally. What is it that you will get out of this task?
- Hypnotize yourself and clear your mind. If you need a simple self-hypnosis induction, the process that I gave above for clearing your mind will send you into hypnosis.
- Deepen the hypnosis. With your eyes closed, move your attention outwards from your body and become aware of everything around you. Place your awareness inside each of those things to get a sense of what it’s like to be each thing. Then bring your attention back to your body and notice all the sensations there.
- Move your attention to the task at hand. Open your eyes and move your attention to the entire task at hand. Remind yourself of what you’re getting out of it.
- Work out the minimum next step. How will you know when you’ve achieved it? The key is to make the step size such that it slightly challenges your current skill, so that it feels like a success when you achieve it. For most tasks, this will be tiny. Perhaps playing a single bar of music, or one stroke across the edge of a piece of timber that you’re rounding with sandpaper. If you’re just starting out on a task, the next step might be making a plan.
- Carry out that minimum next step and notice the results. One of the keys to being in the zone is having constant immediate feedback. So check in with yourself. Did the step work? Be mindful.
- Refine and loop back. To stay in the zone, immediately correct any mistakes then loop back to step 5. If you’re playing music, this might involve going back a couple of bars and playing more slowly a few times to get that note just right. As a rule, if the step is too hard and you become frustrated or feel other negative emotions, break the step down into smaller steps. If you become bored, find a way to make it more challenging. Get inside whatever it is that you’re doing. Allow yourself to become absorbed by it.
What to do if you drift out of flow
If you ever feel yourself drifting out of the zone, pause and ask yourself what’s going on. When this happens to me, it’s usually for one of these reasons:
- I forgot to figure out why the task is important to me.
- I haven’t made a plan and so don’t know what to do next.
- The step I am working on is too big and needs to be smaller.
- The step I am working on is too small and needs to be made more challenging in some way.
This is why we refine in step 7 above. When we do this constantly, what tends to happen is that over time we start to do all of these things automatically. Beyond that, the process itself is hypnotic. The act of working mindfully like this sends you into self-hypnosis.
The truth is that the entire process outlined here will send you into hypnosis. But sometimes there are distractions that constantly pull us out again. And when you have to spend 2-3 minutes getting there each time, it can massively increase the amount of time required.
Luckily there’s an easy way to work around this. Using a hypnotic process known as anchoring, we can set things up so that we can immediately bring ourselves back into the zone.
If you’d like to know how to do that, I go over an easy way to construct an anchor so that you can hypnotize yourself in seconds in my article How to Hypnotize Yourself Instantly.
Anchors work unconsciously, which means that they can be used to override our conscious processes. This is fantastic for overcoming distractions. Just about anything we can perceive can be used as an anchor. In that article, we use eye focus, which tends to work brilliantly with moving into flow states since all we have to do is move our attention onto the task at hand immediately after we focus our eyes.
That probably doesn’t make too much sense just yet, so go read How to Hypnotize Yourself Instantly now, then come back here and use it with the processes in this article to supercharge your ability to get into and stay in flow.
With a little practice, you too will be able to move into the zone on demand and stay there.