When is your work at it’s best? When are you performing at the upper range of your capabilities? Take a minute. Think about that. What do you see? What images come to mind? What kind of feelings comes to mind? A common trait is relaxed focus. Free from distraction your energy is high, your attention focused. It is being in the zone.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of “Flow” describes “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
Being in flow is to be so absorbed in what you are doing that the chatter in our mind goes away. Being fully engaged - working at the peak of our abilities. The activity could be creating a masterpiece in the kitchen, playing our favorite sport, or simply holding a conversation. It can also come at work – but it is hard.
Leaders in organizations are especially burdened in getting past the gunk that separates us from a flow state. So many issues to think about, many wrapped in urgency and ambiguity. We all learn ways to cope with the deluge. We have to.
We conserve energy by attempting to do things the same way we usually do things. It is called cognitive economy and it is essential to get through our day. We revert to habits. To keep the mental burden manageable we need habits to take over.
As a leader; what habits do you have to help you manage all that is coming at you? In particular, do your habits take you into flow? Or do your habits hold you back from flow?
Our challenge is not all of our work habits are helpful. The habits get embedded. Some habits get started through intention and others out of necessity. Take email for example. How often do you look at email? Research published on Business Insider would suggest over 33% reading this check it continually throughout the day and that 80% of email between adults is responded to within one hour. Close your email inbox and your chances of getting in to flow just went up.
Do you accept every meeting invitation if there is an opening on your calendar? Being in demand can give us feelings of importance but undo uninterrupted work. Speaking of meetings can you get through a meeting without opening your computer or look at your phone? It is just a little thing, but it trains your attention to be divided.
When it comes to working at your best, at the upper range of ability, what other habits are holding you back? It may not be obvious. We don’t often notice these habituated responses – there in lies their power. They move us forward automatically. They don’t take our attention.
To discover those habits holding you back you’ll need to give yourself permission and room to reflect. Even five minutes of true reflection can be elusive. Could you take five minutes right now? OK, now may not be the time – congrats if it is – if now is not the time, how far off is it?
If a few undivided minutes for reflection are hard to imagine then start there. Identify one or two simple habits that steer you away from focus; keep you from the best version of yourself.
The opportunity to be in the zone, work at our best, is out there. The challenge is where are your habits taking you.
“We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.” - John Dryden