It seems like the only constant in today’s world is constant distraction. More pings, meetings, emails, Slack alerts. Less space, time, clarity, quiet.
More noise. Less flow.
It’s no wonder so many of us struggle to focus on what actually matters. The game seems rigged against us, rewarding unhealthy habits like task switching with quick hits of dopamine. This game has turned the concept of “reactivity” from a weakness (“I have such a short attention span”) into a virtue (“who has time to actually focus and think when there are so many fires to put out?”).
Where has all this reactivity gotten us in the long run? We’ve lost our ability to set our own course, instead allowing day-to-day “urgent but not important” things guide all of our decisions—regardless of whether they’re taking us in a direction we actually want to go. Many of us are stuck in motion, a frenetic cycle of busywork that looks like productivity. But in reality, reactivity just keeps us running in circles, perpetually striving and feeling burned out, but not actually going anywhere worthwhile.
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Moving From Distraction to Flow
Have you ever been so completely engaged in a meaningful task that everything else—time, fear, doubt, stress, even your sense of “self”—seems to melt away? Those moments in your work that create feelings of total absorption and pure joy?
You become like the actor who disappears into the role. The athlete who seems incapable of missing a shot. The artist who becomes one with the canvas.
No distractions. No noise. No force. Just pure flow.
We can also describe that state by many other names:
- Wu Wei (“effortless action” or “doing, not doing”).
- Witness consciousness.
- Divine inspiration.
- Following the Muse.
- Inner knowing.
- Trusting your gut.
- Tapping into a deeper source of intelligence.
Different names for a similar experience—being guided in your actions by something deeper than your conditioned beliefs.
But being in flow isn’t just about a pleasant inner state. It also gives you access to your highest creative potential and productive capabilities, allowing you to tap directly into your unique talents and strengths, and make the greatest possible contribution with your work.
In How to Have Brilliant Ideas Without Really Trying, I shared the following description of hot and cold thinking:
Your mind is divided into two equally important but distinct systems, each with its own unique characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses.
System 1, or hot cognition, is what we typically think of as the unconscious. The gut feelings and intuitions responsible for those unexpected “a-ha!” moments that tend to happen when you’re showering or zoning out on the couch.
This part of your mind is in charge of the gestation phase of creativity. It synthesizes complex inputs in the background, making new connections between thousands of seemingly unrelated concepts. As a result, ideas come automatically and without any conscious effort on your part.
System 2, or cold cognition, is the slow, effortful, deliberate, and logical side of your brain responsible for language, reasoning, and contemplating the long-term consequences of your actions. It’s the part of your mind that kicks in when you’re struggling to come up with ideas for a blog post, or solve an urgent marketing problem, or stay focused during a boring conversation.
Unlike hot cognition, cold cognition is not particularly good at making complex connections, and requires a tremendous amount of energy to maintain focus. Thinking rationally for long periods of time is exhausting. There’s only so much fuel available in the cold cognition tank, and the more mental energy you spend on one task, the less you’ll have left to spend on another.
There’s an optimal time to focus your conscious mind, and there’s an optimal time to relax that focus and allow the unconscious to take over. The trick is knowing when to use each.
Being in a state of flow is similar to System 1 (hot cognition), when ideas seem to just pop out of your mind without much effort.
All the noise—those pings, meetings, emails, and Slack alerts—interrupt that hot cognition state and pull us out of System 1 thinking. Gone is your ability to make complex connections, replaced by the need to use a lot of effort and energy to maintain focus.
For every pointless interruption you shift your focus to, you’re expending precious mental energy, leaving that much less juice available for the real work. The important stuff like solving tough business problems, staying completely present during conversations, and creating things that people will pay you money for.
How to Access Flow
Decide That It Matters
The first step to being able to access flow is to make a decision about whether doing so actually matters to you. Not because “I know this is something that I should be doing.” But because you’ve experienced the impact of being in flow, and recognize that it lets you tap into the best parts of yourself.
Give Yourself Permission
Deciding to spend more time in flow means spending less time on 24/7 stand-by mode, constantly reacting to every “urgent” request or issue. This means getting comfortable with the idea of saying no, or that people might have to wait a bit longer for a response. If you don’t first give yourself permission to take back control over your time and focus, you’ll be much more likely to succumb to social pressure from others, as well as your own conditioned habits like people pleasing and constantly checking your phone for new alerts.
Create the Right Conditions
If you want to get a good night’s sleep, you don’t simply say something like “okay, you’ve got this. Just lay down and go to sleep. Now!” Just like falling into flow, falling into sleep doesn’t happen by force.
Instead, you’ve probably learned to just do whatever you can to create the right conditions for falling asleep. You have a ritual that may look like this:
- Set your alarm.
- Put your phone on do-not-disturb.
- Close the curtains.
- Turn out the lights.
- Get under the covers.
- Read a bit (not on a screen) until you feel sleepy enough to roll over and shut your eyes.
You can create a similar ritual for falling into flow:
- Block off a chunk of time for focused, uninterrupted work—no multi-tasking, Zoom meetings, or other non-essential activities.
- Find a quiet space or use headphones with white noise.
- Get into a comfortable sitting position.
- Set a timer.
- Turn off all your alerts, including Slack, texts, and emails.
Build New Habits
Just like your sleeping ritual, your flow ritual will become a habit. One that you won’t have to think about or force yourself to do every day.
It will likely change and evolve, and some days it might be easier to stick to than others. But over time, it will slowly replace the reactive conditioning that kept you tethered to your phone and computer.
And as these new habits strengthen over time, you’ll find it progressively easier to focus on what matters, and be guided by an inner compass that’s calibrated to your core themes of purpose and highest contribution.