For the millions of people expected to work from home at this time, finding flow — the optimal state of consciousness in which we feel and perform our best — can seem impossible. So we asked some specialists for advice.
Bianca Jones Marlin is a neuroscientist and postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute. Steven Kotler is co-founder and executive director of research at the Flow Research Collective, which provides training to organizations such as Google and Navy SEALs. Jim Kwik, founder of Kwik Learning, overcame a brain injury as a child and offers brain-performance programs for individuals and Fortune 500 companies.
Here are some of their tips for training the brain to work from home. Given your circumstances, certain suggestions may seem out of reach right now. But even practicing just one or two of these habits could help you move in the right direction.
Evaluate your external environment
While some studies have shown that haphazard surroundings can provide creative stimuli, all three specialists say that keeping your desk or workspace tidy may help eliminate distractions. “Your brain thrives in a clean environment,” Kwik says. Trying to keep track of everything in a messy workspace may consume neurological energy.
Given that many people working from home might not have an ideal office setup, Marlin says simply clearing off your desk — which might currently be the kitchen table — and moving anything unrelated to the task out of your line of sight can make a difference. Fewer distractions can lead to less time spent on refocusing.
To access flow, you need to keep distractions to a minimum, which can be difficult with more people spending more time at home. Each week or each evening, have a discussion with others in your household (those who are old enough to understand, at least) about scheduling time to work. Make the most of whatever uninterrupted blocks of time you get: Turn off all notifications and close applications unrelated to the task.
Create an ideal internal environment
Marlin says that from a neurobiology standpoint, “internal state dictates behavior.” For example, if we’re hungry, thirsty or anxious, those needs will pull attention from the task at hand. So to access flow, she says, “you need to set the internal state for success” by addressing those things before you sit down to work. Not only will staying hydrated help you maintain focus, but research shows it will boost your cognitive performance.
Chronic stress can also hinder your ability to reach a flow state. “We are most effective when we are calm, nonreactive and open to experiences,” Kotler says. But it’s understandable if you’re not feeling exceptionally relaxed while working from home during a pandemic.
Kwik and Kotler both suggest guiding your brain in a positive direction with a gratitude practice, a meditation or mindfulness practice, and exercise. “Gratitude will calm your nervous system down, which will help you pay attention to the task at hand, which will then drive flow and performance,” Kotler says. “And that gives you more to be grateful for, so you are creating a feedback loop.” These practices need not take up much time. Kotler advises three to five minutes for gratitude, 11 to 22 minutes of mindfulness/meditation, or 20 to 40 minutes of exercise daily.
Kwik advises not looking at your phone for the first half-hour of the day. “When you wake up, you're in a relaxed state of awareness,” he says. “You're very suggestible. If the first thing you do is touch your phone in that state, you're retraining and rewiring your brain to be distracted, because every ring, ping, ding, like, share or comment is a dopamine flood.” Furthermore, he says, “one bad message, voicemail or email can hijack your whole day.”
Marlin recommends including rewards. “Having something to look forward to after you've done the work can be a motivating factor,” she says. “It will activate and reactivate the parts of your brain associated with reward so that the connection of doing work may actually be established with being rewarding, so that you may come to the point where the reward itself is doing the work.”
Make work binary
“We’re designed to focus on one thing at a time,” Kotler says. To tap into flow, you must let the myth of multitasking go, because switching between multiple unrelated tasks causes fatigue and lost time. “We’re flip-flopping,” Marlin says, “and research has shown it takes a period of time to go back and refocus.”
Avoid getting stuck in a gray zone where work and other things like family time are overlapping. Do what you can to delineate between work and other things as much as possible, and then go all-in on each respectively.
Marlin understands that this is difficult for many people, particularly right now. As a neuroscientist, researcher, wife, and mother of a 3-year old and a newborn she, too, has to be very intentional about where she places her focus. “If I’m at work, I really can’t focus on whether I’m being a great mom or wife. And when I’m focusing on my family and home, I shut off the email and science components of my life,” she says. “When I try to split that in real time — like watching the kids while sending an email, it’s never optimized.”
Lessen your cognitive load
Kotler suggests spending a few minutes each evening writing out clear goals for the next day, with the most important and challenging task at the top. “Everything [you would do in a day], including things like walking your dog, needs to go on the list, so you can see how many slots you have,” he says. This listmaking practice helps lessen your cognitive load and gives you structure so you don’t waste time in the morning trying to figure out where to start.
“In the beginning, you won't know how many items to put on the list,” Kotler acknowledges. “What you want to do is figure out how many things you can do in a day and still be great at all of them.” With practice, you’ll get a better sense of what you can accomplish and can adjust your list accordingly.
Stretch your mind a little
To activate flow, you need to find the sweet spot between challenge and competency — the challenge or task must slightly exceed your skill set so that you don’t become bored (if the challenge is not enough) or overwhelmed (if it’s too much).
But while flow requires pushing beyond your comfort zone, all three specialists caution against taking it too far, particularly with anxiety already high right now. “Short-term stressors have been shown to be motivators,” Marlin says. “Long-term stressors have been shown to increase health risk, increase anxiety, increase things like depression.”
So, as Kotler says, “you want to stretch but not snap.”
Give your brain a break
Blocking time and scheduling breaks are also key, though recommendations on the exact amount of time vary. Kwik is a fan of the Pomodoro Technique — focusing on one task without distractions for 25-to-30-minute increments then taking a five-minute break. “Use the brain break to hydrate, move and breathe,” he says.
Kotler recommends 90 to 120 distraction-free minutes, which some research indicates maximizes flow. It may seem like a large chunk of time, he says, but “you get much more done in flow.” He suggests starting your day with the most challenging task that will produce the biggest win. And if 90 to 120 minutes isn’t feasible, don’t forgo time-blocking altogether; Kotler says to try an hour or 40 minutes to start.
Marlin says that while one person may do their best work in 20-minute bursts, another may find their flow working in the middle of the night: “We have different rhythms. We have different family dynamics. Figure out what works for you.”
But make sure you build some flexibility into your schedule, she says. “Adaptation is extremely important, because if we have a rigid structure but the world changes, we won't be able to flexibly readdress our work.”
With the stressors and chaos we are facing inside and outside our homes, making changes can feel impossible. But you don’t have to do everything at once. Start small.
“Ask yourself: What is the tiniest action I could take that will give me progress toward this goal, where I cannot fail?’ Kwik says. “Take small, simple steps. Maybe it's not working out an hour a day; it’s putting on your running shoes. Or spending 10 minutes on reading or meditating. Little by little, a little becomes a lot, because consistency compounds.”
Fitzgerald is a writer and responsible-travel specialist based in Honolulu. Her website is at thisissunny.com