Finding flow beyond distraction

February 27, 2018

One my highest priorities over the past several years has been to establish a more frequent state of flow in my life.

Flow has become increasingly important to me as I've internalized the belief that the most durable peace and satisfaction derives from an active concentration in the present moment, whatever it may contain. The emphasis on this experiential value is in contrast with my past preoccupation with the pursuit of future achievements, which after thirty-odd years, have proven to be emotionally all too fleeting.

While in principle this switch sounds easy enough, its practice requires a constant tending to several conditions, not the least of which is a thorough reduction of distraction. And given that distraction is near constant factor for many of us, the question is whether to reduce it and how.

There are two main ways I've found that I get distracted – by external interruptions and by internal ones.

External interruptions are the most obvious in that they're usually seen or heard. However, internal ones are just as pernicious, even if they're often discarded as thoughts that can't or shouldn't be helped.

The ultimate objective to minimizing both types of distractions is finding myself in a state of mind where I can focus on only one thing at a time and with pleasure instead of struggle. That thing could be a conversation with a good friend, the process of designing a new application, or the writing of a blog post. It could even be just walking down the street of a busy city and enjoying one observation at a time, not passively but through an active engagement with my thoughts, senses and feelings.

The ways I seek to decrease external distractions mainly involve practices to break smartphone addiction and maintain a clean work environment:

  • I turn off all phone notifications, entirely. In 2018, almost all of us have adopted a crazy habit of allowing any action with any level of importance related to our digital lives interrupt us with a sudden vibration or ding.

    This is simply madness in the name of connectivity. I have an iPhone but have disabled all notifications so that at no point in time will my phone make a sound or vibration and interrupt me. If I want to check what I've missed, I can always open it up and pull down the notification center, which serves more rather like an imposing mailbox.

  • I stop using my phone completely upon arriving home at night and until finishing my morning routine the next day. Home is a place to recuperate, and if I check my messages or the news there (especially if I'm tired from the day or groggy from a night's sleep), I'm basically inviting the external world to interfere with that recuperation.

    When I arrive at home, I plug the phone into the charger in my laundry room and resist the urge to take it out until I'm heading out the door again after breakfast the following day. If I'm heading to exercise first-thing, I resist checking it even until after I'm done and truly in a good position to react to anything I might see pop up in my digital life.

  • I set up my workstation as neutrally as possible. I love being around people while I work as a certain level of ambient noise actually helps me concentrate and feel emotionally connected. But it's just as important that I can focus for long stretches of time without distraction, either from my coworking peers, my friends digitally, or the entropy that results from moving between tasks.

    Physically that means situating myself somewhere where people won't interrupt my work sessions often.

    Digitally that means closing all windows and tabs that could possibly provide an avenue to interruption, such as email or Facebook. It also means maintaining inbox zero across all messaging and email interfaces (Gmail, WhatsApp, Facebook, etc), cleaning all files off my desktop and even setting the desktop color and system interface to a neutral dark grey.

    A simple app called Divvy helps me maintain perfectly divided windows, reducing cognitive friction even further by keeping everything in sight with the right proportions.

I've found the key to minimizing internal distractions lies in creating well-organized places to tuck away concerns for the moment, as well as structuring time to ignore competing ones without constant ambivalence:

  • I use Asana religiously to track anything I feel I "ought" to do. Instead of carrying various points of obligation around in my head and struggling to remember them at the right time, I organize any personal or professional tasks in Asana and seek to assign most of them due dates, which correspond to when I'll actually address them. This lets me temporarily forget that they even exist, since in a way, they really don't exist until they're actionable.

  • I apply a modified Pomodoro technique with Focuslist. It's often hard to give a specific task my full attention because I'm actively doubting whether I should actually be focused on another priority.

    But I've learned that I can temporarily supress that doubt by setting up 55-minute work intervals wherein I decide upfront the single thing I want to accomplish and commit to focusing on just that until the timer goes off.

    During a subsequent 10-minute break, I not only give myself permission to indulge in any form of distraction but even force myself to do so, creating a sort of rest and reward cycle for myself.

  • I'm an organizational freak about my finances. Money can be one of the main drivers of stress and distraction, both explicitly through worrying about how to make ends meet and implicitly through the fretting of office politics that arises from feeling beholden to any given employment option.

    For me, having a comprehensive picture of – and plan for – my money reduces that stress even when savings are low. That means obsessing over the details of just how much money I have and how I expect it to change in the foreseeable future in the context of my upcoming needs.

    I use an app called Foreceipt to track every purchase I make manually and map them to expense categories that I want to budget, such as dining and discretionary purchases. At the end of the month, category totals enable me to review precisely just whether I've met or exceeded those budgets and adjust accordingly.

    On a monthly basis, I update a many-tabbed spreadsheet to record the current state of my assets and track recurring changes to them due to income, expenses and savings. Specifically, I allot a percentage of all income to several types of savings accounts (e.g. 10% for "travel savings") to automate my financial cushion.

    This gives me an immense amount of peace of mind about how to sustain myself financially and prevents financial worries from arising when I'm not explicitly sitting down to manage them.

  • Everything else gets purged onto paper. Sometimes none of the above helps me get worries out of my head since they're too abstract or confusing to address proactively, at least yet.

    In such cases, I simply take out a pen and piece of paper to jot down a rough outline of what keeps robbing my attention. The notes can take any form and they're not primarily about deciding what to actually do about the thoughts. This simple therapy hinges mainly on the act of getting it all out my head in the first place.

    But after I complete the brain dump, I go through my outline and decide which are thoughts that I want to address and which I simply want to let run their course without any action at all, which is a surprisingly effective way to minimize them when done decisively.

    I meditate on those I do want to address with action until coming up with at least one task that'd concretely help if not resolve the worry completely. That task then, of course, goes into Asana above.

    I find that this paper-based exercise almost always reduces and many times resolves the distraction caused by scattered thoughts by moving them either firmly into my locus of control or out entirely.

Applying all of the above won't, of course, necessarily result in a state of flow. I find it's also contigent on a base level of rest and physical health and often aided by a comfortable yet stimulating relationship with the task or experience at hand.

However, in a connected world where many considerations vie for my attention at any given moment, these practices have been invaluable in helping me find that flow and enjoy the autotelic experiences that result with greater regularity.