I was chatting with my friend Matt the other day about productivity and how hard it was to get started on some tasks. He pointed me to a model called “Flow,” which was developed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. According to Csíkszentmihályi, “Flow” happens when you are engaged in a highly challenging activity, which is also an activity at which you are highly skilled.
When I read about “Flow” it seems analogous to the feeling you get when you are “in the zone” and performing in what seems to be an effortless way.
Diagnose what’s happening
I’ve printed out a copy of the “Flow” diagram at right and have been using it to help diagnose why I’m avoiding certain tasks. For example, I don’t really like doing my expense reports. I find them to be time-consuming and tedious, so I procrastinate like crazy.
There is no “tedious” zone on the diagram, but my feelings most closely match the “boredom” part of the diagram. That makes sense, since that indicates an unchallenging task that I have a reasonable ability to do.
In a case like filing expenses, there isn’t much I can do to make the task more exciting, so I just batch them together and get them done through sheer force of will (combined with threats from our Finance team that I’d better get them in by quarter end if I want to get reimbursed).
In other cases, when I’m avoiding tasks because I don’t have sufficient skills to be competent at a challenging task, I have two dominant paths I can take:
- Increase my skill level (which could be through practice, study, or asking for help from someone more skilled), or
- Alter the task in some way to make it seem less challenging.
Intersection with productivity best practices
In the past, I’ve often gone for option one, but that can be time consuming.
In my recent “meditations” on the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology, I’ve found that option 2 is more achievable than it seems at first glance. By breaking the difficult challenges down into less daunting subprojects, then translating those into discreet next actions, I can take some of the difficulty out of the work.
I’ve tried this with a number of challenging projects lately, and I’ve managed to get them unstuck through this method.
If you’re interested in more thoughts on this topic, there are a couple of good resources that I know of:
- An excellent book, “Find Your Focus Zone,” that takes best practices from performance coaches (athletes, artists, etc.) and enables anyone to get better at getting “into the zone.”
- An interesting article by Kevin Chiu, discussing how the Flow model integrates with GTD to solve procrastination.