Increasing Productivity: Flow

The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to something difficult and worthwhile” — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Humans are at their peak when they are immersed deeply in something challenging.

Cal Newport’s book Deep Work emphasizes that for an individual to receive a deep sense of meaning or achievement in their work, one must go deep — being completely involved in an activity for its own sake, where nothing else is apparent or seems to matter. This is flow.

In this attention-based economy, it is difficult for one to focus intensely on a single thing for an extended period of time. This causes a display of surface intelligence or shallow work — non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create novel value in the world and are easy to replicate. A common example is our belief to be able to multi-task. While seemingly able to do so, the brain cannot concentrate on two things at once.

For instance, if attempting to read a book and listen to a podcast at the same time, we think we are optimally learning. While sometimes it’s plausible to assume we are, when attempting to recite this information, it’s expressed in bits and figments, not really retaining all elements. Concentration is limited to a sole point.

Social media commands your time and attention, and if used without limit, may prevent one from being able to focus fully. It offers personalized information, arriving on an unpredictable intermittent schedule — making these platforms highly addictive and therefore capable of severely damaging one’s attempts to schedule and succeed with any act of concentration. This is a sole example of how external are diguised as beneficiary but in fact often detrimental*.

Deep work can be portrayed as professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push one’s cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

While shallow work is superficial, and elementary to produce, deep work is a hard skill to obtain because it is increasingly more convenient to get distracted with all the external noise. One should be advised, if spending too much time in shallow work, you reduce your capabilities to perform deep work — ‘deep work’ can be used interchangeably with ‘willpower to focus’, and if thought about this way, the amount of willpower is finite. It depletes as you expend it by: multi-tasking between subjects, breaking concentration and returning, and making a decision.

The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.” — Cal Newport

The reasons to perform deep work and achieve flow are far superior than the reasons to continue doing mindless, shallow work.

My favorite author, Robert Greene, emphasizes in his book Mastery that experts in their craft foster a sense of high-level intuition — the ability to sync your rational brain with the intuitive or subconscious brain — note there is a duality. This requires a profound degree of discipline and experience, but in essence it’s the intensity to which one focuses on something until mastery. It’s the ability to not have to rationally process how to do something anymore. It becomes natural or flow-like — knowing how to do something extraordinary without thinking.

There is an analogous relationship between the capacity and depth to which one focuses, and the accumulated knowledge received. In a world where knowledge is power, success is inevitable when your focus is constructive.

When your perceptions is limited to your external environment, your life becomes a combination of sadness and happiness — living without control. One must examine his or her environment and cut out the unnecessary people, social platforms, or anything external that contributes to preventing you from achieving your goals. You have to develop the ability to find enjoyment regardless of external circumstances. A state of flow pivots the focus on the internal environment of a person. It prioritizes internal rewards rather than external rewards. Such individuals lead vigorous lives and keep learning until they die. When fully able to control your time and utilize it efficiently, you will be rewarded greatly.

This is how you survive in an age of distraction.


* The exception for social media being a tool is for those who use it to market themselves, are micro-celebrities, or otherwise make money from it.