Give Me 5 Minutes — And I’ll Give You 5 Tricks to Improve Your Flow

In psychology, “flow” is simply:

The mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. — From Wikipedia

We experience flow as a result from concentration. Once your mind zones in on one specific thing (because remember: your mind cannot multitask), you enter a trance where you do not think before you do something, you just do.

And that’s what flow is – doing without thinking.

Generally, whenever you do something you truly love and are passionate about, it’s easier to achieve a sense of flow. You aren’t fighting with mind to “get into it,” you just are, naturally.

Photo by Leo Chimaera

Even when your mind is in a state of flow, it’s fairly easy to snap out of it and lose productivity. The tiniest distraction can set you off course and cost you precious time.

In the next 5 minutes, I want to share with you 5 tricks that will help you achieve flow, and stay in it. I use each of these myself, so I will show you how I’ve incorporated them with my own pictures.

Wake up Early

1. Wake Up Early

Being able to wake up early and love doing it is a rarity in today’s society. I feel that if you don’t wake up excited to start your day, then you might as well just go back to sleep.

The only problem, is that I can’t figure out what my favorite thing about waking up at 6:20am everyday is:

  • I have all day to do anything I want
  • I’m extra productive in the morning hours
  • The sunrise is just…beautiful
  • Gives me a good time to reflect on yesterday/plan for today

The way you decide to start your day is an important foundation for how the rest of your day will play out. Wake up early, eat a great breakfast, read a book or work out. It’s the little things that will make a huge difference in your mind.

I sent a tweet out last week about how great I felt waking up early and got a response from my friend Sean Davis. It about sums things up:

Twitter quote from Sean Davis

2. Create A Great Environment For Yourself

Create a work space you loveIf you spend multiple hours a day in a single room, what’s worse than spending all that time in a room you hate?

The least you can do to make your time more enjoyable is to cater your environment to your own needs and likings.

I work from home, and spend many hours a day in my room (which is basically an office with a bed), so I am constantly changing things around to ensure I love where I work.

Buy a plant and set it on your desk. Hang a painting on your wall, or decorate for the holidays. These all can go a long way to helping you stay relaxed and in that sense of flow.

3. Whiteboards

I own 5 whiteboards. 2 large ones on my wall, 1 by my desk and 2 above my bed. Whiteboards are great for conveying ideas and organizing your thoughts.

I use my own whiteboards to:

  • Mind map articles/ideas
  • Write down any quick thoughts
  • Keep track of my todo list

I placed them in areas of my office where they are easy to get to, and where I’ll always be looking. If you ever have to clear your mind quickly, whiteboards are the easiest way to get it all out.

Whiteboards


Fun Fact of the Day:

The reason I keep whiteboards above my bed is so when I have an idea while trying to sleep, I can easily reach up and jot it down without waking myself up too much. This is how I got the idea for Life Notion.

4. Notebooks

Write in notebooksThink of a notebook as a portable whiteboard. You can bring it everywhere. Write ideas down, mind map, all the same stuff.

Why not just use the Notes app on your iPhone? I’ll tell you why.

Dr. Virginia Berninger, who studies writing development and disabilities, conducted a study that measured children’s abilities to write the alphabet, sentences and essays using a pen and keyboard.

She found that:

“Children consistently did better writing with a pen when they wrote essays. They wrote more and they wrote faster.”

The reason for this? A quote from Lifehacker sums it up:

The difference, Berniger notes, may lie in the fact that with writing, you use your hand to form the letters (and connect them), thereby more actively engaging the brain in the process. Typing, on the other hand, involves just selecting letters by pressing identical-looking keys.

You’ll be doing yourself a favor by writing your thoughts with a pen and paper. It’s a way to exercise your brain and become more engaged to what you write (and that’s what flow is all about).

5. Handicap Your Phone

Minimize phone usageWe are engulfed by information. People are using phones more than ever to constantly consume content and effectively get less work done.

Ever been in the middle of something important, only for your phone to rudely interrupt you with a notification?

Your phone is the biggest distraction in your work space, and you’ve got to learn how to control it. Especially if you have a smart phone.

Here’s what I did to remove my phone as a distraction from my life:

  • Turn off all sounds, so when I get an alert – I won’t hear it (unless it’s a call, but who uses phones to call nowadays!?)
  • Turn off all popup notifications. I have an iPhone, so all my notifications are stored on one screen I can check back on later.
  • Only download apps you NEED. I never keep more than one page full of apps. I keep apps that are important and can positively impact my life.
  • Don’t check it all the time. This can be tough, but know this: your phone will still be available to you after you’re done completing an important task.

How Do You Stay in Flow?

My 5 minutes are up, and I hope you’ve taken away some value from my own tips and pictures. Now, I’m turning this over to you: how do you achieve a sense of flow? And when you’re in it, how have you ensured you stay in it? Please leave a comment below.

About the author: Alex Mangini is an 18-year-old web designer, blogger and founder of Life Notion. He has been helping people online since the age of 14, and hopes to inspire even more through the blog. Follow him on Twitter →

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Kian December 6, 2011 at 11:10 am

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Hey Alex,

This is by far my favourite of the articles you’ve written. I’m getting more and more into making little changes to my sleep patterns, work environment and habits, and I’m seeing so many cool results.

As for the points you metioned I am already following most of them.
1) Wake up early – I wake up at 6 am jump straight out of bed and exercise. Even on weekends I am up at 6am by choice.
2) Work environment – I’ve cleared my workspace, and bought two plastic (but very real looking plants, I can’t be bothered to water them)
3) Whiteboards – I have recently started using Mindmeister but this is an awesome idea and I love your setup.
4) Notebooks – I have only recently got into this and I am seeing so much more benefit from having a book and writing things down. Before I used to use word documents, and online programs but it’s so powerful to see something that came from your hand then onto the page (weird I know) and it’s in your own style… as the lifehacker quote said, it’s not a standard font….
5) Handicap your phone – I have one app on my Android homepage and it’s ‘Wunderlist’ to jot ideas and tasks on the go. I have no sounds, no notifications and I turn it off at 6pm until the next morning.

Great post!

Alex Mangini December 6, 2011 at 8:39 pm

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Kian,

Glad you liked this post! I don’t have many posts on this blog yet, but this is definitely going to be one of my favorites for a while!

Sounds like you’ve got everything together pretty well man! :-D I used to use Wunderlist on my iPhone, but I found that (for minimalist purposes), to just keep the standard Notes app and jot anything there when a tangible notepad is not available. Not familiar with Android though.

In all honesty, the fewer online note-taking activities you do, the better. You should DEFINITELY cancel your MindMeister account and invest the $9 into a whiteboard. It’s so worth it, Kian.

Kian December 8, 2011 at 6:55 am

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Actually the mindmeister is free, but i can see the reasoning behind the whiteboard. Just so much more control and freedom rather than drawing perfect circles and arrows with a piece of software… I’m already looking at areas to put up the whiteboard.
Kian recently posted..Balancing Your Life To Unleash True SuccessMy Profile

Ruth - The Freelance Writing Blog December 6, 2011 at 2:35 pm

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I do a daily Ashtanga yoga practice that is ultimately all about flow. 2 hours, every morning, usually at 6:00 am. It’s taught me how to come to my mat, every day, no matter my mood, no matter the weather, no matter how I’m feeling – and go through the motions that I know to be good and healthy. I detach emotionally and complete my practice, focusing on my breath, from start to finish.

I transfer the lessons learned through my yoga practice off of my mat to my daily life. It’s all about flow – and you’ve nailed it.

Alex Mangini December 6, 2011 at 8:42 pm

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Ruth! Thanks for stopping by! :-D So psyched for our next masterminding session.

I’ve always thought yoga was really fascinating…but never tried it. It’s definitely on my ‘bucket list.’ I think the closest I’ve come to it so far is laying on my bed and just thinking haha.

But I think self-discipline (especially keeping a routine like that, early in the morning) is so crucial to your own development. Awesome you have stuck to something like that!

Rob Hoey December 6, 2011 at 2:57 pm

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Hi Alex,
I would add only one thing–under no circumstance allow yourself to go on the internet when you’re supposed to be working. Do your work first. A minute turns into an hour, and time is lost easier than a tube of lipbalm. Wait until all of your work is done before going online.

Alex Mangini December 6, 2011 at 8:47 pm

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Rob,

Great point, I can’t agree with you more! My ‘job’ is on the Internet, and I have taught myself to stick to ONLY what I need to do first. I feel like people get too involved in social networks and form a sort of dependency to check them all the time (I know that was me). So, it’s pretty easy to get distracted.

And I can’t even tell you how many “hours” I’ve lost to goofing around online. I could have sworn I only checked Facebook for a minute…

Sean Davis December 6, 2011 at 3:21 pm

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Alex! I followed your tweet to this post and was absolutely thrilled to see my tweet featured! I appreciate the link love.

This is a great article and I agree with everything in it. Just today2 hours ago, I decided that I needed to get my workspace together. I tweeted “My workspace is absolutely horrible. I need change. http://pic.twitter.com/3LjnohZ9 ” because I was fed up with the clutter and discomfort. As soon as I finish this comment, I’m going to start rearranging.

As for waking up early, like the tweet says, I did it everyday in the Army. It has become part of me even though I am now a veteran. Waking up early somehow makes you feel like you are awake for a reason. Even if you don’t have a specific reason, you’ll start looking for one.

When I wake up, which is never any later than 0800 (that’s sleeping in), I feel like the clock is ticking so I better “get started.” That’s when I create my to-do list, knock things out that I only thought about yesterday, and set the pace for the day.

I truly believe that waking up early in the morning is absolutely necessary if you want to have success online. I’m not sure about other fields of work but I would assume the same.

Thanks for the small feature, my friend. Much appreciated.

Sean

Alex Mangini December 6, 2011 at 8:51 pm

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Hey man, in all honesty — your tweet was the first thing I thought of when I decided to include that item in the list. Just had to spread around some link love man, enjoy. :-D

…now if only I had seen your workspace tweet, I could have included it here too. ;-) But seriously, did you actually rearrange it? Let’s see how it looks now!

That’s exactly how I feel when I wake up (after today, I’ve decided I want to wake up at 6am, not 6:20 anymore). It’s like, now that I’m up — I best make use of my time. Because man, is there a lot I want to do.

And I was happy to include you in here man. If I can find something that I feel will add value to my articles: I’m gonna throw it in!

See you around buddy.

Sean Davis December 6, 2011 at 9:06 pm

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Good deal, bro. I actually like that tactic for coming up with content. Seeing this made me think two things…

1. Always be on the lookout for things that spark great content.
2. Continue to keep high grammatical standards online because you never know when you’ll be quoted (or passed up on a great opportunity to be quoted… like this).

My work space looks just as cluttered as it did this morning if you view my pictures… http://twitter.com/SDavisMedia/#/media/slideshow but it’s definitely cleaner for me. I Took the printer off of the main desk for more desk space. And took the speak box and surge protector off of the floor for better foot space. I bought a stand to prop my monitor up, which helps with my posture. I have been slouched over for about a year. No good!

I also have my camera set up on a tripod and now it has room on the desk. MUCH better for my videos (when I really start making them). All in all, man, your article is on point.

I have been waking up at 7:30 lately. I think I’m going to change that to 6 too. Keep doing big things, bro. I am utterly inspired that you made things happen from ages 14 to 18. I’m a decade late but now I’m ready to do the same.

You got a new subscriber!

Sean Davis December 6, 2011 at 9:07 pm

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Hmmm… that link was supposed to show my Twitter pictures.

Alex Mangini December 7, 2011 at 8:35 pm

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Found the picture, think it’s a definite improvement!

And my man — at least you’re starting. Can’t wait to see what you do.

Conni Biesalski December 6, 2011 at 3:28 pm

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Yes, a productivity post with a proper purpose. I love it.

Regarding number 5:
I own an iPhone as well and recenlty went from too many apps to count to only having one page of apps (not counting some of the default ones that I don’t need, and are thus banned to page two). It’s awesome. I got rid of all the social media apps, the RSS app and all the rest that made me waste time and distract myself from life or other meaningful work.

I reclaimed a bit of freedom I think. ;)

Alex Mangini December 6, 2011 at 8:53 pm

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Thanks for the great comment Conni!

So what apps are useful to you that you feel like you HAVE to have? The only thing I use my second page for is for a folder called ‘Trash’ full of all the default iPhone apps I have little to no use for. :-D

It’s actually…liberating to have a phone light on apps. I feel free too! ;-)

Conni Biesalski December 7, 2011 at 3:01 am

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Dito!

On my first page, I’ve got (apart from a few essential default ones, such as Maps, Clock, Camera etc) Week Cal (better calendar app), public transport for Berlin, Evernote, English German Dictionary, Weather.info and Hipstamatic.

How about you?

Alex Mangini December 7, 2011 at 7:23 am

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The screenshot of the iPhone in the post is my actual phone. :-D They’re all apps I definitely need, but make sure to not overuse.

Also, I got rid of the default Maps app…I feel like MapQuest is a lot better and easier while driving (since it tells you where to go rather than you having to read the directions).

I can talk iPhone all day haha. :-D

Rob Hoey December 6, 2011 at 8:21 pm

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Hi Alex–don’t know if this means anything to you, but I actually got more work done today than I have in a month with my novel. I guess you inspired me and I wasn’t aware of that at the time. As they say in France, you rock.

Alex Mangini December 6, 2011 at 8:54 pm

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Are you kidding me? I love hearing things like this man! Glad I could help you out, means a lot to know my work is helping others in one way or another.

Hope to see you around the blog more!

Rochelle December 7, 2011 at 7:43 am

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Really LOVED this post. Seen so many blogs today, and this is definitely by far my favorite for today. :) I need to get a whiteboard, I think its great to put inspiring quotes, and goals you have.

Alex Mangini December 7, 2011 at 8:35 pm

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Glad you liked this so much Rochelle! I had a lot of fun writing it and I’m really glad to know you enjoyed it.

See you around. :-D

Azurne Belton December 7, 2011 at 10:03 am

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Wow…Ths was really a good read! My life right now is choatic, so reading this article really inspired me to want to create some kind of flow to it. Some mornings I’m able to get up early and go to the gym, but it’s never consistent. I really have to discipline myself better. Thanks for the inspiration.

Alex Mangini December 7, 2011 at 8:37 pm

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Azurne,

Glad this helped you out. Following schedules are hard sometimes (especially when it comes to the gym), but I think that it’s work getting into a habit of following a few routines. Don’t make your life one giant routine, just be sure to consistently do the things you need to do.

Adrienne December 7, 2011 at 2:01 pm

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Hey Alex,

Great article and great points, all of them. Okay, let’s see.

Since I’ve been working at home I told myself that I could get up any darn time I want. I still get up early but I didn’t want to set my alarm. I’ve had to do that all my life and I hated it. That’s right, I love to sleep. But I will admit when I get up early and get a jump on my day I seem to get so much more accomplished and I find myself not spending all night on the computer either. It’s just making myself get back into that routine.

Like you, my office is in my bedroom. I own a small one bedroom condo so I don’t have the room for a separate office. But, I do love my home and I love where my desk is set up. I have a plant on the file cabinet right next to my desk and my vision board hangs right above my desk as well. I have natural sunlight streaming in and it’s a great place to work.

I don’t have any white boards up but I work off a notepad as well. I write out everything I need to accomplish for the day and even weeks and months ahead. I find it works much better for me when I have it in front of my face and not on some electronic calendar. I also keep a smaller notepad with me in my purse for when I’m on the go. That’s when the best blog ideas hit me.

I’m not an electronic whiz so I don’t have the iPhone, Smartphone or any of those fancy ones. I just make sure that I concentrate on the work at hand and I ignore all other distractions.

Great tips and thanks for sharing these with us. Nice to see how you operate your business and what works best for you.

See you again on the 19th! Sure looking forward to it!

~Adrienne

Alex Mangini December 7, 2011 at 8:43 pm

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Thanks for the comment Adrienne! :-D

I used to think that “self-employment” meant “waking up whenever I want,” but I quickly figured some things out. To be able to do what we do, we need to discipline ourselves harder than others. And I feel like that starts with pushing yourself to wake up early.

Keeping your thoughts on a notepad, sticky note — or anything you can physically write on is just so much better than typing. Can’t tell you how many notebooks I’ve gone through writing down blog post ideas, haha.

So excited to meet with you guys again on the 19th, see you there! :-D

Fred Tracy December 7, 2011 at 3:49 pm

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Hey Alex, these are such great tips.

Typically I pick one and expand upon that, but because they are such great tips, I’m going to pick three. My favorite three are: the one about whiteboards, cell phones, and waking up early.

Now, I’m pretty good about cell phones and whiteboards, but I’m horrible about waking up early. It’s so tempting to sleep in!

This is such a great subject to write on though, so I’m glad you did it. I love being in the flow.

Alex Mangini December 7, 2011 at 8:45 pm

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Thanks for the comment Fred!

Glad there’s another pro-whiteboarder here! :-D How many do you own?

I’ve been pretty good at waking up early, I just hope that I can stick to it. Especially if I’m up late the night before…

I think I’m going to write a lot more about flow soon, because I had to take out a lot from this post so it wouldn’t turn into a short novel haha. :-D Definitely a great subject to write about.

See you around man.

Fred Tracy December 8, 2011 at 12:48 pm

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I know I already said this, but the way your comment section turns black is SO cool!

Hah, I used to have two.. now I only have one. one was a calendar you could write on, and it fell off the wall so I gave it to my sister.

Yes, please do write more on this topic, it’s an awesome one!

See ya. :)
Fred Tracy recently posted..How Powerful Is Your Reality?My Profile

Dan Gheesling December 7, 2011 at 4:54 pm

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Alex,

Great post! Content is awesome and the design is phenomenal. You’ve just inspired me to set the alarm clock 20 mins earlier. What time do you normally crash for the night and do you do something in particular to wind down? I’ve read that if people use any sort of electronics before bed, it keeps the brain awake longer.

Very glad you are a part of the Mastermind – you offer a lot of value to the group!

Take care,

Dan

Alex Mangini December 7, 2011 at 8:52 pm

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Thanks for stopping by man!

Glad you’re getting up earlier! When I wrote this post, I was waking up at 6:20. It inspired me even to start getting up 20 minutes sooner as well.

I generally try to go to bed around 10-11, and I always read on my iPad for about an hour and drink either a glass of milk or some hot tea. It’s all really relaxing stuff.

It’s actually not that using electronic devices will keep you up longer. It’s how you use them.

If you go on the computer to check your email, Twitter, Facebook, blog and browse around the web — your brain is constantly working and becoming more active. So obviously, it will take longer to shut down and fall asleep.

Now, if you did one thing (like read without distraction), your brain is focused on just one thing, and becomes less active. It’s a psychological thing.

I think I’m going to write a post about this tomorrow man, you’ve got me in a writing mood! :-D

Stoked for the next Mastermind group.

Dia December 8, 2011 at 7:03 pm

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Hi Alex,

waking up early is very crucial if we want to achieve success and our goals in life. I personally wake up at 5 every morning to exercise. I’ve been doing this for over 16 years now. It is for sure a characteritics of the successful. Thanks for sharing

Brandon January 1, 2012 at 1:48 am

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Hey Alex,

This post is just incredible. Lately, I’ve been almost obsessed with the concept of ‘Flow’ in psychology. It’s helped me through really tough times lately after breaking up with my girlfriend of 3 years and temporarily getting kicked out of college.

I don’t know if you’ve read this book yet, but I highly recommend ‘Flow’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, where he really goes into great depth about “the psychology of optimal experience” or “Flow” that most of us are familiar with.

Essentially, the flow experience is when you’re involved with an activity that is both challenging and one that matches your current skill. When both of these match equally, you get in that ‘Focus’ or ‘In the zone’ mode.

I guess also, that if they match PERFECTLY, then that’s where your real passion comes into play.

Writing, reading, blogging, (and just recently) photography/videography, heavy meditation, and very intense workouts are activities that get me in that state. It’s amazing.

Ok, sorry for the long comment, this post just really resonated with me so I had to share.

Thanks for the tips in this post. (I AM NOW definitely going to put a whiteboard above my bed….that is GENIUS! :)

Take Care

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