We all have them. Days when we’re on top of our game, solving problems without skipping a beat, when we’re an absolute dream to be around. Days when we attain “flow state”; when we’re in the zone.
But how do we make sure we reach this utopia every day, rather than through happenstance? After all, it not only helps us perform at our best, it generates a wealth of positive feelings for you, your colleagues, your boss and your family.
When we’re in a flow state, life is easy. We’re fully immersed in what we’re doing, with heightened focus and enjoyment in the activity. Our sense of time is lost, we have control over our actions, and the results are rewarding. We have a greater feeling of the potential to succeed, albeit on our own as we become almost oblivious to those around us.
If it feels so good, why don’t we bust a gut to make sure we hit it every day? After all, we are each ultimately in control of our actions, reactions, behaviours and choices.
Here are Thrive’s top tips to secure repeated days in your flow state.
Sleep better and for longer
IKEA is right: “Tomorrow starts tonight”.
- Less than 1% of the population can function at its best with less than 7 hours of sleep.
- Regularly sleeping fewer than 6 hours per night causes an equivalent decrease in performance to forty-eight hours of sleep deprivation.
- Sleeping only 4 hours over five consecutive nights impacts our memory, attention and speed of thinking, equivalent to being drunk.
Other fallout from lack of sleep affecting work performance includes: poor judgement and decision making, lower resilience, more impulsive behaviour, a greater desire for instant gratification, and generally not being such a nice person.
Good sleep needs simple planning and organisation. Take these proactive steps to getting the most out of your sleep:
Physical activity improves our sleep and reduces stress. For some, a brisk walk after dinner is enough; others need something more vigorous. Perhaps a calming stretching session is right for you, or yoga or Pilates?
Timing is highly personalised and you should use trial and error to find out what works best for you.
- Timing: Avoid large meals in the two hours immediately before bedtime.
- Nutrients: Eat foods which promote sleepiness, including almonds, walnuts, bananas, oats and milk.
- Irritants: If something makes you bloated, irritable, gives you stomach pains, indigestion, heartburn, generates too much gas, etc., don’t eat it.
- Alcohol: It helps us get to sleep, but the processing required to remove alcohol from our system overnight interferes with the quality of our sleep.
- Caffeine: Its half-life is five hours or more, so restrict it to earlier in the day.
Massively improve your chances of a great night’s sleep by prepping for it:
- Install a bedtime routine: Plan your bedtime based on when you want to get up and getting 7-9 hours of sleep. Have a hot bath (yes, it really helps). Impose a 2-hour digital sunset. Journal, write a grateful log or relax by drawing a summary of your day.
- Keep good sleep hygiene: Get a comfortable mattress. Sleep in a cave (dark, cool, silent), not an office (remove gadgets, mobile devices and other disturbances).
It’s cheap and easy to stay hydrated, but if you need more convincing:
- 75% of our brain weight is water.
- We lose 2.5 litres of water each day through breathing, sweating and on the toilet.
- It takes just 2% water loss (as a percentage of bodyweight) to trigger a decline in cognitive function.
That decline in cognitive function limits your ability to hit your flow state due to:
- Poor concentration
- Slower reaction times
- Short-term memory issues
- Negative mood changes
- Reduced sense of calm
You may think that our bodies get used to low levels of hydration, but they don’t. However all is not lost – increasing the water intake of habitual under-drinkers improves their brain function.
How to improve your hydration
2% of bodyweight is easy to lose in water, particularly if you’re busy, distracted or otherwise not prioritising your hydration. Minimise the risk by keeping a bottle of water on your desk and drinking small amounts regularly.
We recommend you drink 32ml/kg of water each day, plus 1 litre for every hour of exercise. If you’re 70kg (11st) and not very active, that’s 2¼ litres each and every day.
Only about 30% of water intake comes from food, which means drinking water is crucial for your brain to function. Caffeine doesn’t affect your net hydration levels, but neither should it be included in your water intake. It speeds up the amount you pee, but generally only up to the volume of caffeinated drinks you consume. Alcohol on the other hand does lead to net dehydration.
Exercise during the working day
The benefits of exercising during the working day are massive and include:
- Improved mood & resilience
- Less fatigue
- Better deadline management
- Heightened creativity
- Increased mental sharpness.
You can read more in “Sweating the assets – exercising at work”, including the benefits for your colleagues and business as a whole, but for now, understand that exercise during the working day will help get (or keep) you in your flow state.
The good news is it really doesn’t matter what that exercise is.
Declutter your environment
It’s hard to perform at your best when your environment is cluttered with distractions. With more people working from home, this is more pertinent now than ever. Prime suspects include:
- Surface clutter on your desk or within your eyeline.
- Chores to be done, such as the ironing or washing up.
- Mental clutter, such as unwritten to-do lists, incomplete conversations, things you’re worrying about.
- Family members who interrupt your flow.
- Digital clutter, including emails, messages, social media, and notifications.
Invest time in making your working area as clutter-free as possible, even if you just shove things into cupboards or other rooms for the time being. Write lists to free up your brain from the obligation to remember things. Agree on interruption-free times with the family. Get those chores done before work or before bed.
When you’re in the zone, you’ll want to stay there as long as necessary.
Schedule hard tasks when you’re at your best
Plan to any big, complicated, brainpower-intensive tasks for when you know you are at your best, for example, first thing in the morning, or after you’ve exercised (when your creative juices and problem-solving skills are magnified).
Above all, tackle them head-on. They are unlikely to get easier if you leave them, and they will just add to mental clutter, pulling you out of your flow state.
Use your posture
How you sit and stand has an impact on your performance. Not only does a more open, powerful and expansive posture indicate to others that you mean business, it also triggers biochemical changes in your body.
A 2010 study concluded that a high-power, nonverbal posture led to chemical and behavioural changes for men and women. Subjects had elevated testosterone, decreased cortisol, and increased feelings of power and tolerance for risk. All this by holding a strong posture for two minutes.
Other research has shown that good posture improves confidence, even ahead of public speaking or presentations.
- Feet flat on the floor or a footrest
- Don’t cross knees or ankles
- Knees at similar height to your hips
- Ankles slightly in front of knees
- Keep shoulders relaxed and away from your ears
- Sit up straight with your back against a support
- Stand straight and tall, with your head level
- Your hips should be over your ankles, with your knees very slightly forward
- Keep your shoulders gently pulled back and chest lifted, without arching your back
- Keep your pelvis in a neutral position (we’ve written an article and free training programme to help with this)
- Let your arms hang down naturally at your sides.
How we breathe affects how our body and our brain functions. Purposefully slowing down our breathing triggers reactions through our nervous system including:
- Increasing a state of relaxation; reducing a state of stress
- Increasing a sense of comfort and pleasantness
- Increasing alertness
- Reducing symptoms of anger, depression and confusion
Now, there are times when rapid breathing is appropriate as it’s tied into our ability to respond to shocks quickly. However, that should be the exceptional state, and not how you live generally.
To slow your breathing, breathe in for five seconds then out for five seconds, keeping a constant pace. Do this for 15 breaths any time you feel the need for calm alertness.
It’s more difficult to consume all the nutrients we need for optimal functioning today than 50 years ago. This is due to historic land management, mass food production techniques, being more stressed (which depletes nutrients quickly), and eating highly processed foods with a greater proportion of nutritionally empty calories.
Being low on key nutrients can lead to aches and pains, digestive issues, low energy, poor stress resilience, and a wide array of other outcomes which stop us reaching flow state. Redress the nutrient balance by following these three suggestions:
- Prioritise eating lean protein. It’s important for so much more than our muscles and most people eat very little of it compared to what’s recommended.
- Eat more non-starchy vegetables than you think necessary, and some fruit. Aim for 8-10 fists of vegetables every day – raw, cooked, fresh, frozen, it really doesn’t matter a great deal. If you can’t face eating it, then blitz vegetables in a smoothie with some protein powder and water. With fruit, aim for one fist of fruit for every four fists of vegetables.
- Minimise the highly processed food you eat, such as bread, cakes, biscuits and breakfast cereals. Highly processed food is generally calorie-dense, but to hit flow state, you need foods to be nutrient-dense (such as protein, vegetables and fruit).
We’re not saying to avoid carbohydrates or fat, but to choose high quality, single ingredient, minimally processed options.
There is no magic pill to keep you in flow state long term, but implementing the techniques above will maximise your chances. It’s too easy sometimes to find a reason not to try something different, so let’s help you out:
I don’t have the time
Most of the suggestions don’t actually take up any time, and those which do have been shown to be net time-savers (e.g. exercising during the working day).
It takes effort
Perhaps, but we think you’re worth it, don’t you? If you start thinking of these suggestions as chores, then they will begin to lose effectiveness. As they say, your perception is your reality.
It won’t work for me
How’s what you’re doing at the moment working out for you? You’ve got to the end of this article, so you’re clearly want to change something.
Are you ready to thrive?