Flow and the Control of Attention

tl;dr: Creativity is one of the last areas for human superiority in a world of bots and AI. Here are some thoughts about how I try to reach the Flow state.

Over the past year or so, I have evolved my daily schedule to optimize for slots of uninterrupted time to do creative work.

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Apparently, I was morphing from a “manager” schedule to a “maker” schedule, as Paul Graham’s excellent post, Maker Schedule, Manager Schedule from 2009 helped me appreciate.

I don’t really think of myself as a “creative” or a “maker,” but I have come to appreciate the value of non-interruption as well as the potential for meetings to destruct or hinder creative efforts in significant ways.

What I do (or try to do) during these slots, which I call “sprints,” is to ensure that I have at least 90 minutes of time with zero distractions.

There are a few things that I do.

  • leave my cell phone in another room, thus resisting the temptation to pick it up.
  • turn off all notifications on my laptop
  • close all windows that are non-related to the task at hand
  • close all messaging apps…(this is a MUST)
  • set up an empty notepad file to capture “to-do’s” or other notes that pop up during the work session.
  • put on headphones and pick a track of classical music (lyrics-free is important) on Pandora or YouTube
  • go “full screen” on the primary window (the document or deck or spreadsheet), thus making it the focus

It sounds kind of intense, and I suppose it is.

To make this type of approach works requires a high-degree of self-discipline and I certainly don’t nail it 100% of the time. It helps that I work from home and that there is usually no one else around, but it’s possible in other environments. (Bose noise cancelling headphones are crazy expensive, but for me, they have been really worth it.)

It’s a challenge, I am not going to lie.

After all, email, Facebook, Telegram, CNN, ESPN, and Twitter are just a click away. The phone could ring (though I put it on Do-Not-Disturb, so only calls from my wife and kids will get through).

Yet it is in the “sprints” where the essence of what I can offer is accessible to me. It’s where I am able to focus on delivering the unique value of which I am capable (whatever that is).

In my experience, knowing that I have a block of time creates a critical environment that is conducive to “Flow,” that state where your mind is relaxed and you’re able to connect new ideas and concepts (or at least try to).

As a concept, Flow got its prominence from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi about 10 years ago. I’ve posted two videos of his below that may help.

In an era of increased automation of manual jobs and increased data wizardry led by artificially intelligent agents, the creative capability of humans is a unique trait and, perhaps, the last remaining competitive advantage.

Understanding how to access this by creating the right environment and then having the self-discipline to make it happen feels like a critical skill in an era of mass distraction.

It’s an Attention Economy, but the “secret” is that we all control our own attention… if we choose.

To have control of attention requires, to some extent, control over schedule.

I realize it’s not possible to have 100% control, but the more you can do to give yourself space, the more likely you are to be successful in achieving Flow.

A few months ago, I read Dan Pink’s book, When: The Science of Perfect Timing. I started to track the time of day when I was personally best suited for trying to hit flow.

For me, I discovered that there is a ‘prime time for Flow,” which is 9am-11:30am.

So, I do what I can to leave that slot open and set up calls and meetings for mid-late afternoon.

Here’s to hoping this is a recipe for success.




Flow and the Control of Attention was originally published in Data Driven Investor on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.