All of us have things we love to do outside of work that keep our attention rapt. How great does it feel to get so involved in what you’re doing that time flies and you can think of nothing else! In this month’s newsletter, we’re going to talk about finding that same intensity of focus in our work. Making space to be creative Before we dive into the concept of a “flow state“ let’s make space in our schedules for being creative. Here’s why: the most optimal time for reaching deep concentration and originality is when the challenge at hand is compatible with your competencies. Cleaning the junk out of your email inbox, for example, is unlikely to inspire the greatest contributions to your work. That’s because deleting blinking ads and coupons is annoying but not very hard to do. Try to automate mundane tasks that keep things orderly but don’t require a lot of heavy lifting. In the case of email housekeeping, you could tidy your inbox at the same time every day. Set a 10-minute timer to avoid overthinking the process. Make folders for things you aren’t ready to delete but shouldn’t be distracted by right now. Perhaps email isn’t your easiest task but take the effort to decide what is. To isolate the items in your workload that can be compressed into automation, make a list of your departmental responsibilities. Put them into categories such as “simple”, “moderately challenging”, and “complex.” Tasks that don’t take up too much brain power shouldn’t overstay their calendar time either- even the ones that are tedious. Plan your approach for these tasks, be prescriptive in how often you’ll tackle them and how long they should take, and then slide them in your schedule at regularly occurring intervals. “The Secret to Happiness” Now that your daily routine is a little airier, it’s time to talk “flow state.” First, some background on the topic. Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi gave a Ted Talk on what he claimed to be “The Secret to Happiness.” Growing up in post-war Europe, he was surrounded by hopelessness. He noticed that some of the adults around him remained devastated by WWII and couldn’t find their way around the sadness. He began considering what makes people truly happy and quickly realized it wasn’t money. He zeroed in on creatives such as artists and musicians because of the devotion they have for their craft even without the promise of “making it big.” What would make someone work that hard for such little reward? His years of study revealed that all kinds of people take on hobbies and sports they find so satisfying that they lose all sense of space and time when doing them. Their contentment is their reward. Csikszentmihalyi says we can all access our creativity and retreat into this intuitive mental state or “flow.” We’re not talking about things that are a cinch (please see section on automating tasks that come easy to you!). The idea is to find yourself so deeply focused on whatever you are doing, that nothing- not your phone, fiddling with the music, or wondering how long until lunch- is going to distract you. It’s being completely present. Not only is regularly dipping into a “flow state” satisfying, if we can access this process at work, flow can help us to be productive, motivated, and even foster an appreciation and sense of loyalty for our organizations. Finding your flow state It’s true that you can’t totally manufacture the flow state. Often, getting in the zone is most powerful when it happens spontaneously. But you can certainly optimize the chance of finding your flow by following these steps: Choose the right task. We already decided what’s too easy. A recent article in BBC Worklife warned, alternatively, against choosing something unfamiliar because the process of learning something new can be too frustrating. You can’t get the flow going if you’re irritated. - Pick something you’ve done before, and you find a little bit challenging but isn’t so unfamiliar that you get stressed either. Just like you did with the simple tasks in your workload, try making a list of the exciting components of your job. When do you feel most invested? What captivates your attention? What do you find meaningful about your work? Ready your work environment. A quiet, orderly workspace, with minimal distractions is best. Put your phone away and close your calendar. Put on a sweater if it’s chilly. Some people like working with quiet instrumental background music, others prefer stone silence. You might also try a “brown noise” playlist on Spotify. Brown noise is a low-frequency sound that is meant to provide a feeling of calm and focus. Set a clear goal. This step is very personal, of course. Start broad- what is the overall purpose of this exercise? To improve upon a certain system? From there, continue fine tuning your thoughts to establish your desired outcome, how to measure your success and report your results.
The way we speak is often the first cue we give others that they can count on us to provide meaningful information, that we are credible and trustworthy. However, one of the trickiest things about public speaking instead of writing- whether in front of a big audience or a small group- is that it’s happening in real time. We don’t get the extra few minutes to review and polish like we do when writing an email. Public speaking is hard. Sometimes our minds race much faster than our ability to form words which causes us to look nervous or pepper our presentation with fillers. And while some can improv, many of us need to practice or even memorize lines before we can talk comfortably in front of a crowd. For anyone with an eye toward leadership, public speaking is a crucial skill. Doing it well assures listeners that we will be dependable when leading, supporting or managing whatever task is at hand and gives us an opportunity to draw them into our causes and interests. In this month’s newsletter, we’d like to provide some strategies to help you do it better. Eliminate filler words Filler words often creep into our vernacular without us noticing. It’s okay to let that happen sometimes, but if you find yourself saying “like…”, “um…”, or “you know what I mean…” a lot, be aware that you might be deflating the power of your message. Fillers often operate like a brain break, a second to catch up, a mental breath. Our brains do need breaks, but it’s better to stay silent than fill the space with nothing words. A recent article in Mental Floss explained that great speakers often take pauses- sometimes even as long as two or three seconds. Taking a break when speaking might seem long to you but, to others, it comes across as being thoughtful and organized. Here are some strategies for cutting filler words: Take a moment before speaking to mentally focus. You can use mindfulness tricks or visualization strategies. Inhale deeply and imagine each breath scrubbing your brain of excess worry and unrelated topics. Create pauses when you speak. Remember that a good public speaker pauses when they need a quick second to plan their next sentence or even transition ideas. In fact, well-placed pauses can add suspense and excitement to your delivery. Break the habit with practice. Tape yourself or enlist a mentor or colleague to target the filler words you are most prone to overusing and then attack them. For example, if you tend to say, “she was like” practice replacing like with said. Then make a list of substitution words such as “explained”, “complained”, “expressed”, “enthused” …Your goal is two-part: ditch the “likes” and replace them with more interesting language. Practice, practice, practice. Non-verbal speaking cues Not to pile on, but what you do with your hands and the rest of your body matters too. Get yourself into the habit of making eye contact by starting with your family, roommate, or even yourself in a mirror. It can be awkward to look people in the eye but looking at your notes or focusing on the back door dilutes your credibility. So maybe the next time you ask your neighbor if the recycling truck is coming this week, notice the color of their eyes when they answer. It sounds incredibly awkward but taking that step will force you to linger just long enough to show your interest in sincerity in their answer. Mind your posture too because standing up straight exudes energy, confidence and poise. Here’s a checklist to make sure you are standing up straight: Brace your core Hold your elbows out to the side, lace your fingers in front of you Feet pointed straight ahead Keep your shoulders down, away from your ears Hold chin high Fold practice in your daily routine When you have something coming up that involves speaking in front of others, fold practice into your daily routine. Maybe you are being interviewed by a late-night talk show host on your commute or serving as an expert witness in a courtroom while fixing dinner. When it’s just you, talking to yourself doing the things you normally do, you tend to be more experimental. Try out an anecdote or explaining a complex idea. Ask a hard question or predict which ones might be thrown your way. Formulate an outline and fill it in with details in these moments where the stakes are low. If you find something that works, write it all down so that the next time you practice…you will have a script. Ask a mentor: Your mentor has likely had many opportunities to speak in front of a group, ask them for tips and strategies to do it better: What do you think the most confident speakers do in front of a crowd? How do you prepare for a presentation, big or small? Have you ever signed up for Toastmasters or any other public speaking training? Are you willing to observe me giving a presentation and then give me feedback?