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The science behind how our brains work best, and how technology and our environment can help

You’re utterly focused. You’ve lost track of time. Nothing else in the world exists. You’re living in the moment.

While this might sound like meditation, it’s a description that can also be applied to the state of flow – the feeling of being so engaged by your work, that you lose yourself to it completely, while massively increasing your productivity in the process.

It’s the holy grail that we all strive for, whether it’s a hobby we’re passionate about, or a project at work. Achieving our best and utilising our maximum potential at all times, can however, be a struggle.

We had the pleasure of talking with Dr. Jack Lewis, a neuroscientist with a passion for exploring how our minds work, to see what motivates us to do our best work, and the important roles that workplace environments, culture, and technology can play.

Our brains in flow
You’ve likely come across the phrase ‘being in the zone.’ It’s the state of mind a composer is in when their hand can barely keep up with the music in their mind, or when a mathematician is effortlessly calculating towards a breakthrough equation. You might feel it when you’re playing a video game, or working on a presentation.

We all experience this flow state at different times, but what actually triggers it? According to Lewis, “Flow is a ‘Goldilocks’ zone. If what you’re doing is too easy, then you’re going to be bored. If, however, what you’re doing matches your personal capability much more closely – if you’re stretching yourself, but not too much and are challenged by what you’re doing – then you’re in a state of flow.  If you go beyond that – if there’s too much to do, or if what you’re doing is too difficult, nothing is achieved.”

This almost zen-like state is characterised by a subjective experience of effortless involvement, where you have a high degree of focused attention, a deep sense of control, and a suspension of self-reflective thoughts – namely, silencing the inner voice of your mind.

Flow is that feeling you have when you’re naturally getting a lot done, without being aware of the effort you’re putting in. When you’re engaged in flow, the ego almost disappears. All that’s left is the act of carrying out your task, and nothing else.

People that are in this flow state tend to keep up their work rate for a very long time, because the sense of progress and achievement, is a pleasant one. Clearly, in a workplace environment, achieving this state as often as possible would be very beneficial – not just to organisations as a whole, but also to individuals, who will find more happiness and purpose in their work.

You can give people all of the technology tools in the world that will help them to be more productive, but if you don’t then give them permission to use those tools at a time, and in a fashion that they feel is best for them, then you’re not going to get the best out of them

Technology – hindrance or help?
As with all tools, technology can either assist us, or, if used incorrectly, get in our way and cause distractions. Anyone who has inadvertently got lost in an infinite scrolling social media black hole can easily relate to the distractions that technology can provide.

On the other hand, those of you who have worked from coffee shops and airports using collaboration software like Teams to keep in touch with colleagues on the go, can attest to the benefits of technology, and the possibilities it provides. From video conferencing rooms, to group editing cloud documents or having auto-transcribed presentations, there’s no doubt that, when used correctly, technology can help vastly increase our overall productivity, although this doesn’t mean that it can always guarantee a state of flow.

Beyond the technology itself, the culture of an organisation is also vital in ensuring that technology is used for maximum impact. By culture, we are mostly referring to the leaders of an organisation, and the precedent they set to employees. For Lewis, the key component of this culture is fostering an atmosphere in which innovative technology use is encouraged:

“You can give people all of the technology tools in the world that will help them to be more productive, but if you don’t then give them permission to use those tools at a time, and in a fashion that they feel is best for them, then you’re not going to get the best out of them.”

Lewis uses the example of sleep pods to demonstrate this point. Most companies who offer them, he states, don’t actually want people using them, or there’s a general stigma about people not being productive when they have a nap at work. This, in his words, is a very 20th century way of thinking.

“Some people work better earlier in the day, others work better later on. Some people have a big lunch because they’ve been working hard all morning and haven’t had time to eat, and they might feel drowsy afterwards and struggle to pay attention or focus. If they shut their eyes for 15-20 minutes, it’s restorative. When they wake up, they’ll be much more productive for the next 45 minutes.”

“Permission is one cultural aspect, but it’s also about giving people the flexibility to work in a manner that suits them best. Everyone is their own master. Even if they’re not a master of their technology, they’re still a master of their own mind. You know when, and where you work best, and where you don’t. The idea that people come in at nine leave at six, and that everyone’s equally productive throughout the whole day is simply unsustainable.”

On top of this, it’s important to note that the odd distraction is also beneficial. Lewis believes that it all comes down to the sources of distraction, versus the source of inspiration. “Distractions which come at just the right time, give your brain a break, and when you return, you might have a different perspective that wouldn’t otherwise have been there.”

Why chase the flow?
After discussing what flow is, the benefits it provides, and how we can help achieve it, you could ask the philosophical question of – why? Why strive to achieve this state, where one loses themselves completely and utterly to the task at hand?

It’s easy to understand why we don’t want tasks that are too hard as they’ll lead to frustration, but choosing to challenge ourselves to a certain level might also seem counter-intuitive, when we could more easily coast along with easier projects.

The answer, lies in boredom, and how it clashes with our survival instincts. “Boredom is terrible,” Lewis states. “The modern world sends us confusing signals. It always seems like labour saving devices are always the answer to being happier. We have washing machines, robot vacuum cleaners – it’s all done for you. In some ways, these things are good, because no one wants to do boring, repetitive tasks, and then have no time to do anything else. But it’s almost got to the point where we’ve got so many labour-saving devices that many end up squandering the time that is freed up. Sometimes it’s more satisfying to do things the long way; sometimes trial and error is the best way to improve ourselves.”

In a modern society where we no longer need to hunt to gather food and water, build shelters or defend ourselves from predators, it’s up to us to find motivation with the things we choose to spend our time on. It’s easy to fall down a philosophical rabbit hole, but if you think back to the last time you were truly in the zone, and the satisfaction you felt afterwards, it’s easy to see why doing everything we can to achieve our best work is so important.