Sustaining productivity and motivation for any amount of time can be difficult for freelancers, thanks to the multiple projects and deadlines we tend to juggle, plus the enticing distractions that come with working from home (read: our sweet, sweet beds). And now, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing on work may feel completely out of reach — but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. With just a few adjustments to your workday schedule, you can establish a routine, known as a flow state, that will allow you to be more prolific and efficient.
The term “flow” was coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975 and it refers to a state of total absorption and self-motivation, in which someone simultaneously executes their work at hand and hones their craft overall. Although a state of flow can be attained during any activity, it’s of particular interest in a professional context, since (as we just commiserated) concentration and motivation are at a premium when we’re trying to get work done. And, according to a review of 21 studies on flow, cultivating this rhythm of focused, productive work won’t just pay off in us meeting our deadlines — it may also help boost our mood and engagement in our work overall.
Here’s how you can seek out (and sustain) a sense of flow while working from home.
Don’t rush into your workday.
Just because you can start working the moment you roll out of bed doesn’t mean you should — and it certainly isn’t the most productive start. Walk your dog, finish making breakfast, get a quick yoga practice in, and then start working. “The temptation is especially high to look at email and start responding,” says Matt Lundquist, LCSW, a psychotherapist and director of Tribeca Therapy who provides remote therapy from home. Starting your day by fielding emails can easily lead you to take a hodge-podge approach to the rest of your tasks. (After all, research shows that distraction is a major inhibitor of flow, and what’s more distracting than an overflowing inbox?) It’s better to ease into your day. “Having at least some food and coffee or tea [to start your day], if that’s a part of your routine, is helpful,” Lundquist says.
Break down major tasks into manageable steps.
Feeling as if you’re facing an impossible assignment will bring your workday (and accompanying flow) to a halt. Lundquist and Marni Amsellem, PhD, a psychologist specializing in anxiety, depression, and coping strategies for current and future challenges, recommend breaking your work into clearer, bite-size tasks whenever possible. “We tend to underestimate how long something will take to get done all at once but underestimate how much we can accomplish in smaller chunks,” Lundquist says. That sense of accomplishment, even for something as minor as writing a paragraph or drafting an important email, can be immensely rewarding. Plus, it’ll make the following task feel even more approachable, Dr. Amsellem says: “Breaking [work] down into things that feel manageable can encourage you to keep going.”
Listen to your body to stay motivated.
Motivation is key to sustaining a sense of flow, and staying driven throughout the day is easier than you think. Take breathers to grab a snack, stretch your legs, or move to a new seat will boost both your energy and desire to keep working. Resist the urge to keep working if your body is telling you otherwise. As much as we all want to enjoy that sustained feeling of flow for hours at a time, forcing yourself to grind when you’re hungry, stiff, or bored isn’t going to help you produce your best work. Physical inactivity and monotony will drain your energy and motivation, Lundquist says.
Foster fun while you work.
It’s absolutely possible to achieve a state of flow while working, but research suggests that it may be easier to attain during leisure activities. So, try to find moments that feel more playful, like wearing whatever you want or blasting music. Lundquist also suggests getting your co-workers or fellow freelancing friends involved: Make a game out of the day by seeing who can work without distraction for the longest. Acting goofy or lighthearted when you’re on the clock might not feel natural, but adopting an optimistic attitude (yes, the work can and will get done) can help lower the stakes, make your work feel less dire, and get you that much closer to a state of flow.
Set firm boundaries.
Don’t work into the wee hours just because you can. Burnout is still a thing (in a 2019 report from Buffer, 22% of remote workers considered unplugging after work to be their greatest struggle), even when you work from home and set your own routine. Schedule a virtual happy hour with your quarantined friends or plan to cook dinner with someone you’re co-isolating with (making plans with someone else will make them easier to stick to). Even something as simple as planning to exercise or watch an episode of your favorite show at the end of the day will help you switch to relaxation mode. And, make no mistake: Winding down is an important restorative step that will help you go hard again tomorrow.
Write tomorrow’s to-do list.
Take a moment to get organized for the next day. Rank your tasks in order of priority and break those down into smaller steps. Make note of any clients you need to check in with and double-check that your calendar is up to date. With these little housekeeping items out of the way, it’ll be much easier to settle in and regain your sense of flow tomorrow (after you’ve had your coffee, of course).