I’m convinced this is the reason we night owls stay up late.

It’s that magical, elusive state that we don’t realize we’re in until we’re not. When we get into the flow state of mind, everything happens easily. We get great work done, we uncover creative epiphanies, we bust through blocks, and time passes without us even realizing.

It’s not just a late-night thing though.

My musician friends know this state very well. If we’re lucky, performers have experienced that amazing feeling of coming off stage and feeling like we just enjoyed it. I love my morning journaling sessions for this too. Maybe it has happened to you when you’re on a long run on a beautiful day.

There are many activities in which the flow state of mind shows up. Getting into a flow state of mind doesn’t appear to be related to the activity itself, but rather the conditions within which the activity happens.

Flow State of Mind Conditions

This is easy. You need a couple of basic things:

  • no distractions
  • a chunk of time

That’s pretty much it. Ok, go do it! (Haha, right?) It might be easy to list favourable flow conditions, but getting those conditions in place is where the fun begins.

In the next few sections we’ll dive into some common distraction categories and ideas on how to manage them.

Musicians: Distraction-Management Experts

In the writing of this post I came to the realization that musicians are experts at managing distractions. If we don’t manage distractions well on stage, people notice. It’s one thing to be distracted when you’re working towards a deadline. It’s another thing to be onstage and become distracted in front of people.

Musicians also desperately need to manage distractions when practicing in order to get things done, and this is where the alignments show up for people doing all kinds of different projects.

So I realized, who better to offer advice on distraction management than a performer? I teach this all the time to my music students, and it’s really not that different.

Visual Distractions

It’s really hard to get deep work done when you’re pulled away by clutter or other things that are visually distracting. This can show up in all kinds of seemingly-innocuous ways, such as:

  • notifications on your phone, such as pop-ups or badges
  • clutter in your physical workspace, such as your desk
  • clutter in the room in which you’re working
  • having a lot of windows open on your desktop while you’re trying to write a blog post (author goes to close all the other windows)
  • anything else that catches your eye while you’re trying to focus on something

When musicians are performing (or if you’re delivering a presentation) this can also show up as someone sitting in the front row of the audience with a cell phone, or audience members walking in late, or even something silly like the piano being not exactly lined up with the lines on the floor (ugh, I hate that). One time I got distracted by the colour of the felt along the keyboard.

In the end, it comes down to setting up your working conditions so you can look at just the thing you need. When you notice all the other things, you’re not just seeing something distracting; what you’re really seeing is unfinished business. You see clutter and think, “Oh, I really need to clean that up.” Or, “Whoops, I forgot to do that thing. I’ll just finish that up quick.” Or, “I’ll just pop in that load of laundry, it won’t take long.”

It might not take long to manage that little distraction, that’s true. But it seriously gets in the way of your ability to get into, and stay in, that flow state of mind you’re looking for.

Environmental Distractions

Are you too cold or too warm? Are you thirsty? Is your chair uncomfortable? Does your practice piano need a tuning?

These are easy fixes once you realize what’s distracting you. If you know you have a tendency to be distracted by thirst, always plan to have water with you when you sit down to work.

One of my little quirks is I notice how dry the skin on my hands feels when I’m trying to write something (like this blog post). I solved this problem by strategically placing a tube of hand lotion right beside my computer.

Pro tip: use a great diffuser blend to help you! Here’s a previous blog post on the topic.

Aural Distractions

Sometimes there are sounds that are distracting. We all have different ways of managing this, and you probably don’t need me to tell you how to do this. If you’re a musician your solution to this problem will be very different from non-musicians.

I had a roommate in first-year university who is not a musician. She always had her stereo going, and it drove me crazy. I need quiet when I’m concentrating, otherwise I’m concentrating on the music instead. Our solution was she would wear her headphones when I was trying to study.

My mom used to have the stereo going all the time in her house too. She hated it when I would walk into the house and go straight over to the stereo to turn it off. I want to concentrate on our conversation, not be pulled into whatever is playing “in the background.”

For non-musicians, music can be “background music”. If that’s your jam, awesome. Choose your music to suit your mood.

Musicians may find it useful to use noise-cancelling headphones, or to have a fan or other white noise running in the background. You usually won’t find a musician playing music in the background because music is never actually in the background for us.

I enjoy the dull murmuring of a coffee shop, especially when I need some public accountability to keep me from mucking around instead of working.

Administrative Distractions

How’s your to-do list looking? How many unanswered emails are sitting in your inbox?

I think this is the biggest distraction of all, but it’s the hardest to pinpoint. It’s the reason we check our email right before bed and first thing when we get up. It sometimes keeps us up at night too.

If you have too many open loops there’s no way you’re going to be able to shut off that part of your attention when you’re doing something else. You need to get that list and those emails managed or they’ll follow you everywhere.

This right here is one of the main reasons I started digging into all this productivity and work-life balance stuff in the first place. Now that I have solid strategies for my huge to-do list and my raging email situation, I’m able to get into the flow state of mind more quickly and stay there for longer.

If you’re looking for some help for this check out some of my other previous posts:

These are just a couple of ideas to get you started but at least it’s something.

Start noticing when this comes up for you. If you’re checking your email outside of “reasonable” hours, or if you’re constantly reminding yourself of something you have to do, this might be a bigger distraction for you than you realize.

Flow State of Mind – The End Goal

Basically, you’re trying to get to this state:

  • tasks prioritized for attention later
  • you aren’t forgetting anything
  • a plan for tackling the most important tasks
  • you’re confident no one emailing you in the next 30 minutes (or two hours or whatever) will suffer a horrible death if they don’t hear back from you immediately
  • even if your inbox does explode, you have a plan of attack for managing it later

You’re looking to make sure everything is managed so you don’t have to carry around a list of items in your mind. Your mind needs to be thinking about other things.

I found a huge improvement in my ability to focus when I implemented many of these strategies.

For My Creative Night Owls

These suggestions apply to anyone, but I have some thoughts on the particular case of the creative night owl. As stated earlier, I’m convinced this is the reason we work late into the night. It’s quiet and no one expects us to be available to them.

I’ve already said that my ability to focus became improved through some of these strategies. But something else also happened that surprised me.

I can get more focused work done during the day, especially on the administrative tasks, which means I’m not doing “day job” work in the evening. It allows me to compartmentalize my work activities so I can focus on one thing at a time, and I’m not constantly pulled into other things.

This first showed up when I sat down to practice. It’s impossible to memorize a Bach fugue when you’re thinking about a busy inbox. With my inbox under control I don’t give it a second thought, and I’m able to concentrate instead on the task at hand.

This also means I’m able to find pockets of time during the day to get some work done that otherwise would have to happen at night. By extension, it also allows me to start my evening shutdown sooner. And that means I get more sleep. And it also means I can get up earlier to do my morning routine without it hurting too much.

It’s All Connected

Be patient with yourself. Try this strategy to manage your distractions:

  • notice the moment of distraction
  • figure out an easy way to manage the distraction
  • set up your workspace to avoid or quickly address the distraction in future
  • invoke a strategy to manage some of the more complex distractions
  • protect your flow time as a priority

See what happens and let me know! Comment below or send me a message, I’d love to know what works for you!