OntheGoAthlete #6 — The flow state

How to stay in the present moment

Hey — Edgar here.

In startups and in life, there are always a million things to think about. Whether you’re angsting over a huge project at work or trying to keep up with the latest trend on social media, it’s easy to find that your mind is running nonstop.

But sometimes, you get into a calm state. Everything feels right and work seems to flow out of your fingers with minimal effort. That’s the zone. Being 100% in the present moment.

The question is: how do you get into the zone? And once you’re there, how can you stay present?

In this week’s edition of the OntheGoAthlete newsletter, we’ll dive into the zone and how to leverage it to increase productivity while maintaining balance.

The hot hand

The feeling of flow, where you stop thinking completely, happens often across all sports. In basketball, they call this the hot hand. The best example of this is when Klay Thompson, a shooting guard for the Golden State Warriors scored 37 points in a single quarter, breaking the previous NBA record of 32 points.

Now for those who aren’t familiar with the sport, scoring 30 points in a game is already impressive. The best players in the NBA can average up to 30. But 30+ points in a quarter? That’s unfathomable.

Over a 12 minute span, Klay Thompson went a perfect 13-for-13 from the field, 9-for-9 from 3 point range, and 2-for-2 from the free-throw line.

His teammates and the announcers were mindblown. But when he was asked how he did it after the game, he could only say:

“I don’t know what to tell you. I just got into a zone and it was the best zone I’ve ever been in.” 

But what does that mean? Being in the zone means he wasn’t thinking. He didn’t catch the ball, face up and think about which play to run or what move to make. He just let it fly.

The flow state

The flow state doesn't just happen on the basketball court, it happens in all disciplines of work and life.

The most simple definition of flow is lack of thought. When you’re 100% centered in the present moment and ideas flow out of you without effort. But this doesn’t come without practice.

You have to put yourself in situations that allow you to get into a flow. So let's break down those steps in detail.

The fundamental practice of flow

The first step to entering the flow state is establishing a consistent practice of meditation. At its core, meditation helps you slow down your thoughts, reduce the background noise and stay centered in the present moment.

A typical meditation practice takes 10-20 minutes a day and is either performed first thing in the morning or right before bed. I prefer to meditate early in the morning, right after prayer, and before working out as the calm and presence then carries throughout the rest of the day.

A daily practice can look something like this:

  1. Choose a space in your home free from distractions

  2. Sit in a comfortable position, cross-legged or on a cushion/chair

  3. Close your eyes and breathe deeply

  4. Observe your mental state. Don’t get frustrated if thoughts surface, simply observe them and return to your breathing.

  5. Repeat the process for 10-20 minutes based on what’s comfortable for you.

Other techniques that I like to include in my meditations are body scans (breathing into each part of my body starting with my feet and ending with my head) and loving-kindness (wishing love and gratitude for people and blessings in your life). But these aren’t necessary. The key is to get comfortable calming your mind, staying present, and observing when your mind gets busy. Then as you enter your workday, you can practice those concepts by breathing right before entering a work block or introducing moments of mindfulness throughout the day.

Practice deep work

Getting into the flow state comes from introducing mindfulness to everything you do.

However, this isn’t possible when multitasking, which we do often at work and in our personal lives. That's why the second step to getting into the flow state is time blocking.

The core principle of time blocking is doing one single thing at a time for a predefined period. It allows you to perform deep work, defined by Cal Newport as the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task in his bestseller business book, “Deep Work”.

The big takeaway from this book is to batch complex tasks into long blocks of at least 90 minutes where you focus exclusively on one task, ideally in the early hours of your day to maximize your attention span. 

Rather than jumping directly into shallow tasks (answering email, slack messages, or any other repetitive tasks requiring less cognitive load), focusing on accomplishing one predetermined task allows you to get your highest priority item done for the day while building the muscle of focus. Then you can batch shallow tasks together into one large block and return to your other work.

This concept applies to the entire workday. Think of an athlete’s schedule. Would they ever check their phone in the middle of a game or practice? Never. 

When they’re on, they’re on, and when they’re off. Apply that same mentality to your workday.

Control your environment

The final step to getting into the flow state is controlling your environment. It’s impossible to stay focused if you have an environment cluttered with distractions.

Here are some practical steps to controlling your environment:

  1. Establish a dedicated workspace

Choose an area of your home (if working from home) that is only used for work. Make sure that it isn’t the same area that you sleep or eat. This should become your one spot for deep work, your gym of sorts. If you prefer to be out of the house, a coffee shop, library, or space in your office will also do the trick. By keeping this area separate from others, you’ll train your mind to turn on “work mode” while you're there and turn it off elsewhere.

  1. Limit social media. 

Social media is the bane of focus. With new apps and notifications each day, it’s impossible to stay focused when you can get a new dopamine hit at any time. When in a deep work session, put your phone in a bag or in another room. Then schedule a period, say lunchtime where you can answer all messages at once.

  1. Find your ideal audio environment

What you’re listening to while working can be equally as important to your focus as your physical location. To establish your ideal audio environment, decide whether you work best under absolute silence, background noise, music, or something else. If you’re not sure, test one for a few days, then switch to another. My personal favorite is listening to a specific instrumental playlist while using noise-canceling headphones, sometimes leaving the same song on repeat for hours. Now, whenever I switch on that playlist, my mind automatically switches into the zone, and I can work for longer periods of time without distraction.

  1. Keep books everywhere

This is a tactic I got from Jay Shetty after listening to a recent interview. He recommends placing books in multiple visible areas of your workspace or home. Given they’re in plain view, it’s likely you’ll reach for one when sitting down to have lunch or stepping away from your desk rather than checking your phone. That way, you can maintain your focused state while exposing yourself to new information every day.

The important thing about these steps is choosing the right ones for you. Everyone is different, and your ideal environment should be what works best for your specific needs.

Next Steps

In the end, the flow state goes far beyond the hours spent on a specific task. It’s about staying in the present moment in everything that you do. So next time you get a notification on social media, think twice before picking up your phone. Stay in the zone, and watch it work wonders for your productivity and quality of life.

Tools & Resources

In the digital age, knowing how to focus deeply on cognitively demanding tasks has become a superpower. Deep Work by Cal Newport breaks down the process for cultivating focused work on a single task and highlights four rules for training your mind and habits to support this skill.

Check out the Book

Quote of the Week

“ Make each day your masterpiece” - John Wooden

That’s it for this week! If you enjoyed this issue, leave a comment below, and if there’s a topic you want to see, just let me know! Hit reply or shoot me a DM on Twitter @iamedgarbrown to get in touch.

Trust the process,