Updated on 10.08.14

Flipping the Mental Switch for Success

Trent Hamm

If I have one single piece of career advice to give to anyone, it’s this: figure out how to get in the zone and do it as often as possible. If you can do that, everything else really is secondary. You will find success.

What do I mean by “in the zone”? It’s something I’ve talked about on The Simple Dollar a few times in the past, but I’ve never really defined what it means in so many words.

To put it simply, being “in the zone” means that you’re so absorbed by the task at hand that you lose track of time and place. When you get into that state, not only are you as productive as you can possibly be, you’re also much more open to what I call “creative bursts” – ideas that float in from somewhere in your subconscious that add even more to your productivity.

For example, on a given day where I’m “in the zone,” I’ll spend perhaps an hour getting into that flow. During that time, I’m not really very productive at all in an obvious sense – it seems like I’m wasting time. I turn off my internet connection. I turn off my cell phone. I close my office door. I meditate for a bit. Sometimes, I’ll stretch. Then, I’ll start off by doing a mundane work-related task: I’ll make a to-do list for the day and sketch out a few bare bones ideas for each element of that list.

An hour has gone by and I haven’t really done anything. What I’ve done, though, is put my mind in the perfect place to be really productive. Usually, at the point where I’m about to start work on a real task that needs my focus, I get sucked right into it. I cease to notice time passing at all and the words just fly out of my fingers. I finish a first draft of a post, then another, and sometimes another. I’ll revise an earlier draft. I’ll shoot off some email, all without skipping a beat.

Suddenly, I’ll blink and time feels like it catches up to me. I’ve accomplished a ton of stuff and only an hour and a half has passed. Without getting into that kind of zone, the stuff I had finished would have taken five or six hours. Instead, including the “dawdling” at the start, I’ve finished it – and usually finished it well – in two and a half hours, half the time in other words.

Every job I’ve had rewarded me greatly for getting “in the zone.” As a writer, a lab assistant, a computer programmer, an IT specialist, and most of the other miscellaneous jobs I’ve held here and there, I always found benefit from getting “in the zone.” Without fail, when I’ve been able to get into a work-focused mindset where the hours slip away from me, I am amazingly productive and churn out quality work. Often, it is this work that I have been able to hang my hat on, helping me to get promotions and, later, grow The Simple Dollar.

So, how can you make this really work for you?

Getting “Into the Zone”

1. Have an objective

What are you hoping to accomplish today? I find that things go best when I’m focusing in on tasks that I estimate will take one to two hours – writing a first draft of a post for The Simple Dollar, for example, or going through my email inbox, answering the urgent messages, filing some into my “Reader Mailbox” folder, and trashing the spam. What do you hope to do in the zone?

2. Eliminate distractions

Turn off the internet. Turn off your cell phone and/or your desk phone. Close the door. Put on some noise-cancelling headphones. Minimize or eliminate the things that enable you to take your focus away from your work.

3. Create a situation conducive to focus

This varies greatly based on the individual. For me, it involves a bit of meditation, some appropriate music, and a well-lit room. It could be completely different from you. My suggestion is to try to recreate environments where you’re sure that you’ve been able to focus in the past. You should also have all of the materials you’ll need for your tasks easily in hand.

Dealing with Interruptions

What do you do when you’re interrupted from your flow? I focus on three key things to make sure interruptions don’t completely shatter what I’m working on.

1. If it’s just a stray thought, I jot it down.

I put that jotting in a place that I know I’ll look at later, then I return to the task at hand as quickly as possible. Usually, I don’t break my concentration.

2. If it’s a minor interruption (like a phone call), I delay.

I tell the person calling that it’s a bad time at the moment and that I’ll call them back in an hour. I then jot down a note about this and get back to my work.

3. If it’s a major interruption, I tell the interruptor to hold for a moment while I record as much of my train of thought as I can.

I’ll finish a rough outline of the post I was working on, or save an email draft with notes on the additional things I wish to say. This way, it’s easier to pick up right where I left off.

Dealing with Life Changes

For me, getting in the zone and staying there is very routine-oriented. If I change parts of my routine, it becomes more difficult to get into the flow for a while.

A great example is the contrast between when Sarah is on vacation and not on vacation. Over the last several years, the norm for her is to be working, which means the house is quiet during the parts of the day when the children are at preschool or at the nursery. That silence in the rest of the house becomes part of my routine – I’m used to it and it enables me to slip into the flow.

Fast forward to the last several months. Since our third child was born in April, Sarah has been a stay-at-home mom, which means that aside from the periods when the two children are in preschool, all five members of our family are at home. The two older children absolutely love coming into Dad’s office and amusing him with the clothes they’re wearing for dress-up or a song they made up or a piece of art they’ve created. I hear their laughter (and occasional crying) from my office and it pulls me away.

This has made it difficult to consistently be in the flow. I have adapted by using noise-cancelling headphones and locking my office door when I really need to focus, with only one way for Sarah to interrupt me (a call via Skype). The problem with this is that I become completely unaware of other household responsibilities – the UPS man (or someone else) at the door, the house telephone ringing, and so on.

When she returns to work later this month (by her own choice – but that’s another entire post, isn’t it?), the routine will change again. The house will become quiet for swaths of the day. I’ll remove my headphones and again be aware of some types of household responsibilities during the day.

That’s a change, one that will, whether I like it or not, affect my ability to get into the flow. I’m going to couple that change with another – I intend to completely rearrange my office (mostly to free up the current guest bedroom to become our oldest son’s bedroom in the next year or two). This will all be a significant routine change.

Since I know this routine change is coming – and I know it’ll drop my productivity for a while – I’m doing what I can right now to work ahead, so that during that week when Sarah is back to work and I’ve rearranged my office, I can focus on mastering getting into the flow in my new environment.

Environmental change can be a challenge when it comes to getting into the flow. Account for that. If you’re about to move or change environments, plan your work accordingly so that you’re able to minimize the interference.

Understanding how to get into the zone regularly has dramatically altered my professional and personal productivity and made it possible for me to find my own unique balance of work and personal life. I can now spend more time with my children than I ever believed possible while still accomplishing the things I need to complete.

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  1. senol says:

    First, if it’s just a stray thought, I jot it down. I put that jotting in a place that I know I’ll look at later, then I return to the task at hand as quickly as possible. Usually, I don’t break my concentration.

    That is the hardest part.. Jotting it down… then remembering to look at it later :-)
    still working on that

    good post Trent

  2. Matt says:

    I’m pretty sure my wife would kill me if I referred to being a stay-at-home mom as “on vacation.”

  3. Tom says:

    There’s a lot of literature about being in the zone. It’s commonly referred to as Flow.


  4. Amy B. says:

    @Matt – I would, too. LOL. I am a SAHM, and it is far from vacation – but maybe he meant her teacher summer vacation.

    Environmental change is a biggie. Also, trying to explain why you haven’t accomplished anything due to a prolonged period of change is tough on a resume and in a job interview.

  5. Dana@CommonCentsCoach says:

    This post comes at a perfect time for me. I have been on vacation from my “real job” for the last three weeks. I started worrying in the last week about being able to juggle all my priorities–job, side business, family, workouts, piano lessons, and voice lessons. Oh, and what about a little time to myself? I realize that I really needed a system to help me find the “flow” and to keep on task so I can stay sane. I was thinking about getting up an hour earlier before my son gets up to get a little meditation in and then to make a daily list of what I need to accomplish. So, thank you. Does anyone else have tips on this topic?

  6. Candie says:

    Actually Trent, there is a scientific word for the phenomenon you describe, called “flow”, in psychological research. I’ve spent a lot of my graduate career researching it and teaching it to undergraduates in career planning classes. Anyways, if you have time, read M. Csikszentmihalyi’s (long name, I know!) book “Finding Flow”, which talks about the same idea of this post – ‘getting in the zone’ and keeping at it.

  7. Des says:

    I know this is atypical, but sometimes I find it easier to really focus when there is something else going on. Specifically, I code for a living and I can get more done when I’m listening to music (preferably something harder and louder) than in perfect silence. I think there is a part of my brain that is always going to be wandering off, and when there is music playing, that part of my brain is happily occupied, allowing the rest to focus. I know, its weird. :)

  8. Lex says:

    I agree Des, I do the same thing. It helps that part of my brain that wanders off to stay busy.

  9. Fawn says:

    Des- When I sew or clean, I like to listen to industrial/hard rock! It might seem weird to others, but it works! :) I can work for hours and not even realize it.

  10. Gretchen says:

    Please explain “When she returns to work later this month (by her own choice – but that’s another entire post, isn’t it?)” and “again be aware of some types of household responsibilities during the day.”

    I find total silence very distracting.

  11. Troy says:

    The post is about being in the zone, yet you refer to your wifes time away from work as a vacation, then as a stay at home mom, then infer she was on extended maternity leave?

  12. Shannon says:

    Not your best work Trent, for reasons that have been pointed out above.

  13. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    My wife is a teacher. She took her normal summer vacation (12 weeks), then elected to take the fall semester off without pay to be a stay-at-home mom, somewhat extending her summer vacation.

    Typically, if I’m working in the office, my wife answers the door, the house telephone, and so on. I’m able to ignore these things. When she returns to work, I will no longer be able to ignore them because she won’t be answering them – she’ll be at work. Those are household responsibilities that will become solely mine soon.

  14. Gal @ Equally Happy says:

    For me, getting in the zone works for an entire day. When I’m in the zone, I can work on multiple projects for a whole day and be amazingly productive. When I’m not, the whole day seems to slow down as I stare at the clock waiting for time to go by. Things I’ve found that help put me in the zone:

    1. Have a list of projects you need to do. Check them off as you do them to show yourself that you’re making progress.
    2. Don’t eat too much. Eating, especially big meals, really slows me down.
    3. Take an occasional break in which you do something physical, even if it’s a short walk.

  15. Amanda says:

    I want to read the post about sarahs work choice

  16. jj says:

    I know that you didn’t mean to demean your wife’s pregnancy leave by calling it a vacation! Anyone who reads your blog regularly knows the kind of person you are and the respect you have for your wife. I think some folks here are making too much of your word usage!
    But….here’s my question: how do I get in the zone (flow) when I’m in a place that I don’t love my job these days? I know what the zone is — been there in the past and it’s great! But being in a place where I can’t leave my job (and it’s a fine job — I’m just in a slump), I can’t seem to find enough discipline or focus or whatever to get in the zone. Maybe it’s just laziness on my part. Any thoughts you have would be appreciated! You are an inspiration and your blog it terrific. It’s the only one I read daily, no matter what! Thanks for your hard work!

  17. Gretchen says:

    How many times does the doorbell actually ring?

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