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12 Things That Take You Out of Flow

There’s a neat chart toward the bottom of this post. First, let me say a few things to put the chart in context.

Our goal is to work with FLOW.


We need effective strategies for dealing with
12 things that can kill our flow.

When we work with flow, we’re happy, we feel good about ourselves, we have a sense of clarity about our goals and our plans, we can let go and get lost in the process, and we usually get more done with less stress.

When we work with flow, we’re not anxious or bored. We’re not watching the clock. We don’t feel overwhelmed, exhausted or particularly confused.

When we work with flow, we don’t even think about procrastinating. Why would we? We’re having fun pursuing a goal that’s important to us, and we feel like we’re good at what we do.

Our goal when we work is to first get into a state of flow, and then to try to stay there.

So, how do we do that?

Previous Advice About Working With Flow

This use of the word “Flow” was popularized by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. And he gave three conditions for working with flow.

Csíkszentmihályi’s FLOW Conditions:

  1. Have a good skill to challenge match (so you’re neither bored nor anxious)
  2. Have a clear goal.
  3. Get frequent feedback on your work, so you can gage your performance.

Those things are clearly important. But I think some things are left out in this formulation.

I think we also have to spend some time thinking about all the things that could take us out of flow, even if those conditions are met.

In the post, “5 Ways To Maintain Flow as You Work” I considered a couple other criteria that should be added to Csíkszentmihályi’s conditions.

Two Additional Conditions:

  • Having high physical/mental energy
  • Having a clear mind

And I think that gets us closer.

However, . . .

I think we can do even better . . .

There are actually many, many things that can drive us into a state of flow, and many, many things that can pull us out of flow. These are our flow conditions, and there are exactly 28,567 of them (just kidding).

A list of 28,567 flow conditions (or whatever the number is) wouldn’t be very useful.

That’s why we lump things together into broader categories. Csíkszentmihályi had three conditions for flow. I suggested extending it to 5 conditions. And now I’m going to suggest that 12 categories will do the trick even better (or 3 super-categories if we do some more lumping).

Our goal is NOT to come up with the “correct” set of flow conditions, so much as to come up with the most useful set of flow conditions.

There is an art to choosing a set of categories like this. Too many is not good, even if it’s more accurate, because it’s too much to keep in mind.

Too few is not good because we risk leaving things out, or lumping things together that are quite different from a practical point of view.

The bottom line is this: our set of flow conditions must serve our most practical concerns.

And our most practical concerns are to be able to 1) recognize things that prevent us from working with flow, and 2) train ourselves to automatically overcome these flow “killers”.

That’s the goal. If we have a set of criteria that will allow us to do THAT, then we’re in business.

Notice that I’ve framed this to be a set of flow “KILLERS” instead of flow “CONDITIONS”. I think that’s a better way to think of it, because I think our natural state is to pursue our goals with flow, and it’s better to remove the things blocking that than to try to set up conditions to enable it.

Assuming your body and mind want to be in a state of flow, it’s the killers that can take you out of flow. They are the triggers we need to identify.

And I now think all nine of these Flow Killers are worth tracking. If we can learn to recognize these 9 conditions quickly and train new responses for them, we will be able to work with flow most of the time.

Twelve Flow Killlers:

  • Fuzzy Goals
  • Sketchy Plans
  • Feeble Framing
  • Unexpected Complications
  • Overwhelm
  • Temptation
  • Environmental Distraction
  • Interruption
  • Boredom
  • Anxiety
  • Impatience
  • Exhaustion

And these 12 flow killers can be grouped nicely into three main categories.

Three Kinds of Flow Killers:

  • CLARITY Killers (fuzzy goals, sketchy plans, feeble framing, unexpected complications)
  • FOCUS Killers (overwhelm, temptation, environmental distraction, interruption)
  • ENERGY Killers (boredom, anxiety, impatience, exhaustion)

So, you could say that there are 12 flow “killers” and 3 flow “conditions” (with sub-conditions under each).

The 3 Main Flow Conditions:

  1. Have clear goals and plans.
  2. Maintain clear focus as you work.
  3. Maintain positive energy as you work.

Or, to use a car analogy, to get where we’re going we need:

  1. A destination, a good route, and a map that’s easy to read.
  2. Sustained effort to keep the car moving forward on the route.
  3. Gas in the tank (and no leaks).

Kind of makes sense, right?

Now this doesn’t supplant Csíkszentmihályi’s conditions. They’re in there. It’s just that there’s more in there with them.

So, we’ve identified the flow conditions/killers, and now we need a strategy for using them to stay in the flow more of the time. Here is a reasonable strategy:

  • Proactively provide for flow, when it pays (It won’t always).
  • Understand what triggers you to get out of flow.
  • Train new habits, so that when the triggers happen, you can take actions that keep you in a state of flow.

To help you start thinking along these lines, I want you to consider this chart.

It contains all 12 flow killers (organized into the three bigger categories), and it suggests which kinds of thoughts might serve as triggers for each, and which actions you should take to stay in a state of flow.

This chart is a work in progress, but it seems to me to be a good start.

Clarity Killers

Flow Killer Trigger Thoughts Remedies
Fuzzy Goals “Why am I doing this?”
“What do I want this to look like?”
“What benefit will the end user receive from this?”
“Should I work on this now, or is something else more important?”
  • Do fractal planning so every task has a natural context. [fractal planner, module 2 of WWFW]
  • Look at your project in the context of your whole master plan, and consider what bigger goal it serves. [module 5 of WWFW]
  • Consider issues of priority relative to your other projects. [module 2 and module 5 of WWFW]
Sketchy Plans “I have to keep my place in my head too much as I work”
“I’m not sure this plan will work”
“I’m a bit concerned that it’s more complicated than it looks”
  • Break your tasks down further in a fractal process [fractal planner, module 2 of WWFW]
  • Consider how this project fits with other projects [module 5 of WWFW]
Feeble Framing “This doesn’t feel compelling.”
“The plan makes sense, but executing it feels clumsy.”
  • Convert from a structure-based plan to a construction-based plan
  • Consider how to make the wording more compelling.
Unexpected Complications “Why can’t things just work as planned?”
  • Break down tasks better up front [fractal planner, modules 2 and 5 of WWFW]
  • Get the complication in your plan and out of your head, and break a solution down quickly in the right context. [fractal planner, and see CMEA]

Focus Killers

Flow Killer Trigger Thoughts Remedies
Overwhelm “I can’t get it all done”
“I need to work, but I can’t stop thinking about . . .”
“I don’t know if I should work on X or Y or Z”
  • Use the Clear Mind Process [fractal planner clear mind wizard, module 3 of WWFW, also see “Clear Mind, Effective Action” (CMEA)]
Temptation “Maybe I can do this later”
“I’ve already done a lot — time to play.”
“Before I get started, maybe I should clean the house”
  • Implementation Intentions
Environmental Distraction “I can’t concentrate with that guy talking on his phone”
“This music is so distracting.”
“This lighting is giving me a headache.”
  • Consider how to craft a better working environment.
Interruption “Why does everybody keep interrupting me?”
  • Try to have periods in your work day where you can’t be interrupted, and train the people you work with to respect this.
  • When you get interrupted, write down exactly where you are in your plan, and the next step, so you can get back to work right away when the interruption passes.

Energy Killers

Flow Killer Trigger Thoughts Remedies
Boredom “This work is so repetitive and so beneath me”
  • Play a game within the game.
  • Look for opportunities to outsource.
  • know your strengths and try to use them.
Anxiety “I don’t know if I’m doing this right”
“I don’t know how to do this.”
  • Play a game within the game.
  • Look for opportunities to outsource.
  • know your strengths and try to use them.
  • Get expert advice if needed.
Impatience “Are We There Yet?”
“Why does this have to take so long?”
“The finish line seems so far away”
  • SCRUM for One [module 6 of WWFW, see also the SCRUM for One series on this blog]
Exhaustion “I can’t think”
“I can’t keep my eyes open”
“I need a break”
  • Work/Rest Rhythms [module 4 of WWFW, CMEA]
  • General good health practices — diet, exercise, play, etc.

If you’ve taken the New Habits module of the Work With Flow Workshop, then you can see how to use this chart to try to work with flow more often.

Each trigger thought or feeling can be re-trained, so it leads to more productive behavior. Just train them in the way outlined in “New Habits”.

If you didn’t hear about the New Habits module when it was first released, don’t worry. I’ve re-released it. The price is a little higher than the early birds paid, but still below the rate you would pay if you wait for the whole workshop to be completed. Click here to read more about the New Habits module.

In the remaining 5 modules of the WWFW, we will be going into much more detail about how to set up your environment to start with flow and how to train new habits that will allow you to stay in a state of flow as you work.

Feel free to ask clarifying questions and/or make suggestions in the comments below.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted November 21, 2011 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Great post Jim! I saw you mention of Flow and immediately thought of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.

    And then you went into great stuff about how to extend Csíkszentmihályi’s (this kind of name makes you appreciate the joys of copy/paste, rather than typing from scratch!) work … with a pragmatic eye toward productivity.

    And very timely. Last week I experienced practically all of the flow killers. Today I got pretty much into flow, took a break to ready your post, and can see how what you’re saying really applies. And it did underline for me that the “Fuzzy Goals” is a big danger (at least for me right now). So will improve that.

    Very interested in the “SCRUM for One” remedy. Will have to read that post next.

    Thanks Jim!

    • Jim Stone
      Posted November 21, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I did copy/paste. :-) Glad to hear you find the post relevant!

  2. Judy
    Posted January 10, 2012 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    Very interesting. I took your procrastination quiz a few days ago and have anticipated the last 2 lessons’ arrivals, and the hyperlink to this post was just what I needed to make me get to your site. Thank you.

2 Trackbacks

  • […] you to read that go along with the six-part series that covered the last two weeks. One is called 9 Things That Take You Out of Flow, and the other is 5 Ways to Maintain Flow When You Work. Both are good summaries and highlight some […]

  • By Remedies for Procrastination on April 9, 2012 at 10:20 am

    […] previous posts, I’ve talked about “Flow Killers”, and how to get back in the […]

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