The Productivity Box: Exercise Your Way Into the Flow

You’ve heard the phrase being in the flow. It’s commonly used when you work, exercise or even when reading a good book. It turns out, it’s not just a saying, but an actual state of being. And for those who want to better focus and succeed at work, the flow state is the ideal mindset.

The productivity box: exercise your way into the flow

In this article of my monthly series, I’m going out of the productivity box again, this time to find the connection between physical exercise, the flow state and higher productivity levels.

Understand the toll of the modern work culture

In the past decades, working hours have continuously increased. As the cost of living gets higher, while average earnings stagnate, workers are forced to accept salaried positions with longer hours, work overtime, or find side hustles.

In the past few months, research from NordVPN shows that during the COVID-19 pandemic the work from home shift resulted in two to three more working hours.

Another study offered a comprehensive analysis of the effects of long working hours, combining research and data from 1998 to 2018. The study found that long hours relate to a multitude of health issues, including:

  • Cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases
  • Hypertension
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Work stress
  • Poor sleep quality and fatigue
  • Occupational injury

Furthermore, unhealthy behaviors like smoking, alcohol consumption, and physical inactivity are also associated with long working hours.

And naturally, all of this takes a toll on your health, decreases effectiveness and affects your general performance. But luckily, there is a way you can fight it.

Enable better health and wellness with exercise

It’s already a proven fact that regular physical exercise and fitness contribute to better productivity and performance. While this seems simple, it’s something many people struggle with. According to the CDC, only 53.3 percent of American adults met the guidelines for aerobic activity, namely 30 minutes per day, five times per week.

One scientific study examined 200 workers and compared the performance of those who exercised during the day to those who did not. The group that worked out experienced overwhelming better results. The study explains: “Exercising improved mood and performance, leading to better concentration, work-based relationships, and heightened resilience to stress.”

Another study of 683 workers of varying weight and physical ability found that fit individuals experience better work performance. Higher cardiorespiratory fitness can also equate to less effort exerted to perform work.

Bottom line: the endorphins released and a number of other exercise-related benefits directly correlate to your ability of being more focused, energized, and present at your job. This all increases your chance of getting into the flow state, thus improving your productivity.

Try these tips to get started

Even when you fully comprehend physical fitness benefits, it’s still hard to establish and maintain an exercise routine. Somehow, life always manages to get in the way. But let’s not give up that easily 😉 Use these tips to develop your exercise habit so you can get into the flow state more regularly.

  • Don’t view exercise as a personal indulgence but rather a necessity. We’ve all used the excuse “I just don’t have the time.” When you get too busy, working out is the first thing cut off the list. Shift your mindset and instead of thinking of it as an expendable activity, view it as an indispensable part of your routine. You wouldn’t leave the house without showering or brushing your teeth, why should you go a day without moving your body?
  • Cut out energy-draining activities and behaviors. The relationship between rest and exercise is often a catch-22. Many people skip workouts because they’re too tired, but exercise energizes you and helps you get better sleep. To make sure you’re not too worn out to get to the gym, stop doing things that drain your energy. For example, cut out screen time an hour before bed and don’t mindlessly scroll social media at lunch. Check out this list of other depleting habits.
  • Try different types of exercise. The gym, yoga studios, running—not all fitness activities are for you. Find the exercise styles you enjoy that also require aerobic exercise: golf, tennis, biking, hiking, swimming, or even dancing. For me, it’s either going to the gym or dancing 🙂
  • Set a timer on your phone. This will help you remember to get up and walk around or move your body during the workday. Getting into flow can be as simple as taking a five-minute walk or doing a quick stretch sequence.

Embrace the flow state at work

Now that you’ve kicked your exercise regiment into gear, you’re ready to get into the flow state. But what is flow?

Scientist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who is considered the founder of this concept, described it as:

“The psychological mental state of a person who is immersed in an activity with energized concentration, optimal enjoyment, full involvement, and intrinsic interests, and who is usually focused, motivated, positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand.”

Csikszentmihalyi, 1975/2000, 1990

Based on his model of flow state, there are three main, non-overlapping states: flow, anxiety and boredom. Here’s a graphic adaptation from Csikszentmihalyi (1975/2000). Beyond Boredom and Anxiety.

Graphic adaptation from Csikszentmihalyi (1975/2000) model of flow state

As you can see, the flow state is the sweet spot where you can work for extended periods. You’re not bored, and therefore distracted, looking for excuses to stop. Alternatively, you’re also not anxious and worried about your performance. That’s the equilibrium between perceived challenges and relevant skills.

The missing link

Considering the definition of the flow state, there’s hardly any surprise that getting into that special place and staying there as much as possible does wonders for your productivity.

A consistent exercise regime is essential to accessing the flow both at work and in anything else that you do. It leads to higher productivity, effectiveness, and performance.

Therefore, learn how you can exercise your way into your flow and establish a consistent practice. Keep up with your workouts to make your job easier and more enjoyable.

Now go and get into the flow!

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