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Outside the Zone: What I Do When I Don’t Feel like Working

When the bell tower—situated only a few paces from my apartment—rang midnight yesterday, I was ready to go to sleep after a long day of work.

I said my good-nights to everybody I had been talking with online, brushed my teeth and went to bed. Then I put on a science podcast which—while genuinely interesting—usually helps me fall asleep in no time.

Picture of a person alone with polar lights, captured by Paul Itkin

When you’re in the zone, it’s just you and your work.

Fast-forward half an hour, I was still restless. So I grabbed the laptop, got comfy with my blanket and resumed working.

I had barely realized how much time had passed when the first sunbeams of the new day were coming through my window. I had been in The Zone, working happily and oblivious of my surroundings, for hours.

The Zone or Flow is often described as a special state of mind in which one can completely focus on a single activity. Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who is widely recognized for having researched this phenomenon since the 1970s, describes it in the following terms:

Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in an interview with Wired back in 1996.

Why it’s sometimes hard to get in The Zone

Now, wouldn’t it be great if we could just flip a switch and be in a state of Flow? If we could reliably get ourselves to work tirelessly with one simple mind trick?

Sounds too good to be true? That’s because it is.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about activites that let us enter the state of Flow in his 2004 TED talk

There are some very specific requirements that need to be met in order for somebody to attain a state of flow. Most importantly, you need a balance between the amount of challenge a task requires and the skills you perceive you have for solving that task.

Even if you have a job or an occupation that you love, this isn’t always the case. It’s practically unavoidable that you will still have moments when you’re overwhelmed, anxious or even annoyed looking at the tasks ahead of you.

On the other end of the spectrum, feeling bored and not challenged enough, are just as much an obstacle to attaining Flow.

Of course, then there are also those days when you simply don’t feel like working at all. Everybody’s been there. I have.

Get working!

So what can you do when you find it hard to muster up the motivation to get to work?

You might not be able to get into a Flow state of mind but you can still be productive and make some progress.

Here’s what I do:

  1. Go through my to-do list and find the easiest task
  2. Take a minute to calm down and remove all distractions
  3. Set a timer and only focus on this particular task

An old stopwatch, captured by James Sutton

A timer can be a great help for focusing on a task, especially when you’re feeling a lack of motivation.

The first step is essential. We all have tasks that are simple at their core but still annoying or scary. You know, writing that email, finally filing your tax returns; things like that.

If you don’t have a to-do list that you can go through in order to find a suitable task, go ahead and make one! Simply grab a piece of paper, write down five tasks you should be working on and pick the easiest. Done!

Now for the next step: Of course it’s hard to turn off your phone when you could be having so much fun on Facebook and there are so many people you could chat with on WhatsApp. Do it!

All those browser tabs you have open with home improvement tips or the latest tech reviews? Close them!

Take a deep breath.

Proceed with the next step.

Inside the time box

Before you get working, you will need to set a countdown for the amount of time you want to allocate for your task. This is known as timeboxing. The interval shouldn’t be too long: Pick any duration between ten and 35 minutes.

If your task might require more than that amount of time, don’t worry: You can always dedicate additional time boxes to it at a later point if necessary.

I personally like going by 25-minute intervals, as recommended by Francesco Cirillo in his book The Pomodoro Technique. 25 minutes are short enough not to be scary (you can always do mere 25 minutes of work, right?) but still long enough to move things forward and make a real difference.

In any case, the great advantage of time boxing is that, instead of the seemingly insurmountable challenge you were facing before, you now have a neat little slice of work in front of you. Entirely manageable. Not scary.

Screenshot of the now.do input window

With now.do it’s very easy to use work intervals and time boxing.

Since you’ve put away your phone (remember the previous step?) and thus can’t use it for setting the countdown, I recommend simply typing »timer« into Google which will give you a neat little stopwatch right above the search results.

If you’re using now.do, you can also take advantage of the :interval command in order to automatically start a 25-minute work interval for one of your tasks.

Once you’ve started the timer, you’re in the time box, dedicated entirely to one single task. Hang in there, even if you’re still not feeling motivated. It won’t be taking too long!

Choose. Focus. Work. Repeat.

When the timer says you’re done, you deserve a little break.

You can then find another task or dedicate some more time to the previous one.

I find that the method described in this article always1 helps me overcome even the most severe lack of motivation. The psychology behind it is simple: It’s easy for our mind to be calm and focused when we’re looking at a small, manageable chunk of work.

If you’re feeling a lack of motivation right now, don’t think too far ahead. Find something to work on and give it 25 minutes. And maybe, just maybe you’ll find yourself working, with time flying by, like I did yesterday.

But whether you enter a state of Flow or not: Without a doubt you will have done 25 minutes of work and you’ll have every right to be proud of yourself then.

  1. Okay, almost always. Sometimes it’s also wise to have a nice cup of tea instead.

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