Practice vs. Flow, and How to Use Both for Greater Productivity
Dmitry Davydov 11 August 2014
Getting better at what you do isn’t something that just happens; it’s something you make happen. By understanding and incorporating the principles of deliberate practice, you become more adept in your work. And practice makes it easier to slip into the state of flow: intensely focused and enjoyable work.
What Is Deliberate Practice?
Deliberate practice is a term coined by psychology professor Anders Ericsson, and it refers to the habit of consciously putting planned time and effort into building your skills. The essential elements of deliberate practice, according to Ericsson, include, “specific goals to improve performance, successive refinement through repetition, feedback and instruction.” (Source: http://www.amazon.com/The-Road-Excellence-Acquisition-Performance/dp/0805822321)
In other words, deliberate practice is not about working more or even working harder. It is a process:
first, identifying the skills that are key for doing your work,
then identifying the weak areas you have in those skills,
then deliberately working on getting better at those weak areas in your key skills.
Practice involves pushing yourself to work just a little bit beyond your comfort or ability level. Doing the same things that you’re already comfortable doing in the same way you’ve been doing them does not help you. By pushing yourself, however, you increase your abilities and get better at your work. You advance your skills. You grow.
What Is Flow? Flow is the place we all want to be when we’re working. It’s a term defined by author and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to mean that state you achieve when you’re “in the zone.” When you are flowing, you are at your peak. You are completely focused, unaware of other things, centered on the work, in the moment, doing it. Flow requires time. It is not something you can cause to happen: no matter how much time you have, you can’t sit down with your work and tell yourself, “Now get into the flow!” But you can create work habits that help you get there.
What Is the Difference? Practice is something you choose to do. Flow is a way of doing, a state of experiencing the work you have chosen to do. Practice seems quite different than flow. Practice is difficult. Flow, while not easy, is energizing and good. It feels good, whereas practice can feel awkward and discouraging. But the truth is that practice is what allows you to get to flow.
How Does Practice Increase Productivity? When you practice, you hone your skills. You increase your abilities. As you increase the skill level at which you are comfortable working, you become more productive. Practice enables you to identify the sluggish or weak spots in your daily tasks and teach yourself to handle them more efficiently. Practice increases your productivity by simply upping the efficiency with which you work all the time, whether you’re “in the zone” or not.
How Does Flow Increase Productivity? Flow occurs when your skills are called upon to complete a task that is slightly challenging. Too much of a challenge, too much gap between your abilities and the goal, and your brain cannot relax enough to slip into flow. Too little challenge, and you get bored. You can do better work when you are in that place of intense focus. Distractions fade out. You aren’t tuning in and out, calling yourself back to the task, overcoming interruptions. You are simply there, in it, with your whole mind bent upon the work.
Make Practice a Habit to Achieve Flow Making deliberate practice a work habit teaches your brain how to respond to challenges. It trains you to see challenges not as an obstacle, but as an opportunity. When you are ready to meet those challenges with enhanced skills, you find it easier to slip into flow. Flow helps you to achieve the big tasks or projects that are worthwhile, but often difficult to wrap our heads around. It’s tough enough to accomplish detail items when we are busy, interrupted, and distracted. Achieving a big chunk of work on anything can seem nearly impossible. Training yourself - with deliberate practice - helps you to slip into flow and make huge steps forward on high-level work. When you can get both practice and flow into your work life on a regular basis, you will not only be able to get more done, you will be able to fully enjoy doing it.