The trouble with thinking “I’ll be happy when…” is that it’s actually a path to unhappiness. That’s because while you fall short of your goal, you’re telling yourself that you shouldn’t be happy. Even when you reach the end of the road and get what you wanted, it can feel like an anti-climax.
Success coach Michael Neill explains this conundrum:
The moment we set a goal in place, most of us stop living fully in this moment and begin living in a series of comparative “nows”, where whatever is happening now is evaluated in the light of how well we think we’re doing at reaching our new goal. If we think we’re making progress, we allow ourselves to feel good; if we think we’re still too far away or are never going to get there, we feel worthless, stressed out, pressured, hopeless, frustrated, angry, and a host of other emotions that follow our insecure thinking like puppies on a leash. So while setting goals may well help us to achieve goals, they’re extremely counter-productive as a pathway towards a happy and fulfilling life.
What can you do then, if you want a “happy and fulfilling life”? Neill’s conundrum leaves you with two possible choices:
- Stop setting goals and scrap your to-do list. Obviously, as you’re reading an article on productivity, this isn’t particularly helpful. Even monks—who are the epitome of people pursuing the ultimate satisfaction—structure their days around various tasks.
- Stop making your happiness conditional on you reaching your goals.
Neill’s solution is the latter. He goes on to point out that when you’re happy, you do better work. Happiness makes you more productive, and thus more likely to achieve your aims. So why not choose to be happy every day, instead of making your happiness conditional on reaching your goals?
For Neill, being happy means being creatively engaged:
I’ve noticed that when I’m creatively engaged, I tend to do good work. Good work often leads to good results, and good results often lead to more opportunities in the world.
Neill’s contention is backed up by scientific research. Studies show that a positive change to a person’s life—such as winning the lottery, or getting married—will impact their level of happiness for a short while. But in the long run, they’ll return to a standard level of happiness, similar to where they’ve always been. As Chris Bailey, author of the blog A Life of Productivity, explains:
If you expect to become happier because you make more money, lose weight, get a promotion, or get more work done, research has shown that you’re looking for happiness in the wrong place.
Given that your big goals aren’t the right place to look for happiness, where should you begin your search? Let’s look at two strategies you can use to find happiness—so you can enjoy your work every day, and get more done. These are mindfulness, and being “in the zone”.
Mindfulness at Work
Mindfulness has a range of health benefits, including lower blood pressure, reduced chronic pain, and improved sleep. It can also help with mental health issues, including depression, eating disorders, and anxiety disorders.
Fortunately, mindfulness is incredibly simple to learn (although it takes a lifetime to master). You can practice mindfulness at any time. In fact, it’s probably something you already do now and again.
Mindfulness involves paying attention to your thoughts and feelings. To be mindful, notice how you are feeling at the present moment. Another way of being mindful is to consciously focus all your attention on the task you are doing. The more you check in with yourself or maintain focus in this way, the more you are being mindful.
Start practicing mindfulness with basic tasks, such as washing dishes. Focus all your attention on the feel of the warm water on your hands, the pressure of the sponge on your fingertips as you wipe the dishes clean. Once you’ve got the hang of paying attention while washing dishes, you can bring your mindful attention to any task.
Other ways to bring mindfulness—and happiness—to your work include:
- Slowing down. Rather than rushing through your work, complete tasks slowly and methodically. Give them your full care and attention. Ironically, you may find that slowing down helps you get more done, as you will be less inclined to give in to distractions.
- Take a break from your work to focus on your breath. Don’t force yourself to breathe deeply, just notice the feel of your breath as you breathe in and out.
- Step back from yourself. Instead of asking “How am I feeling?” ask “How is it feeling?” Then respond “It is happy” or “It is depressed”. When you do this, you begin to notice that you can step outside your feelings. By avoiding the word “I”, you are no longer identifying with your emotions. Your true self is beyond your feelings, and you don’t need to be controlled by how you feel.
- When you’re in conversation, practice active listening. Focus completely on what your conversation partner is saying rather than allowing yourself to be distracted by thoughts of what you’ll say next.
- Take five minutes to do nothing. During this time, allow your body to relax and your thoughts to wander. Pay attention to where your thoughts take you, but don’t follow them if they urge you to take action. For your five minutes of doing nothing, just observe.
A practice that’s similar to mindfulness is getting “in the zone”. Like being mindful, getting in the zone will help you focus on your work and get more done. Let’s take a look at what it means.
Getting “In the Zone”
When athletes perform at their best, they get completely absorbed “in the zone”. Their entire attention is focused on the movement of their body—though this attention comes easily and doesn’t feel like hard work.
Likewise, creative people can find themselves “in the zone”, where creativity just flows. The soldier-poet Lawrence of Arabia said “happiness is absorption”, and the psychologist Rollo May put it this way:
When you are completely absorbed or caught up in something, you become oblivious to things around you, or to the passage of time. It is this absorption in what you are doing that frees your unconscious and releases your creative imagination.
To get in the zone is to find happiness in your work. Being in the zone is characterized by:
- Intense and focused concentration on the task at hand;
- Being fully immersed in the present moment;
- A feeling of peaceful serenity or ecstasy—your emotions are beyond everyday reality;
- Inner clarity—you know what needs to be done, and you know you’re doing it well;
- Loss of self-consciousness—you’re so absorbed in what you’re doing, you don’t worry about what others will think of you;
- A sense of power—you feel in control over what you are doing.
- Losing track of time. An hour can pass in what you thought was only a few minutes.
Hungarian psychology professor Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls this state of being in the zone “flow”. According to Csíkszentmihályi’s research, it’s a state anyone can enter, provided they follow certain principles.
How to Enter a State of Flow
Unlike being mindful, entering flow isn’t something you can decide to do. Rather, it’s an experience that descends upon you. An anonymous poet—who described being in the zone as part of an academic research project, explained it as follows:
It’s like opening a door that’s floating in the middle of nowhere and all you have to do is go and turn the handle and open it and let yourself sink into it. You can’t particularly force yourself through it. You just have to float. If there’s any gravitational pull, it’s from the outside world trying to keep you back from the door.
Although you can’t control when you fall into flow, you can increase your chances of entering flow by tweaking your environment and the tasks you choose to work on. Here’s how:
Choose a challenging task that matters to you. It’s easiest to enter a state of flow when you’re working on something that’s important to you, and that you enjoy doing. If you need help working out what’s important to you, then get familiar with the Eisenhower Matrix, which will help you get your priorities straight.
The task you choose should be creative. That doesn’t mean you must be an artist. There’s no need to write a novel or paint a picture. Rather, it means you should be expending your energy in the pursuit of a meaningful goal, even if that goal is ephemeral. For example, an athlete creates movement and energy with his or her body. Even blitzing through your emails could be creative, as you are creating an empty inbox.
Set aside a dedicated period of time to practice. If you are a beginner at the task, you will need to practice before you can enter the full state of flow. Flow typically only happens when you have mastered a task, or on the verge of mastering it. That said, you can still be mindful while you practice and gain experience. And you will sometimes find flow even while you are practicing. For example, if you are learning a musical instrument, you may find yourself entering into a state of flow once you have mastered a basic song. Of course, you will have to go beyond that state of flow to continue learning.
Every time you engage in the task, set clear goals for yourself. Flow thrives on a sense of accomplishment. You can only achieve it if you set a goal for yourself. An athlete might aim to complete a track within a certain time limit. A musician may decide to learn a song, or to write a new song. If you are seeking to achieve flow in your professional life, your goal may be to email five new contacts, or write a section of your business plan. The more specific the goal, the better. The goal should also be something that’s in your control to achieve. “Sell five widgets” isn’t a goal you have control over. “Make calls to 20 potential widget buyers” is. For more in-depth advice on setting appropriate goals, check out our article on SMART goals.
Set aside a time when you’ll be free of interruptions. This should be appropriate to the task, and a minimum of fifteen minutes. The longer you spend absorbed in a task, the more likely you are to enter a state of flow. Allowing yourself several hours is ideal.
Once you start work on the task, focus completely on what you’re doing. Practicing mindfulness will help here. You can also use the Pomodoro Technique to keep your focus razor sharp.
Relax your body into flow. Anxiety—even anxiety held in your body—reduces your chances of entering the state of flow. Before you start work, or when you need a few moments break, focus mindfully on your breath. Stretch to ease the tension out of your muscles. When you return to work, sit or stand with good posture.
Have you tried practicing mindfulness? What techniques have you found that help you pay attention?
Have you ever entered a state of flow? What tasks do you find help you discover a state of flow?
Editorial Note: This content was originally published in 2014. We’re sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.