This Symbl for Startups content series separates facts about the founder journey from fiction—with a little help from program mentors and startup experts. For additional information about how early stage businesses can benefit from the Symbl for Startups program, reach out to kira.hunter@symbl.ai

Founders who begin their journeys primarily doing what they’re most passionate about, whether that’s coding or designing or researching or something else, may find that their day-to-day duties shift toward employee management more than anything once the startup begins to scale.

While it’s important to learn how to effectively oversee your growing team firsthand, it is even more important to carve out time every single day to engage in what Hungarian-American psychologist and researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified as the flow state of being. 

So what exactly does “flow” mean in this context? According to Csikszentmihalyi’s uber-popular 1990 book on the topic, the flow state comes about when a person is fully immersed in a creative process that utilizes skills he or she is proficient in. It is a kind of pleasant engagement with adversity that transforms challenges into a source of deep satisfaction and happiness in addition to fostering unselfconsciousness.

Csikszentmihalyi uses rock climbing as a pertinent example of achieving the flow state of being. The purpose of rock climbing isn’t to rush to get to the peak or some sort of preconceived utopia, but rather its purpose is for the climber to be present and enjoy the mental and physical feat of climbing in and of itself. One reaches the end of a difficult climb and wishes that the route would go on even longer.

Along these lines, identifying what brings you as a founder this same sense of inner satisfaction and achievement, and committing to doing that activity daily, will help you become a better entrepreneur in practically every way. 

Read on for a step-by-step guide to help you unlock the flow state and stay motivated amid the hecticness of running an early stage startup.

Eliminate distractions

The most important step on the path to intentionally placing yourself in the state of flow is to first dramatically reduce common distractions that stem from both your external and internal environments. 

Frankly, you are far less likely to access the flow state if you are hungover or exhausted or caught up in strong emotions such as anger, sadness, and frustration. Similarly, if your outer space is cluttered or loud or you have people constantly interrupting you, it will be tough to relax into a given creative process enough to reach the flow state.

For those founders who have trouble finding prolonged periods of uninterrupted activity, it is practical to begin blocking off one’s calendar at a dedicated time each day for this specific kind of self care. If you’re a morning person, perhaps the best way for you to get into your uninterrupted flow state is to engage in whatever activity you choose as soon as you wake up—while the rest of the world is still snoozing. If you’re a night owl, vice versa. 

Balance challenge with skill

You may not remember the last time you entered the flow state of being. That’s okay! The main thing to look for in a given activity is that it doesn’t overwhelm you in terms of difficulty or overall scope. This isn’t the time to bite off more than you can chew. On the other hand, if you pick a task that is too simple you then run the risk of becoming bored and mentally disengaging with the process.

If you’re struggling to come up with anything work-related that might cause you to enter the state of flow, revert back to literally any activity that brings you joy. The whole point of existing in the flow state is to begin relying more on internal, intrinsic happiness as opposed to external sources of gratification.

Common activities that allow people to enter the flow state are just-challenging-enough forms of physical movement, meditation, diving deep into a specific educational topic, writing code, creating any kind of art, or otherwise completing a goal-oriented task that strikes this solid balance between level of challenge and personal skill. 

Push past negative mental chatter

During your first few conscious attempts to reach the flow state, it is common to hit a discouraging mental roadblock accompanied by much negative mental chatter. Instead of ceasing your efforts entirely, consciously pivot and view going through the motions of whatever activity you have chosen as your brain’s warm-up to eventually reaching the mental runner’s high that is the flow state. It is almost too easy in this day and age to get distracted by your phone or open Twitter on your browser and go totally off track at the first sign of discomfort.

When entrepreneurs regularly practice pushing through negative mental chatter telling them to give up, they are more likely to access the flow state AND complete more tasks day to day. The instinct to zone out can be very strong, but you can decide to acknowledge those tricky moments as precursors to the flow state to help you stay in the zone.

The bottom line is that your focus and the joy that stems from it deserve to be protected. If trying to access the flow state becomes yet another painful box on your to-do list, something is off and the process needs to be recalibrated. 

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Kira Hunter
Business Development and Growth Associate, Symbl.ai for Startups