Three Tricks to Find Your Flow


When was the last time you were so focused that time stood still?

Athletes call this mental state being in “The Zone”; psychologists call it “flow” or peak experience, and they have linked it to leading a life of happiness and purpose. Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher who authored theTao Te Ching, called it “doing without doing” or “trying without trying.”

I think of this mental state as our “sweet spot,” where we have both great strength and great ease; it’s the mental state when our best work emerges without strain or anxiety. Instead of making our most powerful effort, we get to experience our own effortless power.

Although we usually assume that a state of deep concentration is hard to achieve (and getting harder these days, as the interruptions from our smartphone/email/texts mount) the truth is that we can access this wonderful state much more easily than we often realize. Here’s how.

1. Clear mental clutter. What is going on in your mind that will keep you from your sweet spot?

Take a quick look at your task list, and decide what you will do today and when you will do it. When our subconscious mind doesn’t know when we will complete a task, it will often interrupt our flow state with intrusive reminders about what else we need to do. Research shows that our unconscious isn’t actually nagging us to do the task at hand but rather to make a plan to get it done. So scheduling a task can make a huge difference in our ability to focus on something else.

Another precursor to getting into The Zone is knowing where you are in your workflow. “That constant awareness of what is next is what keeps you focused,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, told Entrepreneur magazine. “That’s where the engagement comes from.”

So note what you’ve just accomplished, what you hope to accomplish next, and what you’ll work on after that.

As I approach my tasks, I also find it helpful to take a quick peek at my calendar and email to clear mental clutter. Is there anything urgent? The idea isn’t to respond to emails; it’s a check that keeps me from worrying while I work that I should have checked my email, and keeps me from wondering if there is anything on my calendar that I should be preparing for.

2. Build yourself a fortress against interruption. If you can’t concentrate, you can’t be in your sweet spot. Period.

That’s because if you keep getting interrupted, you can’t achieve the state of deep concentration that you need for flow. Even if you like the interruptions (as when you get funny texts from a friend). Even if the interruptions are good for your work (as when a colleague stops by to answer a question). If you take one thing away from this article, let it be this:

No focus, no flow.

Anything that might distract or tempt you away from your work needs to be taken care of before you drop into The Zone. Think of yourself like a toddler going on a road trip: What will make you pull over before you reach your destination? Will you need to plug your computer in? Get a kleenex? Adjust the thermostat? Something as small as an itchy tag on the back of your shirt can weaken your focus if you are tempted to go to the bathroom to cut it out. Here is what I have to do before I find flow:

Clear my desk of anything that might distract me. I remove yesterday’s coffee cup, close books, put pens away, stack papers into a deceptively neat pile. As I do this, I note anything on my task list that will need my attention later, and make a time when I will attend to it.

Open any documents on my computer that I will need to use while I’m doing my focused work, and then quit my email application. This prevents me from opening my email while I’m trying to write—once I do that, I have to exert a lot of mental energy to resist reading new emails.

I close open browser windows and any other apps that aren’t in use. I leave my calendar open, as one of the great benefits of working from our sweet spot is that we lose track of time, and my calendar keeps me from missing what’s next.

I put my smartphone into “do not disturb” mode and move it out of sight. I turn off the ringer on my landline. (All other alerts on my computer are already off. I would never dream of getting a device like an Apple watch, which would be a constant threat to my concentration.)

I go to the bathroom, and bring a glass of water, snack, and cup of coffee to my desk.

I close my shades and office door. If I’m not alone, I put on noise canceling headphones and then I tell Buster, my trusty canine colleague, to go to his “place,” where he’s trained to stay while I work.

Take a minute to anticipate your needs and take care of them now rather than when they will break your state of concentration.

3. Prepare your brain to go into a deep state of focus. This doesn’t require any sci-fi technology that sends a probe or special rays into your brain. Instead, it just takes a few simple, very ordinary steps.

Have a small snack. Concentration is very taxing for our brain energy-wise. Research shows that our focus and stamina tend to improve when our blood sugar is on the rise. (No need to have a whole meal, though. Digestion diverts energy from the brain. A small handful of nuts works best for me.)

Drink a lot of water. Your brain is 73 percent water, and even mild dehydration can cause it to sputter. Research participants who are barely dehydrated—not enough to even feel thirsty—experience “significant deterioration in mental functions” according to one study. Drinking water corrects trouble focusing. We aren’t sure why, but one theory is that it is the brain’s way of getting us to pay attention to our basic survival needs rather than our big thoughts and ambitions.

Put on some music you’ve chosen as ideal for getting into your sweet spot. Star athletes have long understood the power that music has to raise our energy and focus our attention—as well as to block out distractions. (Just make sure that the music isn’t another distraction in and of itself. I’ve created a Pandora radio station that plays only upbeat instrumental music; lyrics distract me.)

Exhale deeply for a minute or so. Our breathing profoundly affects our nervous system and blood flow in our brain—and, therefore, our performance. Taking some nice deep breaths signals to our brain that we are safe, allowing us to access mental resources we can’t when our breathing is shallow (which our brain takes as a sign that we are in a state of fight or flight).

Elite performers—from Stephen Curry to Maya Angelou—train themselves to drop into The Zone unconsciously by performing little rituals like the one I’ve created out of these three steps. (Angelou said that she used her pre-writing routine to “enchant” herself.) Indeed, rituals like these make it possible for ordinary people to do extraordinary work.

Photo courtesy of Kristina Alexanderson

One Day More

What a surprising and fun break from all this back to school chaos!

Thursday Thought

tt_marthabeck“Even as real grief breaks your heart, something in you knows that you’re being broken open, and there is something profoundly hopeful at the core of that sensation.” —Martha Beck

This is What I Hope I’ve Taught You

My baby Fiona giving her 8th grade commencement talk. (A reminder to me that she’s got this thing — she gave better advice to her friends at graduation than I provide in this article.


My daughter, Fiona, leaves for school this week. I’m happy and excited for her—and also broken up about it. Although it was always the plan for our kids to grow up and move away, this week, like so many parents who have a child going off to school, I’m consumed by grief.*

I’ve done my best to teach my kids everything I know about finding happiness and fulfillment in life, but who knows when they are really listening? Just in case she missed something, here is a list of the principles I hope Fiona takes with her to school.

1. Make kindness the central theme of your life. Look for opportunities to show compassion and generosity. Don’t be tricked into thinking that happiness will come from getting what you want; happiness comes from giving, not getting. When you’re feeling down, help someone else.

2. Tolerate discomfort. Have the difficult conversations. Let yourself truly notice when other people are suffering. Do the right thing even when the right thing is hard. You are strong enough.

3. Live with total integrity. Be transparent, honest, and authentic. Do not ever waiver from this; white lies and false smiles quickly snowball into a life lived out of alignment. It is better to be yourself and risk having people not like you than to suffer the stress and tension that comes from pretending to be someone you’re not, or professing to like something that you don’t. I promise you: Pretending will rob you of joy.

4. Let go of what other people think of you. Another person’s opinion of you is their business, not yours. Great leaders are often criticized. Especially ignore critics who seem delighted when you stumble. 

5. Invite constructive criticism from the people who want the best for you. Other people offer us a different view; we need their broader perspective to grow and improve.

6. Accept that well-meaning and loving people will sometimes give you bad advice. You’ll know when something isn’t right for you because you’ll feel it in your body. Our unconscious mind is our best source of intelligence, but it communicates through intuition and bodily sensations, not words. Learn how to read your “body compass.”

7. Know the difference between legitimate and not-helpful fear. Legitimate fear, like terror in the presence of a dangerous person, makes us want to get the heck out of whatever situation we are in. When you feel legitimate fear, run like the wind. Not-helpful fear, on the other hand, makes us hesitate rather than bolt. (Like when we are afraid of looking stupid and so don’t ask an important question.) Ignore your hesitation. As Maria Shriver wrote in And One More Thing Before You Go, often “anxiety is a glimpse of your own daring … Whatever you’re afraid of–that is the very thing you should try to do.”

8. Your relationships with your family and closest friends are always more important than any achievement. Prioritize accordingly.

9. When you hurt someone, apologize. Even if you didn’t intend to hurt that person, or you think they are over-reacting.

10. Look people in the eye. Chat with people in elevators and in line at the store. Look up. Smile.

11. Develop a strong handshake. Try to connect with people in your first interaction, to make them feel your delight in them (even if you are scared to death).

12. Hug people liberally. Even people you’ve just met. People are stressed. They need more love. Don’t withhold it.

13. Don’t compare yourself to others. When we get caught in a web of thinking that we are better or worse than others, we usually end up depressed, anxious, and insecure. If you notice that you are comparing yourself to others, try asking yourself these questions: What do I appreciate about those people? How can I connect with or learn from them? How can I add value to their lives?

14. Develop good habits; you won’t need so much willpower that way.

15. Don’t wear uncomfortable shoes, even if everyone else is doing it. High heels are the cigarettes of the future; they are bad for your health and they get you in the habit of ignoring pain in order to look good to others, which is never a good idea.

16. Let yourself feel what you feel. When we feel stressed out (or sad, or disappointed), we live in a world that offers many ways to numb those negative feelings–to not really feel them. But to honestly feel the positive things in life—to truly feel love, or joy, or profound gratitude—we must also let ourselves feel fear, and grief, and frustration. Your emotions are how your heart talks to you, how it tells you what choices to make. Practice listening to your heart. This is the way to know who you are and what you want.

17. Train your brain to see the positive in your life by keeping a gratitude journal.

18. Don’t believe everything you think. If a thought is stressing you out, it is probably untrue.

19. If you feel overwhelmed, unplug. Create times and places in your life every single day where you are free from technology.

20. Make your bed, and keep your room clean. The state of your bed is the state of your head. The outside tends to match the inside.

21. Know when and how to say “no.” That way, you’ll feel more joy when you say “yes.”

22. Chase meaning, not happiness. What purpose or value does your work and your passion have for other people? If you don’t know, find out.

23. Focus on the journey, not the achievement. Instead of wishing you were somewhere else, or saving your happiness for when you get where you are going, enjoy where you are. Right now. You are always already right where you need to be.

24. Remember that talents are actually skills. Talent” comes from hard work, passion, and great coaching or teaching.

25. Give people the benefit of the doubt. When someone does something hurtful or annoying, consider the idea that it isn’t about you. Practice compassion and empathy by putting yourself in the shoes of others.

26. Make mistakes. In the classroom, in your relationships, on the athletic field, at parties, at home. We learn stuff from our mistakes that we couldn’t learn any other way.

27. When you make a mistake, don’t beat yourself up about it. Self-criticism makes us depressed, and much more likely to make the same mistake again. Instead, remind yourself that mistakes make us human. Feel compassion for your suffering. It can feel really awful to make a mistake. It’s okay to feel awful–to feel frustrated, embarrassed, guilty, disappointed, etc. You can handle these feelings.

28. Repair your mistakes. Use them to become a better person.

29. Love what is. Wishing to be older or younger, wanting other people to be different than they are, wanting it to be sunny when it is raining–this is fighting with reality, and it is a futile and frustrating pastime.

30. If you are tired, rest. Working 24/7 will get you nowhere fast. (Trust me, I’ve tried this.)

31. Remind yourself that more is not necessarily better. Do this especially if you are worried that you won’t have enough of something, if you feel like you don’t have as much as others, or if you are feeling ungenerous with your belongings or your time. Many of your peers will spend their time striving for more: more money, more likes on Instagram, more clothes, more popular or important friends, more prestigious schools. But as they accumulate more, odds are, they’ll just want more! True abundance is not a quantity of something; it is a quality of life, a feeling of sufficiency. When we step back from the idea that more might be better, often we see that we have enough to share.

32. Surround yourself with people and situations that make you laugh uncontrollably. Laughter is heaven on earth.

* Fiona is going to boarding school for 9th grade. This is at once terrible and wonderful. Even though I went to the high school she’ll be attending (The Thacher School), and I’ve served on its board for nine years, I’m really having some hesitations about all this going away business. But then I remember: I had an incredible experience at Thacher that I would never dream of depriving Fiona of, especially just to satisfy my own selfish desire to keep her home. Still.


Always #LikeAGirl – Unstoppable

Do we limit girls and tell them what they should or shouldn’t be?

Do we box them into expected roles?

Thursday Thought

author unknown hard work“The reason most people do not recognize an opportunity when they meet it is because it usually goes around wearing overalls and looking like Hard Work.”
—Author Unknown

Enlightened Parenting –Tips for Raising Confident and Loving Kids

By Meredith Montgomery

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 5.15.35 PM

Shelly Lefkoe, co-author of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Guide to Effective Parenting, believes that children learn what we model as important values. She tells her daughters they should treat her with dignity and respect not because she’s their mother, but because, “That’s how you treat people and that’s how I treat them.”

Minneapolis college student Casey Martin often joins his father, Kirk, in presenting Calm Parenting workshops for parents, teachers and students around the country. In growing up, he’s seen firsthand, “If you have a connection with your kids, you can have a lot more influence on them.”

Noting that sometimes children feel like their parents love them, but don’t necessarily like them, Martin emphasizes finding ways to identify with their interests. “I love cars, and my dad used to invite me on test drives when I was a kid. Both of my parents took time to connect with me, which had a huge impact on our relationship.”

This article by Natural Awakenings Magazine gives a few helpful tips for establishing values, being disciplined communicators, navigating the teenage years, as well as explaining why sometimes our kids can be the best teachers for us as parents.

Click here to learn more about these tips plus other helpful insights from parenting experts around the country!


How to Get Your Kid to Tell You Everything

Gemma and Jack

As the first day of school quickly approaches, parents are asking me how to get their kids to talk to them more about school. We parents want information! We feel that in exchange for our nurturance and worry and everything we did to get them ready for school, we should at least get to know what’s happening there!

So how can you get more than a “fine” out of your kids when you ask them “How was school?” Drawing on techniques from some of the most brilliant people I know—parenting expert Amy McCready, child and adolescent psychologist Shefali Tsabary, and Harvard-trained life coach Martha Beck–I’ve pieced together the following plan.

   1. Set aside 10 minutes a day for the most important parenting technique ever.

What (or whether) kids choose to share with us has a lot to do with their personality, of course. But a factor that is more within our control is our connection with them—specifically, how much they trust us with their innermost thoughts and feelings.  

We can lay a foundation of trust and connection using what my kids call “special time.” Every day for at least 10 minutes, I try to do something with each of my kids that they choose: We play a game, read together on the couch, walk the dog.  

This may sound easy, but for me, it’s not; in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, 10 or 20 minutes per kid can be hard to find. That may seem ridiculous to you—I spend longer doing things that are much less important everyday—but between homework and dinnertime and bedtime, adding a whole other activity can seem daunting.

Oh, and also there’s the fact that often I don’t actually want to do what the kids want to do.

 For example, one of my daughters reads dystopian and romance novels voraciously, and a favorite activity is to “fan girl” the authors. When I have one-on-one time with her, she wants to tell me in excruciating detail about what she is reading.

 My instinct is to roll my eyes and not hang out with her while she writes a letter to John Greene. But when I manage to be present with her in all her fan-girl glory, not judging the or rejecting her current passion, she feels more connected to me, and vice versa. She learns that she can trust me with her inner world.

 Moreover, when I consistently give her this “special time,” she feels secure in the knowledge that she is one of my highest priorities, and that she can count on me to be there for her. It is during this special time that she is most likely to open up and tell me about lunchtime dynamics, or how she is really feeling about her teachers.

     2. Be honest about why you want to know about your kids’ day.

Why is it so important to you that you know what is happening at school? There are legitimate reasons to want to know, and reasons that push kids away.

Here’s the thing: Our kids’ lives are not our lives, and we are not entitled to emotional access to their inner or social worlds. No matter how beautiful or painful things might be for them, it is their journey, not ours. We are support along their journey, but we aren’t heroes in their stories. They are the heroes. We might be desperately curious about what is happening with them, but their lives are still their lives, which they can choose to share—or not.

A kid’s primary goal in life is to achieve belonging and significance. (Read more about this in Amy McCready’s fantastic new book, The “Me Me Me” Epidemic.) Actually, it is a human being’s primary goal to achieve belonging and significance. This is one reason that we parents want all the gory details of our children’s lives at school. We want to know that we belong in our children’s lives, that our role is significant.

But when we use our children to generate our own sense of belonging and significance, kids can smell our neediness a million miles away. Parental insecurity and anxiety is a heavy burden for a child or a teen to bear, and most kids (people!) will avoid it like the plague. Our kids can only truly connect with us when we don’t depend on them for our own sense of self or significance. This bears repeating: Our kids can’t really connect with us when our own fulfillment, happiness, or identity depends on them or what they do.

We can, however, ask our kids about their day as a way to fulfill their need for connection, belonging, and significance. We can act as curious-but-neutral witnesses to the beautiful mess of their lives. Ultimately, as they grow to trust our motivations, we become a place where our children can share even their most vulnerable feelings without also fearing how we will react.

     3. Ask them about the worst part of their day.

Watch for the time and place when your child feels safe and has the energy to reveal him or herself to you. Hint: It probably isn’t when they, or you, walk in the door after school or work. Most kids need time to rest and make the transition from school to home. And most kids don’t want an audience of siblings, or the carpool.

When everyone is ready (perhaps while you are having special time, or at bedtime), ask them about the part of their day that was least satisfying. I might say something like, “What was the most stressful part of the first day of school?” Or “Was there a time today when you felt nervous or anxious or afraid?” (This is a coaching technique I learned from Martha Beck’s coach training program.)

We ask kids this not because we want the dirt or the gossip or because we delight in playground or high school drama. Do not ask this question until you are ready and able to stay neutral and unemotional. Don’t ask this if you are inclined to jump in and solve all their problems for them.

Ask only when you are able to accept their uncomfortable emotions. Acceptance means that you hear what is going on without asking why they feel the way they do, without offering a judgement about anyone or anything they are describing to you.

Ask only when you are able to label and validate their emotions, when you are able to neutrally help them understand what exactly they are feeling, and where in their body that feeling lives.

Why ask about the negative rather than the positive? Because, as Dr. Shephali writes in Out of Control,

Inability to sit in the pain of life, whether that of our child or ourselves, shortchanges us, since only to the degree we can be with pain are we also able to experience the unbridled joy of life. In other words, it’s our ability to experience the burning sting of our pain, without assuaging it, that empowers us to receive joy in all its magnificence. 

We want kids to learn that all feelings, even the uncomfortable ones, are okay. Eventually, we can help kids understand how their emotions often drive their behavior—and that while all emotions are okay, all behavior is not equally effective in helping them reach their goals.

So why, in the end, do ask them how their day was?

Because we want to be an unconditionally loving place in our kids’ lives, where they will always be able to touch their own significance and feel their own belonging. We want to be the place where they can unburden themselves from life’s difficulties—so that, ultimately, they are able to receive life’s beauty, in all its magnificence.

Photo courtesy of Christine Urias

Close to Home | It Can Wait

A startling reminder about what matters most — and what doesn’t matter at all.

Thursday Thought

Mark Twain tt1“Life is short. Break the rules. Forgive quickly, kiss slowly. Love truly. Laugh uncontrollably. And never regret anything that makes you smile.” ― Mark Twain