When time is everything for freelancers: How to use science to avoid the procrastination vortex (part 2)

Engage in creative risk-taking without hesitation by getting into Flow State. Feel the best and perform the best.

When time is everything for freelancers: How to use science to avoid the procrastination vortex (part 2)

The previous article explained that procrastination is a combination of five variables: 

  1. Competence: Confidence that we can complete the task 
  2. Task value: How important the task is to us 
  3. Distractibility: How easily we are distracted from the task
  4. Time until the deadline. The length of time between now and the deadline 
  5. Temptation value: The value of the temptation (e.g., socializing) 

If you remember, manipulating even just one of these ingredients will change the likelihood that you’ll procrastinate. There is one strategy that encompasses all of these procrastinating variables into one—Flow State.

Avoid procrastination: Get into the flow

“Flow” is an actual scientific term coined by University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It defines “optimal states of consciousness when you are totally absorbed in the task. Your sense of self vanishes, time flies by unnoticed, and your performance goes through the roof.” 

Whether you’re writing, running, taking photos, painting, or knitting, Flow State is those times when you feel the best and perform the best. It’s a fluid, liberating state absent of second-guessing. We engage in creative risk-taking without hesitation. 

In Flow State, our attention heightens, and conscious processing is replaced by intrinsic subconscious processing. Intrinsic processing is much faster and more efficient than our clunky conscious brain. The prefrontal cortex, responsible for high-level cognitive functions and self-monitoring, deactivates, effectively shutting down our nagging inner critic. 

Getting into Flow State is no accident. The recipe is 

High opportunities for action + Capabilities to pursue the goals + Enjoyment = Flow State

In other words, your challenge at hand is optimally balanced with your skills, and you are motivated for the right reasons.

More specifically, you need to be intrinsically motivated

“When we say that a behavior is intrinsically motivated, we mean that the primary “reward” for doing that activity is the pleasurable feelings of interest or enjoyment that simultaneously accompany and are inextricably tied to doing that activity. ...By contrast, to the extent that behaviors are done for some consequence that could be considered separate from the activity, we call these behaviors extrinsically motivated.”  

Arlen Moller, PhD

In other words, you enjoy the task, as opposed to just doing it for the cash. So, to sum, Flow State is the result of engaging in a challenging, enjoyable task that’s just challenging enough to stay interesting instead of overwhelming.

Flow State is the ultimate weapon against procrastination. 

Learn to flex your flow state muscle

Before we discuss how to build your flow state muscle, we first need to ensure that we provide our flow muscle with the environment it needs to do its thing. 

The answer lies in creating a daily routine that works for you. 

William Blake was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. Talk about the ultimate freelancer, right. Contrary to popular belief, his creative genius was not driven by grandiose activity, but instead, it came from a grounded presence created by his surprisingly simple daily routine. He built his day around when he could think best. stated, “Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.” 

Pretty darn simple, right? But why is routine important for freelancers? Because we’re our best person at certain hours of the day.  And each of us is different. For some, that’s 4 am, for others it is 11 pm. It doesn’t matter. Identify that sweet spot on the clock for you when you can really make things click. Then, build your daily routine around it. 

Creating a daily routine that is optimized on your own unique patterns will rev up your freelance machine and prime it for Flow State. 

Flow State is amazing. We’ve all likely been there, but getting into the state takes practice. Here are a few strategies to reach Flow State. 

  • Be positive: Research shows that a hopeful countenance goes a long way in reaching Flow State. So, when you send that proposal, give yourself a dose of hope along with it. 
  • Have a plan and go public with it: As the famous saying goes, “Begin with the end in mind.” There’s nothing more effective as a freelancer than clear, documented goals and a friend riding your ass to achieve them. Research shows that you’re more likely to reach a goal if you write it down along with your plan for achieving it and then tell this plan to a friend. 
  • Clear distractions: If you can focus on the task for at least 10-15 minutes without distraction, you’re more likely to get into Flow State. A clear desk is an optimal place for a freelancer to find Flow State. Remove electronic gadgets, papers that remind you of other projects, and anything else that could tear you away from what you are doing, even for just a moment. Turn off notifications for a predesignated timeframe: Set a timer on your phone, then mute ALL notifications during that time. Also, refrain from checking email during this time (that client email CAN wait). 
  • Chill out: Stress is considered an internal distraction, and this is a Flow State show-stopper. Meditate or spend some time outside before starting the task to be cool as a cucumber when you begin. 
  • Start small, grow big: The mind is a muscle. Try starting with shorter writing or painting sessions (e.g., 20 minute “sets''), then slowly increase those time frames until you are a full-fledged flow master. 
  • Choose the right project for the time of day: Like we have REM cycles when we sleep, we all have a daytime circadian rhythm that causes our energy to ebb and flow. For example, most of us peak for a short duration, several hours after the workday begins. This peak usually lasts until about lunchtime. From here, our energy slowly declines, hitting a valley around 3pm. After this low point, our energy tends to increase steadily until 6pm, after which it steadily declines until it hits the very lowest point at 3:30am. It then begins to grow once more, and the daily cycle repeats itself. So, choosing to work on the more difficult tasks during the hours you have the most energy and saving the admin work for those periods of low energy will reap huge benefits.

Procrastination doesn’t have to be the scary monster people think it is. It is actually quite manageable when you douse it with a scientific fire hose. Use the skills and techniques above, and you’ll be a free-flowing freelancer in no time. 

And if you struggle to find Flow State, despair not. The biggest piece of advice I’d personally provide? Show yourself some grace. After all, if Pink Floyd can procrastinate and still be a huge success, why can’t we? 

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day

You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.

Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town

Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain.

You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.

Time (Pink Floyd)


Click here for a list of recommended science-based procrastination apps.