There are parallels to be found between travelling alone and working for one’s self: foreign environments, unfamiliar circumstance, a lack of externally imposed activities, and over-glamorization of both experiences in social media.

It’s easy to denigrate an 8-5, but a full time job imposes structure on one’s life. Without structure or a predefined set of goals, you may end up falling prey to anxiety from new and ambiguous situations.

The trick to overcoming the anxiety is something that almost all of us have experienced at one point or another.

Have you ever found yourself so immersed in an activity that you lose sense of time, so that an hour may feel like a couple of minutes? Skiing down a slope perhaps, or engaging in a conversation with someone who broadens your perspectives.

To positive psychologists, this is known as a ‘flow’ state. You may also have heard athletes refer to this as being ‘in the zone’.

The concept of flow state, as pioneered by positive psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi – in his book Finding Flow: The Psychology Of Engagement With Everyday Life – refers to the complete absorption in a task that one is doing. It provides structure and focus around an activity, and leads to improved performance.

Despite misconceptions, achieving a flow state is not the domain of a few select experts. In fact, you can maximize your chances of experiencing a state of flow by taking note of the following factors:

1. Aptitude and Challenge

To achieve a flow state, there has to be a match between the challenges that an activity presents, and the level of perceived aptitude one has to accomplish that challenge.The task needs to be difficult enough to challenge your current ability levels, but not so difficult that you perceive yourself as being unable to achieve results.

Czikszentmihalyi gives the example of a game of tennis: Someone who’s only played tennis for 3 months is unlikely to achieve a state of flow while playing against a top seeded pro who’s played at Wimbledon, but is more likely to achieve a state of flow if he’s matched with someone who’s been playing for half a year.

Summary: Set challenges that are slightly ahead of your current ability level.

2. Goals

A lot of the time, we tend to think of goals as externally imposed. However, flow state goals should be rewarding in themselves. The activity at hand needs to be intrinsically rewarding, or autotelic (from the Greek autos for ‘self’ and telos for ‘goal), rather than focused on external motivations like money or praise.

Being able to set clear goals for what you’d like to achieve from a project will allow you to gain feedback on the process; it could be as something as simple as learning a new chord on the guitar, or learning how to apply the rule of thirds to the composition of your photographs.

Summary: Set clear goals, and focus on the intrinsic rewards of accomplishing them.

3. Immersion

A flow state requires you to be completely absorbed in doing the task, so that there is a merging of action and awareness. The focus should be less on the results, and more on being able to control one’s attention.

Besides the fact that the large majority of humans are unable to multitask,  trying to do more than one activity at a time will distract you from focusing deeply on the task at hand.

As a freelancer, you have the freedom to structure your own time and environment, rather than working on someone else’s schedule. Experiment with doing work at different times of the day, and track how they affect your ability to achieve a state of flow.

Summary: Eliminate distractions, experiment with your environment.

4. Feedback

On the flip side, you should structure your experience to have direct and immediate feedback, so that you’re able to keep track of how well or badly you are doing, and adapt accordingly.

This feedback can be highly subjective, but I find that it helps if it happens to be sensory. For example, I have a simple preference for working with a mechanical keyboard. The more tactile nature of the keys and the louder cadence of typing gives me sensory feedback on the speed and ease at which I’m writing.

Summary: Focus on the sensory experience of the activity.

Raphael Lim

about Raphael

Raphael has interviewed Superman, gotten choked out by mixed martial artists, and sworn off food for a week without ending up looking like Gandhi. Yes, truth can be stranger than fiction. You can read his scribblings primarily in the Disrupter and Storyteller sections. He can be reached at

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