The Anatomy of Flow: How to Enter the Aerobic Productivity Zone
"What is your productivity secret?" asked David.
The question made me pause for two reasons. First, I could not remember ever examining my life through a productivity lens. Second, I did not think I have such a secret.
"What do you mean by productivity secret?" I asked.
"Well," David said, "For as long as I've known you, you always seem to be engaged productively in multiple endeavors. What is your secret?"
I chuckled, and said, "I don't know whether how I do my work and live my life is a secret. What I can tell you is that I never have focused on productivity as a goal because I don't view myself as an economic unit. Rather, I see myself as a creative unit, a conduit of opportunities and service made possible only when I am in a state of creative flow."
I continued: "To develop the readiness necessary to respond to life's opportunities, I have to focus on capacity building. The best and fastest way I have found to build capacity is to put myself in what initially feels like an impossible situation by taking on more than I think I can chew. As you know, once I set a goal for myself, I am driven to push hard to achieve it. To be successful in this scenario, therefore, I am compelled to convert the seemingly impossible to a possible and manageable situation by finding new capabilities, building greater capacity, and creating innovative solutions."
Giving me a quizzical look, David asked, "So what does that capacity-building process look like?"
Listen Here: Episode 56 - The Anatomy of Flow
Here are some examples that illustrate my capacity evolution journey. Twelve years ago, running one large and complex corporate project taxed my capacity. Two years later, I easily managed two large projects concurrently. Today, ten years later, my capacity has expanded to the extent that I am working with five international corporations on six large, complex projects, each of which requires me to collaborate with multiple executives and develop and deliver a series of strategy workshops and leadership events. Concurrently I am advising and coaching several CEOs, creating a series of workbooks and new discovery tools, and writing several new articles. I also am involved in three non-profit endeavors, including an inter-generational dialogue project. And I am writing and recording new content to contribute to my spiritual community. My capacity is about four times greater now, both in volume and range, than it was just a few years ago.
How is that possible? To be able to manage all these endeavors simultaneously and reach successful outcomes, I had to build my capacity. Come to think about it, perhaps there is what some might call a secret, although because it is in plain sight it's really not a secret at all.
Most productivity advice involves creating systems and structures to organize work. Being organized is a given if you want to interface concurrently with multiple Fortune 100 companies and executive teams. My premise is more fundamental. I strive to do whatever is necessary to enable me to be in the creative flow -- what I call the aerobic zone. I'll expand upon what I mean by aerobic zone after I establish a core premise for living.
I believe that living is an opportunity portal, that life is a gift, and that the exercise of living is the stage on which we can actualize the unmanifested. This means that I must work diligently to be available and ready to engage in the opportunities that show up in my life.
For me to produce optimal development and outcomes for the opportunities that present themselves, I must be in the flow. In that state, I am fully present, energized, healthy, and focused on the person and/or the situation in front of me. The work and the interactions feel effortless, and often are fun; serendipity and miracles abound. This is the aerobic productivity insight. To attain that state, however, I must work my way through the anaerobic process by diligently addressing everything that undermines or obstructs the creative flow.
In the current context, aerobic productivity implies being in the flow, applying the energy and intelligence arising in the moment to serve situational needs. My role model is Tanya, the best nurse I have observed in action, flowing gracefully from one patient's need to the next. She demonstrates aerobic productivity by being one with the needs around her, and by serving as an available conduit of help, knowhow and intelligence.
Although the counterpart of aerobic productivity, anaerobic work may have a negative connotation because it means you're not in the flow, it plays a critical role. Specifically, it represents the work required in order to return to, or get into, the aerobic zone, where I can serve the existing need in an optimal way. Because the organizing principle is serving the opportunity need optimally, I must take the time to "take care of business," which includes managing the anaerobic transitions between one aerobic zone and the next effectively. That aspect of my work involves constant effort to be resiliently ready, physically fit, mentally engaged and resourceful, and spiritually attuned and available.
Being in the state of flow allows me to dance with the situation, free of concerns and preoccupations other than serving the need in the moment. I have been inspired by observing flow with the best nurses, the best gardeners, the best car mechanics and yes, the best athletes and actresses. They do not look like they are working. There is an elegance and a grace that accompany people who operate in the zone of flow, producing the exact service and results needed.
Going back to David's question, if there is a secret, it is that my organizing principle is to serve the opportunity I am in right now optimally. I categorize three broad opportunity fields. Field A involves serving creative opportunities on my own. Writing this article to clarify the aerobic productivity concept for myself is a good example of being in the flow. I feel energized, with a heightened sense of well-being, awareness and attunement as I articulate for the first time a process that has been intuitively working in me for years.
Field B and Field C are similar and include opportunities to serve situations that involve others. Field B encompasses the people in my personal life, such as my family, my close friends, my spiritual community, and others who I choose to serve and help because I can and because I care. My contract with those in Field B is not defined by the exchange of money for service.
In contrast, Field C includes clients and the people I serve through my work, for which I do get paid. There are those who enter Field C and then migrate into Field B. Even though there are differences between Fields B and C, the guiding organizing principle is the same in both: being present to the existing need and serving it in the best, most optimal way.
In Field B, for example, I may be in a conversation with Sara, my wife, and or in a dialogue with a friend, or leading a structured conversation with a circle in my community. In Field C, I may be engaged in an advisory call with a CEO or leading a senior team through a strategy formulation. All these situations have one common requirement: that I be a conduit of help, offering the best, most optimal support and service.
How I am called to be of service in each of the above scenarios may require a range of modalities and a full behavioral spectrum. In certain situations, I am called to offer witnessing presence and active listening (level 4). In others, I may be called to diagnose, solve, mentor, coach, offer alternative solutions, entertain, be humorous and disarming, or to offer guidance, confidence and encouragement. The guiding principle is meeting the opportunity needs of the situation, caring and serving in the best possible way I can. To offer this degree of readiness, I must be present in the moment and available. This is why a big part of my work is taking care of all other (anaerobic) matters and needs.
When I am in the moment, in the flow, I am in the aerobic zone. In contrast, when I am in an anaerobic state, I am out of tune, preoccupied and unable to be present to the existing need because I lack the situational energy to guide how I best can serve it.
Field A is a source of nourishment for Fields B and C. If I am not in the flow myself, I cannot be of use to others. Therefore, to be available in Fields B and C, I must provide Field A what it needs. The pragmatic implication of responding to the opportunities of Field A is that the best time to do anything is when you are present to it. The best time to capture an idea is when it emerges. The best time to further the development of a concept is when it presents itself. I may be in the shower or swimming when the next idea shows up. I try to write or dictate it as soon as I can in order to make space for the next development to take place. That practice illustrates how I treat myself as a conduit. When an idea comes through, I must generatively engage in developing it to enable that opportunity flow and make sure I do not block the faucet through which other ideas are waiting to emerge.
For example, when I must develop an agenda for a three-day workshop, I create it while I'm on the phone discussing the workshop with the client. Together we create the prototype framework in 15 minutes because the need is present now. Alternatively, I will create the agenda right after the call, when it is fresh in me. For me to be available to act on the generative input that emerged from the conversation, I must create the space to do so. This is why I do not schedule or engage in back to back meetings. That practice is an example of organizing to be available and enable flow in the zone of aerobic productivity.
Now it's your turn. Turn the key. Identify your opportunity fields. Discover your aerobic zone, where you create the best results. Produce your best contribution and results by removing obstacles and resistance so you can enter the flow.
© Aviv Shahar