Most of us have had the experience, from time to time, of being “in the flow” or “in the zone” as we worked—focusing on the task in front of us with total calm and concentration. In these moments, our focus on what we’re doing becomes so intense that it’s almost like we forget we’re there. We disappear and only our work remains, and the work practically completes itself without effort on our part. These are our most productive moments, and the times when we create our highest-quality output.
Unfortunately, most of the time, we aren’t in this state while we’re working. Instead, our minds are normally preoccupied with past events and possible futures, and the places our minds wander to usually aren’t particularly pleasant. We rehash difficult episodes from the past like arguments we had with loved ones and embarrassing things we said at social occasions, and we conjure up worst-case future scenarios involving the boss yelling at us or our colleagues ridiculing our presentation.
How can we enter this state of peace and peak productivity more often? One approach we can use involves entering a mindset similar to the one we’re in when we’re waiting for something to happen. We’re awake and alert, but not fearful or hypervigilant like we would be if we sensed danger. Our minds are free of thought, and our bodies are relaxed. From this place, our work seems to flow easily and naturally, almost as if we’re watching our bodies perform our tasks.
How To Adopt The Waiting Mindset
Most of us only enter this state by random chance, and we typically aren’t aware that we’re in it in the moment—we only recognize that we’ve just been in it when some disruption, like a phone call or noise outside, jolts us out of it. Thus, getting into this state on a regular basis requires some practice. It’s best, in my experience, to start by adopting this mindset of waiting while we aren’t working.
If you have a moment to sit alone in a quiet, comfortable place, take a few moments to focus your attention on what’s going to happen next. Start wondering about questions like these: What sights, sounds and sensations are you going to take in next from the surrounding environment? When will you next hear a bird chirp, or the wind rustle the leaves, outside? What feelings are you going to experience next in your body? In other words, in this state, you’re waiting to see what experiences arise for you.
Note that this isn’t a bored or impatient form of waiting. In this state, you aren’t demanding that the world or your body give you something exciting to experience. It isn’t the kind of waiting you may have done in traffic, mentally begging or ordering the car in front of you to move. You are simply allowing whatever occurs, without resistance or judgment. As Buddhist teacher Ajahn Sumedho puts it, in this state “the mind rests in a state of poise, waiting with patient receptivity–not trying to find anything or do anything or get rid of anything.”
If you find it difficult to enter the waiting mindset, it’s helpful to recall other times in your life when you may have experienced this state outside the work context. Think about the way you held your body and how you felt in those moments.
Perhaps, for instance, you’ve found yourself watching a clock, waiting for the minute hand to move, or for the minute number to change if the clock is digital. Your awareness may have become completely absorbed by the clock, and you may have felt all your unrelated concerns temporarily falling away. Or perhaps you’ve watched an animal that was standing or lying completely still, waiting to see what it would do next. Perhaps, in that moment, nothing occupied your awareness except the animal.
Once you’ve tried entering the waiting mindset in moments of inactivity, try getting into that state when you’re doing simple activities like taking a walk, washing the dishes or taking a shower. If you’re walking, for instance, see if you can focus your curiosity on when you’re going to take the next step. At the outset, you may find it difficult to wonder when your next step will arrive while you’re in the process of walking. If so, try stopping momentarily and settling into the mindset of waiting, then resuming your walk.
Finally, when you’ve grown accustomed to taking this approach in simpler activities, see if you can bring that state into your work. Just as you wondered when you’d take your next step while walking, see if you can direct your curiosity at when you’re going to take the next step in the project you’re doing. If you’re a painter, for example, you may find yourself becoming curious about when you’re going to make your next brushstroke. If you play an instrument, perhaps you’ll wonder when you’re going to play the next note or chord.
You may find yourself wondering not only when you’re going to take the next action, but also the nature of the action you’re going to take. Perhaps, for instance, if you’re a writer, you’ll start getting curious about what the next line you write is going to say, even as you’re in the process of writing it. If you’re a massage therapist, you may begin wondering where you’ll next apply pressure to your client. And so on.
Twenty-four hours a day, in the midst of whatever you are doing, just take this meditation saying as the root of life. Always be attentive: examine it all the time. Put your attention on it and stick it in front of your eyes. . . . Be like a cat waiting to catch a mouse. Just go on like this, more and more alert and clear, investigating closer, like an infant thinking of its mother, like someone hungry longing for food, like someone thirsty thinking of water.
When you become able to regularly adopt the waiting mindset in your work, you’ll likely begin to notice increases in both your productivity and your enjoyment of what you do. Working, I think you’ll find, proceeds much more quickly and easily when it has your full attention. And because, in this state, you’re untroubled by painful memories and anxieties about how your work will be received, you may suddenly find yourself becoming able to like what you do for a living.