How To Stay Focused Through Challenging Tasks

Forget about flow state. Master clutch instead.

Much has been written on the benefits of flow state. When you enter flow, focusing is effortless, the outside world disappears, and work becomes deeply fulfilling.

Unfortunately, as productive and enjoyable as flow is, the reality of knowledge work is that flow is rare. As Gloria Mark writes in Attention Span, “Our computing environments, the nature of our work, and our responsibility for multiple projects and tasks create a high barrier to reaching flow.”

Optimizing your environment and habits to promote flow is pointless when only a tiny portion of your work can unlock it.

A better approach to improve your performance is to master clutch state instead.

“Letting it happen” vs. “Making it happen”

The concept of clutch state comes from the sports field.

Unlike knowledge work, sport is highly conducive to flow. You are doing something you love, is engaging, and pushes you to the limit of your skill level. But there are also times when the pressure is on and the stakes are high. In those cases, flow is hard to come by.

When your team is under, and you have the ball; when you hit the wall in a run; when the finishing line seems too far to reach. Those are the moments when top performers enter clutch state. Instead of giving up, they push through and deliver.

You can think of clutch as the opposite of flow. Flow is letting it happen. Clutch is making it happen.

Where flow is effortless, clutch requires you to dig deeper. Flow is pleasurable. Clutch is grueling.

Flow occurs when a task is engaging and just enough out of your comfort zone to make it challenging. Clutch happens when the challenge seems insurmountable, and you’d rather quit and go home.

The difference in preconditions between clutch and flow is why mastering clutch is better than optimizing for flow. Delivering valuable work requires pushing past your comfort zone. It requires staying focused when you’d rather do something else. It means grinding instead of gliding.

By looking at how athletes manage clutch state, we can learn how to do the same in knowledge work.

How athletes master clutch state

According to Southern Cross University professor Christian Swann, clutch performance occurs through three stages: challenge appraisals, fixed goals, and a decision to increase effort and intensity.

Clutch starts with the athlete acknowledging their challenge, understanding the situation, and what is at stake.

The next step requires identifying short-term, fixed goals that athletes can use to push through without being overwhelmed. A triathlete described focusing only on the person in front of them, making reaching them the goal. “It’s about breaking it down into manageable little goals […] counting down the little achievements.” Similarly, long-distance runners sometimes practice chunking. They break down long races in shorter segments, aiming to reach the next landmark, water station, or any other noticeable point in sight. This helps them stay focused and motivated through the race.

Finally, athletes make “a conscious decision to step up their effort” and enter clutch. A polar explorer Swann interviewed described it as “a definite feeling of a switching of gears.”

The athletes who succeeded in clutch state practiced psychological skills such as maintaining perspective, rationalizing, self-awareness, and avoiding complacency.

Similarly to flow, athletes found clutch state intrinsically rewarding. Citing again from Swann’s study, “The athletes were clear that even though the experience may not have been enjoyable at the time, it was rewarding on reflection.” A triathlete in the study commented that knowing you’ve done something hard is “almost a reward in itself.”

For knowledge workers, the rewards of clutch performance can be intrinsic and extrinsic. The market pays a premium for problem solvers who perform under pressure.

Clutch state in knowledge work

Let’s translate the athletes’ experience into a framework for clutch state in knowledge work.

Step 1. Challenge appraisal. Take a moment to step back and put hard work into perspective. What is it that you are finding challenging? What will completing it achieve? How does it fit within your goals and growth journey?

Step 2. Set short-term, fixed goals. Use chunking, as if the task you need to push through was a long-distance race. Identify short-term, fixed, objective, achievable goals to stay focused.

When programming, I find Test-Driven Development helps a lot with this. Coding a complex feature breaks down into making one test pass, then another, then another.

Step 3. Intentionally increase effort. Now that you have a good explanation for why it’s worth staying focused and have identified a smaller sub-goal in your task to dedicate yourself, it’s time to step up your effort.

I found taking a deep breath while reviewing the context and plan of attack is a good way to switch gears. I may or may not also whisper “maximum effort.”

If you are the musical type, I also recommend creating a playlist of music to use when it’s time for clutch performance.

The harsh truth about knowledge work – and being an adult in general – is that there are many things you’d rather not do but still need doing. Some of that is toil that can be delegated or automated away, but most is just plain hard work.

Our brains want to conserve energy and will try to avoid hard work. But hard work is valuable. Consistently tackling hard work will produce valuable results for your customers, employer, and career.

I find the model of clutch state in sports and the techniques athletes use when in it appealing because they offer a way to keep doing what needs doing.

When you have a cognitively demanding task in front of you, but your brain isn’t working, the best thing to do is take a break. But sometimes that is not possible, or maybe you took it already and it didn’t make any difference. It is in those moments that clutch makes a difference.

Mastering clutch state as part of your toolbox of psychological skills could be the key to sustain performance and consistently deliver at the highest level of quality.

Have you ever experienced cluth state? How do flow and clutch fit in your day to day work?

One last question: What is one thing I could do better next time?

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