Imagine that you are immersed in a task, completely absorbed by the process of executing it. Your mind is one with what you are doing. Complexities of the task are clear and all aspects seem connected in well-understood ways. Your body appears to be floating and only exists to support your mind. You are only vaguely aware of a broad sense of aroused serenity. Hours pass by in minutes, and you are in full control of your thoughts and emotions.
What is flow?
I am not describing the effects of some illegal drug or wild mushroom. I am representing a state of mental flow. Known as “the zone,” Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person is immersed in a feeling of energized focus, complete involvement, and enjoyment in the process of completing a task.
To reach a state of flow one has to rid themselves of any and all the six anti-flow emotions:
Flow lingers in a consciousness zone between mental arousal and control. It is an active state that takes ten to fifteen minutes to reach. Anti-flow emotions or sudden distractions can break it in seconds. Losing flow due to external causes is like being punched in the face.
It is tough for us to reach a state of flow and peak performance if we are distracted by anti-flow emotions. Some typical examples of causes of such feelings are:
Worry and anxiety due to having concerns about work situations such as deadlines or unreasonable expectations
Being upset by personal or professional issues. For example, having unhealthy internal friction with colleagues, or operating in an organization that is not being fair or understanding of the needs of the employee
Not being interested or enthusiastic about an activity or its goals. This can happen when the activity is far too easy or far too difficult
Feeling too relaxed. To reach flow we need to be excited about work we are doing and must have a feeling of control of their thoughts. Relaxation does not co-exist with excitement and causes distracting reflections.
An unhealthy culture is a flow killer
People who belong to a group that feels unsafe or judged can be negatively affected. For example, I am convinced that the recent Google debacle, caused by the employee who published an anti-diversity manifesto, caused an enormous distraction and loss of productivity at Google in the past few days. It affected most women in the organization and a significant percentage of men.
Bad sentiment toward a group is a toxic self-fulfilling prophecy. Members of minority groups who feel unwelcome or unappreciated will struggle to concentrate and won’t be able to reach a state of flow.
For example, imagine a female programmer working with a group of men who make it clear that they do not believe women can be good coders. How can she be productive and achieve a state of flow in such an environment? The mental overhead of having to deal with bias creates an invisible barrier to success. It fulfills an unfair prophecy without giving her a chance to prove herself.
How to Promote The Flow
To create an environment conducive to flow, consider the following these eight suggestions to optimise your work environment:
1. Do not commit to impossible tasks
If you know that something is not achievable, make it clear. If that is not acceptable, consider a different employer.
When you must commit to a body of work, make sure that you believe it can be achieved. If you are convinced that the goal is impossible, you are going to lack the confidence necessary to enter a state of flow.
2. Create distraction-proof time on your schedule
Growing up, I used to spend entire nights coding. It wasn’t rare to have 10 hour non-stop sessions. I did it at night because I knew that I would not be interrupted. Having that confidence is very powerful as it eliminates the worries of getting interrupted.
As a busy adult, you can control some of your time by blocking your calendar with time you need to focus on the task. If your co-workers respect it, you should be able to establish some level of non-interruption confidence.
3. Understand your goal and why it is important
Without a clear goal and without believing in the importance of that goal it’s hard to reach the zone. Do not underestimate this mental preparation; it is vital for peak performance.
4. Remove distractions in your control
You blocked your calendar, but if your phone notifications bring you back to reality every 10 minutes, you will never be able to achieve and keep up a state of flow. Turn off devices and applications that send you notifications.
Ideally, your work environment allows for your desk to be the place where you can focus. If that is not the case, hide in a conference room or the local Starbucks. If you go to a noisy environment, bring your headphones and pump some white noise in your ears.
5.Collect all the information you need ahead of time
If you are in Flow and you need to get up to talk to somebody, you are going to slam back to reality like a ton of bricks in free-fall. It hurts! Collect the information you need before a coding session.
When you start working on a task, you should not be concerned about having to hunt down information. I found that surfing the web to look for information doesn’t immediately knock me out The Zone. It does after a few minutes if I get irritated when I cannot find what I am looking for.
6. Make a list of problems that are upsetting you or causing anxiety
Any sense of concern needs to be put away before you start a coding session. Flow is tough if you have concerns polluting your mind. I found that worries and anxieties go away for the duration of a coding session if I write them down with the clear intent of getting back to it later.
7. Focus on the process, not the result
In flow, the process is king. Focus on it, entirely. Be aware of the end result, but don’t dwell on it. If you can do that, time starts changing speed, accelerating to the point where hours go by in what feels like minutes. Stay in the moment, stay in the process.
8. Do not relax
It might sound counterintuitive, but flow is not a relaxing state. It is an exciting state of mental arousal and confidence. If you become too relaxed your mind starts wondering, you lose touch with the process and the magic disappears.
If you are drowsy or relaxed, get up and work standing up. Having a desk that can go up and down is ideal to follow your body needs.
By Lorenzo Pasqualis
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