Get into the Zone at Work
Flow is something that we’ve all experienced at one point or another. It gets us out of bed early in the morning so
that we can get a few quiet hours in at the ofice. It sometimes keeps us there late, after every one has gone. And
it keeps us glued to video games or out jogging on the street.
Most of us call it “getting into the Zone”. The psychologist Mihaly Cz- coined the term “ﬂow”. Flow has also been
called ‘a highly productive state of concentration’. Cz found ﬂow so compelling that he dedicated his life to
studying and deconstructing the experience.
So, what’s so great about ﬂow? Being in the ﬂow state while doing your work produces vastly better results than
when you do your tasks on autopilot. You get things done more quickly, and it’s a very gratifying experience in
and of itself.
Now, none of this would matter if going into ﬂow was just a nice ﬂuke that happened every so often. But in fact,
you can learn to control it. You can harness its power to get better work done faster.
There are two main aspects of learning to harness ﬂow.
Attention is key
The ﬁrst aspect is your attention. Attention is key to your experience of life. What you get out of an experience is
proportional to the amount of attention you pay it.
For example, you could have an amazing meal sitting in front of you, but if you are too distracted to notice the
textures and ﬂavors while you’re eating it, it will be gone before you remembered to enjoy it. So that amazing
meal becomes a mediocre, forgettable one.
Similarly, if you only half-watch a movie, you miss the themes, plot twists, and character development that make
it interesting. And so a compelling movie becomes a dull one in your experience, when you remove your attention
from the equation.
In the same way, doing your work using only part of your attention blocks out opportunities for discovering novel
approaches as well as elegant solutions.
Fortunately, your attention can be trained, just as your body can. But it’s important to remember that progress is
incremental, just as physical training is, and the real gains come through consistency rather than through
Engineer favorable circumstances.
Beware the rabbit hole.
The second aspect of learning to harness ﬂow is to engineer circumstances that allow your mind to go into the
ﬂow state. This aspect emphasizes making it easy on yourself, and not sabotaging the process of going into ﬂow.
Since a large part of the ﬂow state depends on engaging your full attention, screen out distractions as much as
possible. While you can’t necessarily screen out your colleagues, you can close down IM, your email client, your
rss feeder. You may still need to browse the web, but be careful to stick to relevant pages, and not let yourself go
from site, to site, to site, suddenly realizing 15 minutes later than you’ve gone on an irrelevant tangent. It is
extremely easy to go down the online rabbit hole these days, but it is also one of the biggest modern barriers to
Cz identiﬁed nine components that characterize the ﬂow state. You’re probably already familiar with some of
them and you might already do them. Finding ways to integrate all of these components into the way we work will
help with this process of engineering situations where ﬂow comes easily.
1. Clear goals
The ﬁrst thing that characterizes ﬂow is the presence of clear goals. It’s having a good idea of what you’re
It’s important for these goals to not be too abstract or long-term. I don’t mean the sort of goal where you decide
you’re going to build the world’s greatest social web app. It needs to be at a scale that is achievable one session.
You sit down, decide what you’re going to do, and by the end of the session, you’ve done it.
If you’re working on a website, it may be cracking just the one UI problem. If you’re a writer, it would be writing
just a few pages, or one article. The important thing is that you have a clear idea what you want to achieve, and
that you know it is achievable. You don’t need to know exactly how you’re going to do it; you just need to know
roughly what it is and how you’ll know when you get there.
2. A high degree of concentration
on a limited field of attention
Another characteristic that Cz noticed was part of the ﬂow state is a high degree of concentration on a limited
ﬁeld of attention.
We have so many interesting things available to us while we’re sitting at our computers these days. In fact, half of
the apps we’ve seen this week exist to suck in our attention. While this makes having a desk job way more fun
then it used to be, it also tempts us to spread out our attention very thinly between IM, email, twitter, ﬂickr,
reddit, digg...and on and on.
As much as we like to think of ourselves as multi-taskers, the truth is we can only really concentrate on one thing
at a time, and multi-tasking for humans is really just switching very quickly between tasks. There is a cost
associated with each instance of switching tasks, and it’s usually our work that pays the price.
The good news is, it’s easy to turn many of these things o! They are virtual, and so they can be gone with a
click. Web sites are a bit trickier to screen out if the web is big part of your job, so you may just need to ban
yourself from certain sites while you’re in a ﬂow session.
3. A loss of
the merging of
action and awareness.
The third component of ﬂow is a loss of self-consciousness. Getting out of your head and into your task.
One way to move toward this way of working is to stop viewing your work as an extension of your self-image.
Instead, start thinking of it as a collection of ideas whose edges you are trying to ﬁnd and carve out; you are acting
as a conduit to bring these ideas into a concrete reality. This helps get your ego out of your work.
4. A distorted
sense of time.
Time is most people’s scarcest resource, so it should be carefully managed. This is one of the main beneﬁts of ﬂow - you get more out of the
time you spend in ﬂow, so you have the option of spending less time on your tasks.
The best way to lose awareness of time is to set apart a period of time speciﬁcally allotted to your predeﬁned task, and to block out all
distractions and interruptions as much as possible. The book Peopleware found that it takes at least 15 (uninterrupted) minutes to enter a
state of ﬂow. You may ﬁnd that the ﬁrst 15 minutes are the most difﬁcult to stay focussed, and then you hit your stride.
If there is one kickstart system to begin getting a taste of ﬂow, it is The Power of 48 Minutes. The idea is to work in 48 minute bursts, with 12
minute breaks in between. During the 48 minutes you are fully immersed in one task. If you start to get bored, you can race against the clock.
This has an added safety net. If you’re ﬁnding the task tortuous, you’ll at least know you only have to do it for X more minutes. You’ll
probably be surprised at ﬁrst at just how much you can accomplish in a 48 minute session, when you are fully immersed.
After that burst, you get up, walk around, make a cup of coffee, check your email, catch up with your colleagues. Then, after what may seem
like a decadently long break, you go back, refreshed, for the next round.
This system requires a timer so that you don’t need to keep checking the clock. You could use an egg timer, or a desktop widget. I’m using
desktop widget called TimeLeft. It’s a little buggy to conﬁgure, but once you’ve got it set up, it’s useful and unintrusive. If you know of a better
one, please let me know.
behavior can be
adjusted as needed.
Cz reckons that what makes most games fun is the fact that you can continually experiment and try out new strategies as you see what works and
what doesn’t. It’s also what makes any kind of driving or riding fast that demands constant ﬁne-tuning of your course so enjoyable.
So how can we bring this immediacy of feedback into our work?
Web 2.0 is all about early releases, alphas and betas, and short, iterative cycles, where you send your product out into the wild early, so that you
can see how it is actually used, and then ﬁne-tune it accordingly, usually several times. While this way of working can seem a bit chaotic at ﬁrst, it
is also more eective, because you get a constant stream of very useful feedback, which you can incorporate into your product to make it far better
suited to your audience than if you had just tried to guess what they wanted.
There was an interesting study done a few years ago where they divided a pottery class into two groups. The ﬁrst group was told it would be
graded on the number of pots it produced over the course of the term. The second group was told it would be graded on the single best pot they
produced in that term. So essentially, the ﬁrst group was being graded on quantity, and the second on quality. The results of this study were
quite interesting. It turned out the ﬁrst group, who had the most tries, without being hung up on perfection, actually turned out the higher quality
pots by the end of the term.
With web-based products, focussing on getting something built and out there and then ﬁne-tuning it can result in a higher-quality end product
than ﬁxating on getting it perfect the ﬁrst time. You won’t know how you need to adjust your behavior until you get that feedback.
6. Balance between
ability level challenge.
We can’t always choose our tasks, and even when we do, there are usually parts of it that we’d rather skip. Even
in the best job, there will still be some amount of drudgery as well as some tasks that really stretch, and, frankly,
Luckily, you can adjust the level of challenge within most tasks. If something is too easy or mind-numbing, ﬁnd a
way to make it more eficient, more elegant, more innovative, more automated.
If a task is too hard, ﬁnd a way to break it down into increasingly smaller chunks until you ﬁnd the right level of
challenge. Or deconstruct the way someone else has solved a similar problem.
7. A sense of personal control
over the situation.
It is worth the time to master your tools; they should enable you, not get in your way. Put in the time to ﬁnd the right software
for the job, to understand the core concepts, to learn the best practices, to mechanize the mundane.
This way, when you’ve gotten into the ﬂow state, you won’t have to interrupt yourself by looking up that shortcut, playing trial
and error with something you should really know, or being distracted by a search for something trivial.
8. Intrinsically rewarding action,
resulting in effortlessness of action.
Not everyone is lucky enough to pick and choose which projects he works on. Even on a hand-picked project, there will still be
parts that you don’t enjoy doing. Keep in mind that even if you can’t choose what you do, you still have a degree of freedom in
how you do it. Learn to develop and reﬁne your own style. Enjoy craftsmanship for its own sake.
Also, once you’ve become good at triggering the ﬂow state, the experience of ﬂow will become a reward within itself.
9. Focus of awareness
is narrowed down
to the activity itself.
As soon as you notice your mind start to wander, use that as a trigger to remind yourself to refocus on your work. Your mind,
by nature, needs to be occupied with something. The closer attention you pay to your chosen task, the less energy you’ll need
to spend to keep your mind from wandering.
There will always be interruptions
This structured, focused, short-burst style of working is different than the free form style most people use by default.
Colleagues, partners, and roommates may naturally assume that a given moment is as good (or bad) as any other to interrupt
How you manage people who are likely to interrupt you depends on your relationship to them. If you have an open, casual
relationship with the person, then you can mention to them what you’re trying out before you go into a session. If the person
interrupting you is somewhat unfamiliar (a colleague from another department, for example), you can point to your timer and
ask if you can get back to them in whatever time it says. The timer is great for this; it makes the process look important and
formalized. If the person is someone who regularly wants your time, you can better manage this by actively engaging with
them in those 12 minute breaks. It’s a good a excuse to get up and walk around, and that person will feel less need to seek
you out during your focused sessions.
Visual cues such as headphones and earplugs, are useful as well. And if you really can’t bear to shut down IM, then at least
change your status to busy.
So, those are the 9 components, and suggestions for how to integrate them into the way you work. None of them
are dificult within themselves, and each can be added to your routine individually. But even though the system is
relatively simple, the pay o is substantial. You’ll produce better quality work, in the same or less time, and you’ll
enjoy the process more.
If you want to read more about ﬂow, it’s worth checking out...
1. Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, Mihaly
2. A list of the 9 components: http://www.thatvoodooyoudo.com/9
3. Full article: http://www.thatvoodooyoudo.com/best-practice/flow
1. Krissia Spice, Flickr
2. Jim Allebach, Flickr
3. PhotoGraham, Flickr
4. Annie Leibovitz for Vogue
5. Seb Przd, Flickr
6. doublecappuccino, Flickr
7. chezrump, Flickr
8. regolare, Flickr
9. Tony Blay, Flickr
10. Oded Baililty, Israel/The Associated Press
11. ravifoto, Flickr
12. RottieLover, Flickr
13. Cloud nine, Flickr
14. Mareen Fischinger, Flickr
Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, by Cz himself. It tells you all about his studies of the experience of flow,
as well as the Experience Sampling method that he invented, which is strangely like twitter. It involves a beeper that goes off every so
often, and the subject is supposed to write down what he is doing and how he is feeling.
As interesting as the book is, however, it doesn’t provide much practical advice for how to apply their findings to your life. That was my
inspiration for coming up with this system. You can read more about it on my blog at thatvoodooyoudo.com/best-practice/flow. If you just
want a list of those 9 components, you can find them at thatvoodooyoudo.com/9
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