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Finding Flow:
                           Get into the Zone at Work
                                 Janette Girod
Flow matters

Attention is key

Engineer favorable circumstances.
  Beware the rabbit hole.

1. Clear goals

2. A high degree of concentration
on a limited field of attention

3. A loss of

                                                              the merging of...
4. A distorted
 sense of time.

5. Direct 

6. Balance between
 ability level  challenge.

7. A sense of personal control
   over the situation.

8. Intrinsically rewarding action,
 resulting in effortlessness of action.
9. Focus of awareness
                                                                      is narrowed down
There will always be interruptions

The pay-off.

Thank you
      Further reading:
      1. Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, Mihaly
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Flow: Getting into the zone at work


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How to apply Csikszentmihalyi's concept of flow to your own work style.

Published in: Technology, Health & Medicine
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Flow: Getting into the zone at work

  1. 1. Finding Flow: Get into the Zone at Work Janette Girod 1 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.
  2. 2. Flow matters 2 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.
  3. 3. Attention is key 3 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 occasional bursts.
  4. 4. Engineer favorable circumstances. Beware the rabbit hole. 4 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 flow. 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.
  5. 5. 1. Clear goals 5 The first thing that characterizes flow is the presence of clear goals. It’s having a good idea of what you’re shooting for. 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.
  6. 6. 2. A high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention 6 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.
  7. 7. 3. A loss of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness. 7 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.
  8. 8. 4. A distorted sense of time. 8 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.
  9. 9. 5. Direct immediate feedback; behavior can be adjusted as needed. 9 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.
  10. 10. 6. Balance between ability level challenge. 10 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, intimidate us. 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.
  11. 11. 7. A sense of personal control over the situation. 11 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.
  12. 12. 8. Intrinsically rewarding action, resulting in effortlessness of action. 12 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.
  13. 13. 9. Focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself. 13 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.
  14. 14. There will always be interruptions 14 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 you. 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.
  15. 15. The pay-off. 15 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...
  16. 16. Thank you Further reading: 1. Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 2. A list of the 9 components: 3. Full article: Photo credits: 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 16 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 If you just want a list of those 9 components, you can find them at