At a Ted Talk in 2004, Csikszentmihalyi said, “there’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback”.1
The word “flow,” suggests a state of ease and fluidity. It naturally paints a picture of nature where everything will come and go without any obstruction, issues, or delays. This picture you imagine is not too distant from the concept of flow in psychology.
As a software developer, you always want to get better at productive programming. You must have heard about programmers who are the best at what they do because they found a way to “hack their flow,” or “be in the groove“, therefore allowing them to create stuff at an amazing rate. What then is “Flow” and how do you hack your flow?
To properly harness your flow, you would need to understand what it is, its full benefits and how to be in the right environment for it to come to you with ease.
What Is Flow?
Flow or the Flow state is a concept that was popularized by Hungarian Psychology Professor, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s. Mihaly was one of the pioneers of positive psychology, and according to him, the flow state “is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full environment, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”2
What this means is that flow is a state where one is completely focused on an activity or task. While in a flow state, one concentrates intensely on what they are doing, and this activity is seamless and doesn’t break as they go from one process to the other until the task is complete.
There are several activities where one can harness the flow state. In these activities, entering the flow is signified by the joint fluidity of mind and body. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi had conducted some interviews with several high-performing individuals that indulged in various high-flow activities including, sports, dancing, reading, and music.3 From these interviews, he discovered that the flow state happens when a person with exceptional skills is faced with a task that is challenging enough to push their skill limit to the optimum.
People show different symptoms when they are in the zone, but some symptoms are quite common. For instance, all forms of distractions are cut off and the person has their total focus on what they are trying to accomplish. The idea of accomplishing a task or activity also seems to be self-rewarding, and the performers remarkably enjoy what they are doing and relish the thought of getting it done.
Another way to recognize someone in the zone is that the concept of time may cease to exist for them. They would be very much into what they are doing that they would seem to not care for the world or what is going on with it. Even when they have to be involved in another activity while in the flow state, like eating or socializing, they do so absentmindedly, while working out problems in their mind from their preoccupied tasks. This is the type of mental state that would set a programmer on the path to get better at coding.
Benefits of the Flow State
There are many benefits to be achieved by a software product developer who has configured himself to the Flow state. For one, it gives a developer one of the best feelings in the world when writing code. Some of these benefits are highlighted below:
- Faster Product Shipping: Being in a Flow State allows you as a developer to ship features and products faster than the normal time frame. This is because your attention and focus have been directed at executing the particular task at hand. It has also allowed you to shun out all the distractions that could potentially delay software product shipping.
- It increases a developer’s productivity: Flow has proven to be the magic wand for most productive developers. A software product developer in the “zone” is likely to write more productive code in a few hours than his colleague that has more time but a lot of distractions. It was noted by the former CEO of Stack Overflow, Joel Spolsky, that while he was working as a developer in his first job, he averaged about two to three hours of productive coding every day. This is a testament to the productivity that comes with Flow.4
- Another benefit is that it gives you a sense of fulfillment doing what you do best -programming. As Csikszentmihalyi rightly captures it in his book that, “An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous.”
Four Tips on Harnessing Your Team’s Flow
- Create clear and straightforward goals: One way to get you or your team in a flow state is to have clear goals you intend to achieve daily or with each task. If the task is to ship a new feature for your software, it has to be clear to all the team members. The implication of this is that it reduces task-switching and allows team members to focus solely on achieving the set goals.
- Provide Immediate Feedback: When feedback is delayed, distractions tend to set in which ultimately affect the realization of the goals. As such, supervisors should ensure that they provide on-the-spot feedback to developers while writing codes.
- Create a conducive environment: This aspect stretches out to the physical environment, tools, and skill sets. To get your software development team in the zone, it is important to provide them with a quiet environment free from noise and other background distractions. In the same vein, adequate tools and technologies that would complement their skillset must be at their disposal.
- Avoid self-distractions: This particularly addresses a developer as an individual. Distractions do not only come from external factors. In fact, most of the distractions experienced in the workplace are self-induced. According to a study published in Harvard Business Review, a person gets about 87 interruptions per day in the workplace and only 22 interruptions are external while 65 are triggered by the person himself.5
Downside to the Flow State
Staying in a flow state is not without its downsides. In fact, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who propounded the Flow/ Flow state theory also acknowledges the fact that it could potentially have a negative aspect. He wrote in his book that,
“When a person becomes so dependent on the ability to control an enjoyable activity that he cannot pay attention to anything else, then he loses the ultimate control: the freedom to determine the content of consciousness. Thus enjoyable activities that produce flow have a potentially negative aspect: while they are capable of improving the quality of existence by creating order in the mind, they can become addictive, at which point the self becomes captive of a certain kind of order, and is then unwilling to cope with the ambiguities of life.”6
Going by the above, a developer who is already addicted to getting in the flow may unknowingly be neglecting other important things either in his personal or professional life. Therefore, constantly staying in flow may come at the expense of other activities like communicating with your co-developers and other team members to share ideas on the progress of the task at hand.
Another downside of the flow state is that a little disturbance or distraction is enough to take you out of the “zone”. It may take long hours before you can find yourself in that state again. This is the main reason to eliminate interruptions when finding your flow.
Conclusively, it must be mentioned that “being in the zone” is not something that can be achieved within a twinkle of an eye. Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister perfectly captured it in their book, “PeopleWare”, when they remarked that, “unfortunately, you can’t turn on flow like a switch. It takes a slow descent into the subject, requiring fifteen minutes or more concentration before the state is locked in. During this immersion period, you are particularly sensitive to noise and interruption. A disruptive environment can make it difficult or impossible to attain flow.”
- Alice Robb, “The ‘flow state’: Where creative work thrives”. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20190204-how-to-find-your-flow-state-to-be-peak-creative on 6 December, 2021
- Steven To. July 13, 2017. The importance of the state of flow for software developers, Bright Developers. Retrieved on December 7, 2021. https://www.brightdevelopers.com/importance-state-flow-software-developers/
- Headspace. Flow State. Retrieved on December 6, 2021. https://www.headspace.com/articles/flow-state
- Joel on software. Fire and Motion. Retrieved on December 06, 2021 https://www.joelonsoftware.com/2002/01/06/fire-and-motion/
- Terri Griffith, “Help Your Employees Find Flow”. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2014/04/help-your-employees-find-flow on 6 December, 2021
- Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.