During the London Barcamp, I’ve found myself attending a rather unusual presentation by Janette Girod entitled “Finding Flow“.

Everyone, more or less often experiments it: developers like myself have it when we’re actively coding, it’s probably like being on dopes: we think faster, better and somehow have the sensation of bending time, peripheral vision narrows and all we seem to care about it’s what’s in front of us, more precisely the action we’re actively engaged in. People experience this sort of feelings when in distress, situations were our “subconscious mind” assumes the leading role, all our attention span is dedicated to urgent needs, like survival. Studies so far show that this state of hyper concentration and rapid judgment is activated by the production of certain types of chemicals inside our blood stream, but for the purpose of this post, what Janette was actively trying to teach us and what really matters is to find ways to active this state of mind and make sure we’ll take the most of it!

So lets start by defining what’s the Flow?

FlowOne common thing seems to be the fact that pretty much everyone experiences this state when they start paying more attention or concentrate about something. One side effect of that focused state is that we tend to, not only take more pleasure of that particular action or moment, but we also experience, longer memories from it, and more easily develop ideas upon whatever we’re dedicating that much attention. Exactly what we know that happens when we watch a movie, read a book, meet friends, or travel, etc.

During Janette‘s presentation I got to know the “Csikszentmihaly’s 9 components of an experience of flow”:

  1. Clear goals.
  2. A high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention.
  3. A loss of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.
  4. Distorted sense of time.
  5. Direct and immediate feedback; behavior can be adjusted as needed.
  6. Balance between ability level and challenge.
  7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
  8. Intrinsically rewarding action, so there is an effortlessness of action.
  9. Focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself

It’s possible to achieve the Flow on pretty much every activity! So it’s only wise to consider that once we managed to self induce ourselves into it, and incorporating it on every action of our day we should start seeing improvements on the results of our actions and consequently our own quality of life. One ground rule is that we have to take pleasure from doing something, otherwise it’s going to be hard if not impossible to actually achieve the Flow for it!

I’ve had though it many times, as a personal thing, but according to Janette it seems that we actually achieve more times the Flow while doing work, than we do on our spare time! It seems that during work, at least, four of the above components are valid:

  • Work is much more like a game than most other things we do during the day
  • It has clear goals and rules of performance
  • It tends to encourage concentration and prevent distractions
  • Its difficulty level matches the worker’s skill

So let’s review each of the Csikszentmihaly components:

1. Clear Goals.

Decide what to do next, on what to work next, especially why you want to do it. Vague intentions don’t trigger the Flow state.
If the work in hands is in fact a large multi-session project like a web app, clearly state the purpose for this single creative session

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

Concentration is a learned skill, which means can be increased by training like any physical exercise! The gains in concentration are incremental and not abrupt! To make sure you’re not distracted, eliminate everything that might disturb your field of attention, like IM’s, Email, irrelevant sites and all applications that might get your attention while you’re concentrating on something, otherwise you’re just sabotaging yourself! :)

3. Loss of self-consciousness, merging actions and awareness.

Fully immerse yourself on the task upon you, choose projects based on your passion for them and not by the recognition you might get for doing them!

4. Distorted sense of time.

Losing awareness of time is a hard state to get into, but somethings like setting yourself to work for fixed periods of time, during which you block all distractions and interruptions (as much as possible!) seems to increase the chances of achieving the Flow and get the distorted sense of time with it.

According to Peoplewareit takes at least 15 (uninterrupted) minutes to enter a state of flow. Follow the The Power of 48 minutes rule: work in 48 minute cycles, with 12 minute breaks in between them.

Use (and abuse from) alarms clocks: set them at specific times, before you engage yourself in some task, this way you won’t keep checking the clock!
This particular component is probably why in my opinion Open-Spaces don’t bring better productivity, the more people moving and working around, the more probable it is for us to get distracted and break the Flow!

5. Direct and immediate feedback; behavior can be adjusted as needed.

Constantly check your path, inquire yourself if you’re still working on the goals you’ve set for that particular working session. Keep an eye on the desired results, as a way to keep you on track!

6. Balance between ability level and challenge.

If we set our objectives too high, the result might be an increase in anxiety, but at the same time, if we lower the challenge to much we’ll bore ourselves to failure. If the work in hands is way to easy, find a way to make it more efficient, more elegant, more innovative or simply more automated. If on the opposite side, the task is incredibly hard or large, break it into chunks and progressively engaged each one of them.

7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.

This is a tricky factor, it’s one of the reasons why I’ve switched from Windows to MacOSX, the operating system from Apple, it enables me and doesn’t get in my way with stuff that’s not related to my work. Tools should be enablers and not something that get in our way. Different people, makes different uses from the same tools, so we should all search for the right tools for each job. The tool should be handled by your subconscious while the conscious mind is solely focused on the task in hands.

8. Intrinsically rewarding action, so there is an effortlessness of action.

  • If you’re lucky enough to pick and choose your projects, choose them for the love, not the money.
  • 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 improve your style.
  • Once you’ve become good at triggering the Flow state, Flow will become a reward within itself.

9. Focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself.

As soon as our mind start wandering around, we should tame it and get her focused again, which as Janette suggested one of the hardest skills to attain.

The demand for easy access to the Flow obviously depends on practice! Lots of it! We need to have a conscious and inquiring mind about the way we work, about how we spend our attention. In the end, achieving this highly creative state isn’t a blessing, but a skill which requires training!

This are some of the notes I took from Janette‘s presentation and I really wanna thank her for the presentation, but anyone really want to know a bit more, just go ahead and read her entire presentation.