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Achieving Excellence Through Flow

October 24, 2016

Each day, we tackle a great number of challenges in both our professional and personal lives. From the time we wake up in the morning until we lay back down to rest at night, we face hurdles that can sometimes make us feel as if we bear the weight of the world on our shoulders—or whose conquest can make us feel invincible. This is particularly true of the challenges we encounter at work.

Companies full of stressed out managers and employees are common—especially in the software industry. Among the most common factors contributing to their stress is the great amount of work teams must accomplish within limited timeframes. The usual result is teams’ working overtime and having a general sense of dissatisfaction with their professional lives.

The glimmer of hope is that, in many cases, teams can avoid all of this unnecessary pressure. The key lies in understanding and achieving flow—the state of mind in which you are completely focused on a single thing. This state seems to bend time because you become so absorbed in the task at hand that, when you lift your head seemingly just a few minutes later, you realize that the minutes were hours, and you’ve been working at a much faster pace than you realized.

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Experiencing Flow

People often refer to flow as “being in the zone,” “getting in the groove,” or, in IT communities, as being in “hack mode” or “wired in.”

Hungarian Professor of Psychology Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied this phenomenon in the second half of the 20th century. He described flow as “focused motivation,” referring to a state of consciousness in which one is able to channel his or her energy joyfully in performing a task.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, the average human brain is not unlike a machine that can process around 110 bits of information per second. Human beings spend a significant part of this time decoding speech or text—around 60 bits per second. Although different studies have shown contradictory results regarding the amount of information a human brain can process in a single second, all agree that a huge portion of that time goes into engaging with words. So, when we take words out of the equation, we can easily achieve a state of flow because we’ve freed up 60 out of 110 bits of our capacity for absorbing information.

Only in a state of flow can someone truly become engrossed in an activity and subconsciously ignore what would otherwise be distractions—for example, a verbal exchange between others who are nearby—and avoid participating in them. A state of flow lets us both quickly absorb more information about our current task and process more cumulative information in a shorter interval of time.

There are seven characteristics that typically manifest in people experiencing a state of flow, as follows:

  • Feeling completely involved in the task at hand and channeling their entire focus toward a single thing
  • Experiencing a feeling of ecstasy, having the impression that they are outside everyday reality, and perceiving their current task as being more exciting than it might look from the sidelines
  • Having greater inner clarity and self-awareness and knowing what they need to do, as well as the level of performance that is necessary to make it happen
  • Not being discouraged by the task at hand and having confidence that they can achieve the desired result by employing the skills they possess.
  • Having a sense of serenity, leaving behind all their worries about themselves and the world around them, and contributing their full dedication to the current assignment
  • Experiencing a sense of timelessness and the feeling of time passing more quickly because of their complete focus on the present
  • Having a sense of intrinsic motivation, which creates a feeling of joy about the process

Everyone has a different way of getting into their zone, but silence and seclusion are common environmental conditions that are conducive to flow.

Benefits of Flow

The existence of a stable state of flow increases the quality of our performance and the speed at which we work, leading to better results and enhancing satisfaction in our work.

A great example of this occurs when a software developer starts working on a new piece of code. If no one disturbs her for a while, the tempo of her coding steadily improves over time and her precision increases. With every new function the developer writes, her code becomes clearer, and she gains a better sense of the progress she’s made and the work that still remains. The minutes start to fly by and, before she realizes it, a significant amount of time has passed, and she’s completed a huge amount of work.

The process of achieving flow is also referred to as minimizing the cognitive cost that is associated with having scattered thoughts. Cognitive cost is the amount of mental energy the brain expends on performing specific tasks. When we focus all of our attention on a single task, the cognitive cost is lower than it would be if we were constantly switching contexts.

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Disruptions to Flow

The biggest problem with the state of flow is that it is both difficult to achieve and very fragile. Even the slightest distraction can disrupt the state of flow.

While the ability to achieve flow is extremely valuable in our professional life, interruptions and distractions are frequently looming when we’re surrounded by the people with whom we work. The office din, phone calls, email notifications, conversations with team members, context switching, or our own desire to multitask can disrupt a productive state of flow.

Multitasking

Attempting to handle several tasks at once is one of the main culprits sabotaging flow and is often the root cause of our needing to work overtime.

A great example of multitasking occurs when a project manager is planning the next stage of work whose status will shift to in progress. In addition to planning future work, she needs to monitor the progress of her team’s current work, provide status reports to her managers, approve design specifications, and so on. So she may start planning, then soon afterward, decide to check on the team; an hour later, prepare a status report for the product manager; then, consider design options. Over several days, she may repeat this juggling of tasks over and over again, without making any significant progress on planning. Eventually, as the launch date of the next phase draws near, her work becomes tougher to manage under the burden of incomplete work on her various tasks.

Multitasking is a bad habit that seems to create the illusion that, by doing a number of things at once, we can complete our work faster, then move on to the next big thing. Unfortunately, in most cases, multitasking actually results in mediocre performance and long task cycle times.

According to a study that the University of London conducted, frequent multitasking actually has the potential to lower a person’s IQ and decrease cognitive capacity by up to 15 points. Multitasking can even cause permanent brain damage because it affects brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex—the region of the brain that is responsible for empathy, as well as cognitive and emotional control.

To illustrate the dangers of multitasking, you can try a multitasking game for agile teams with your colleagues in the office. This takes just ten minutes and clearly demonstrates the difference in performance when your team does just one thing at a time versus trying to multitask.

Context Switching

Switching tasks too often also has adverse effects on the quality and speed of our work. Even when we avoid multitasking, we still need to switch contexts from time to time—often because our tasks have different levels of priority. When we’re in flow, an urgent matter may demand our immediate attention so we must deal with it. Each time we switch contexts, we lower our productivity.

A great example of an involuntary context switch occurs when a developer working on a new feature must stop working on it to fix a bug in the deployed code. She needs to shift her focus to debugging, then when she completes that task, return to coding the new feature. As she tries to reacclimatize herself to that work, the speed at which she is able to continue coding is much slower than it was when she was in a state of flow.

In flow, the developer had built momentum by focusing on one activity and accumulated more and more information that was pertinent to her work. However, when the developer switched contexts, she lost some of that momentum. After returning to her previous task, some of that information was no longer top of mind and getting back to where she had been took some time and had a cognitive cost.

Achieving Team Flow

If the key to being as effective as possible and completing work in the shortest amount of time is getting into flow, wouldn’t it make sense to turn the different parts of our work process into one well-structured flow?

As markets have become ever more competitive, the number of Project Managers who are thinking in terms of flow has been increasing steadily over the years. This has led to the rise of Kanban, lean software development, and agile development. Although lean manufacturing, which originated at Toyota, has been around for more than half of a century, lean has more recently become popular in knowledge work. Lean software development aims to transform what can be a somewhat chaotic work process into a steady, well-structured workflow and break down complicated tasks into easy-to-process chunks that gather speed over time. The goal is to remove all wasteful activities from the process.

Minimizing Communication Disruptions

However, even when we structure our work process into a flow, our focus may still be disrupted by what’s going on around us. The channels of communication a team chooses to employ can make the difference between frequent or rare interruptions. Two modes of communication are in common use in the workplace:

  • synchronous—In synchronous communication, two or more people participate a conversation in real time, resulting in a continuous, back-and-forth flow of information. Examples include face-to-face conversations, phone calls, and video conferencing.
  • asynchronous—In asynchronous communication, a sender can communicate a message at any time, without connecting directly with one or more recipients. Recipients receive messages and can attend to them whenever it is convenient for them. Email messages are an asynchronous form of communication.

Text messages and Skype messages can be either synchronous or asynchronous, depending on when a recipient receives them.

Neither of these modes of communication is perfect. By adopting an appropriate combination of synchronous and asynchronous communication, a team can strike an optimal balance. For example, a team member could start by sending asynchronous messages to communicate matters that do not require recipients’ immediate attention; then, if recipients don’t answer in a reasonable amount of time, communicate with them directly.

You can also try to handle synchronous communications at opportune moments. For example, when you see that a teammate is currently out of flow, you can discuss what you need to communicate in a few minutes, then both of you can return to flow.

Making the Work Environment Conducive to Flow

A common condition for entering flow is seclusion. However, no matter how spacious your workplace might be, it is rare for a company to provide an individual office for each employee. The cubicles that are common in many companies aim to solve this problem, but, more often than not, do more harm than good. While they may create the illusion of privacy, they provide no barrier to ambient sound, so the surrounding din is still a problem for people trying to get into flow. Another problem cubicles present is an inability to see your teammates and the resulting lack of awareness of what they’re currently doing. So you don’t know whether your beginning a conversation would disrupt their state of flow.

Noise suppression is another tactic people often use to achieve and sustain flow because it creates a feeling of privacy. The most common approach is using headphones. However, listening to music can fairly easily affect one’s ability to get into flow. It may either help you to get into flow and remain in flow longer or intermittently disrupt your state of flow. This varies from one person to another. For some, listening to music makes it impossible to focus on the task at hand because it draws their attention away, while, for others, music helps them focus by eliminating distracting noise.

Studies of whether music helps people focus have shown contradictory results. According to a study by Wake Forest School of Medicine and the University of North Carolina Greensboro, music can improve a person’s focus, but only if it suits the listener’s taste and the task at hand.

For people seeking a quiet space in which to think, noise-canceling headphones may be an option. However, they dampen only continuous sources of noise like an airplane’s engines, not intermittent sounds or conversations.

Conclusion

Being mentally exhausted also prevents us from focusing and getting into flow. Occupational burnout is a serious problem at most companies and does significant damage to both individual employees and the organization to which they belong. So taking occasional breaks and having days off are just as important to our productivity.

Being in a state of flow turns our work into a pleasure and increases our efficiency. To enable a team to perform at the peak of their ability, everyone on the team needs to learn how to get into flow more quickly, then protect that flow state. Hopefully, this article has made you aware of the importance of maintaining a state of flow, provided some tips that will help you and your team get into flow, and enabled you to achieve success through higher productivity. 

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Content Lead at Kanbanize

Sofia, Bulgaria

Alexander NovkovAlex specializes in content marketing and social media, writes, and creates video content. He loves creating something out of nothing and enthusiastically pursues every new topic as a chance to expand his expertise. Before entering the world of technology, Alex was a reporter for OFFNews, covering a wide range of topics—including economics, technology, and internal and foreign policy—for Bulgarian digital media. He is a dissertation away from graduating from Sofia University, St. Kliment Ohridski, with a Bachelor’s degree in Public Relations.  Read More

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