How To Optimize Your Environment for Flow

river flowing through canyon

Flow is the psychological term for what is colloquially referred to as “being in the zone”. The term originated with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and is identified by the following six factors:

  • Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  • Merging of action and awareness
  • A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  • A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  • A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
  • Experience of the activity is intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience

Other traits associated are:

  • Immediate feedback
  • Feeling that you have the potential to succeed
  • Feeling so engrossed in the experience, that other needs become neglible

A more palatable summary would be that you view the activity as voluntary, enjoyable, the right balance of challenging, and clear goals to define a successful outcome.

focus

As a remote worker, I find the experience of flow offers yields incomparable to a semi-focused state. This is especially true with programming of any sort. Having worked remotely for roughly a decade, there are a few things I found that help me personally create an environment conducive to flow. Your mileage may vary, but it may give you some ideas of things to attempt.

  1. Dedicated workspace arranged in a way that makes it easy to grab things and to task switch quickly.
  2. Keeping that workspace clean and sorted, such that you know where the things you need reside.
  3. Having a ritual for when you enter the space to Pavlovian condition yourself that you’re in the place where things get done.
  4. Eliminate as many trivial and chaotic distractions as possible. Some things that work for me are: phone on silent, headphones on with ambient music on low, avoid logging into social networks, and muting email notifications. I have yet to uninstall Slack entirely, but should I encounter a project that required my full attention, that would be the next thing to go.
  5. Attempt intervals of focus while giving yourself breaks. You can’t force flow. It happens as a result of being lost in the work. By using something like a pomodoro timer, you don’t have the weight of “My focus should be laserlike” on your shoulders. Play around with different combinations of timed intervals + distraction breaks until you find a balance that suits you.
  6. Some tangible way to measure tasks and performance. I find that apps that allow completed items to remain on the list with a strikethrough help in gaining mental momentum. The dry erase board or a nice graph pad is great for this also. You’ll visualize your tasks easier by physically writing them down.

If you have any other suggestions for things that help you achieve flow, I would love to hear from you at hi@ryanmaynard.co

Written on November 21, 2017