September 13, 2022

A deep dive into flow

Jonathan Bender

Jonathan Bender

Get in flow to do your best work and enjoy the process.

A deep dive into flow

Every once in a while, it’s just you and a screen. The rapid click of keys. The beat in your headphones. The joy of uninterrupted work.

This is “flow.” You might not call it that. You might not even know exactly how you access it. But you’ve been to the peak of the mountain. Now, how do you get back?

You start by learning the story of flow – an idea popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, a Hungarian American psychologist obsessed with discovering the “secret to happiness.” [Hint: it starts with ‘f’ and ends with ‘w.’] Then, you look at how flow factors into your story.

Ever wonder what happens to your brain when you’re in flow? Or why it might help you do your job as an engineer? Us too. And what we found is fascinating.

The final step in optimizing flow is tracking your tasks and work habits. Then, you can start building systems to stay in a deep work state for the ideal amount of time.

What do you say? You ready to get going with the flow?

This is the story of flow.

Flow is a state of being. It’s the time when you’re working at a high level with clear focus. You’re stimulated and invigorated. You are completely absorbed in what you’re doing.

The concept of flow is attributed to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist who spent more than 50 years traveling the globe to try to understand what powered creativity.

He found there were moments where people felt like their work or hobby was effortless and outside of time. A state of being where they felt in control because their skills were well matched to the challenge they hoped to best.

Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow,” and expanded the idea in his 1990 book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

These are the four key conditions for flow:

  • The task needs to be the right amount of hard. You’ll get bored with a simple task before you’re done. And the frustration surrounding an unreasonable task or one not relevant to your skill set is a clear barrier to finding your flow.
  • You need feedback from your work. Both the short term happiness you get from making a quick code change that solves a bug and the larger satisfaction from finishing a project.
  • You need to be able to focus. Eliminate distractions. Silence alerts. Close your tabs. Build an environment where the majority of your stimuli is coming from the task in front of you.
  • You need a clear goal. Get clarity about why you’re taking on a challenge. Clear goals stave off doubt. Keep your brain from wandering during a task. Put simply: we all need a purpose for doing something.

Beyond defining the conditions for flow, Csikszentmihalyi also made one point clearly and repeatedly: anybody can find their flow.

Attention is like energy in that without it no work can be done, and in doing work it is dissipated. And it is an energy under our control, to do with as we please; hence, attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience.

– Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Why is flow important for engineers?

Flow is critical for engineers because it is a path to getting your work done efficiently, but more importantly, it is a path to enjoying the process.

You can slog through work not fully focused. It will feel like a grind and move slowly. Or, you can structure your work day to spend more time in flow. You’ll feel more rewarded because you’ll be dedicating your time to the work that matters.

Flow accounts for the idea that engineers are individuals with preferences about how and when they work. Beyang Liu, CTO and co-founder of Sourcegraph, suggests that developers in flow can have more agency over their jobs and design systems that let them move faster because they’re delighted by the tasks in front of them.

As Liu notes in a post about productivity, flow is “when you have ‘paged in’ all the necessary context and can actually have fun. It’s when you’re coding at the speed of thought.”

The story of flow extends beyond productivity. It can also make you more adaptable to change, which is particularly important in a startup where pivots can happen regularly.

Richard Huskey, an associate communications professor at the University of California-Davis, has spent years studying the neuroscience underlying flow. He noted that recent studies have shown flow can help you be more resilient.

This is your brain on flow.

In an effort to learn more about what is going on in our brains during flow, Huskey recently tested a theory that flow was derived from our brain’s ability to be flexible. So, the professor developed a point-and-click video game, Asteroid Impact [get the code here], with a pair of colleagues.

He had people play the game. Collect gems. Avoid asteroids. He adjusted the difficulty. He then scanned their brains while they were playing to see what happens when we’re in flow. The results astonished him.

“There is no “flow” region in the brain,” explained Karen Michele Nikos-Rose, the associate director of news and media relations for UC Davis. “Instead, flow results from networked interactions between multiple brain regions.”

In the midst of flow, your brain network is continually adapting to the task at hand. Your brain isn't working harder, but rather it's working smarter via more direct pathways. So, as Huskey noted, flow is ““simultaneously perceived as high-control and effortless, even when the task difficulty is high.”

This is why you need to be challenged – and have the skills to meet that challenge – to achieve a flow state.

Here’s why you may be really feeling the flow.

Flow isn’t only using your neural networks, it’s also influencing how you emotionally respond to the task at hand. During flow, the good vibes roll and your inner critic is muted.

Nearly two decades ago, researchers at Bonn University discovered runners in flow had higher levels of endorphins. Since then, studies have shown those in the flow state to have elevated levels of four other neurochemicals: anandamide, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin.

Author Steven Kotler, who has written repeatedly about how humans achieve peak performance, explained these “pleasure-inducing, performance-enhancing” neurochemicals are important because they increase “everything from muscle reaction times to attention, pattern recognition and lateral thinking—the three horsemen of rapid-fire problem-solving.”

Flow is not only about potential happiness; it also may help stave off self doubt. Kotler pointed to research from Charles Limb, a neuroscientist at John Hopkins University, for additional insight into why we might be able to stay in a flow state.

Limb studied the brains of jazz musicians during an improvised jam session and found that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain in charge of working memory, executive function, and self regulation), turned off. In other words, that little voice saying something couldn’t be done was silenced in the middle of a flow state.

Free from our inner critics, Kotler suggested that “creativity becomes more free-flowing, risk tasking becomes less frightening, and the combination lets us flow at a far faster clip. “

How much time should you spend in a flow state?

Flow cultivates a positive state of mind. Studies have shown that flow is a buffer to experiencing burnout. And, correspondingly, that a lack of flow, can make it harder to stop feeling like the work will never get done.

Aiming for constant flow is an unrealistic goal. There are too many distractions. Too many interruptions. Tasks that will be too difficult or hard. But, being intentional to spend just a little more time in flow during the work day can yield big results.

A study from the consulting group McKinsey shows that knowledge workers are five times more productive when they’re in a flow state. If you can spend 2 hours each day in a flow state, you’ll achieve as much as you would in a 50-hour work week of average productivity.

When should you aim to be in flow?

Author Jari Roomer, the creator of the Peak Productivity Planner, suggests looking at your current routine.

“So little time is spent in a flow state because operating at maximum mental capacity is energy-draining,” wrote Roomer. “That’s why it’s critical to do your flow state work when your mental energy levels are at their peak.”

Try to assess when you have lots of energy for work – perhaps at the start of the day or after a workout – and when your energy tends to wane – post-lunch or after back-to-back meetings. Then, adjust your schedule based on what you learn.

Build in clear blocks of time for specific types of work. You might try the Pomodoro Method (breaking your day up into 30-minute bites known as a “pomodoro,”) and designated meeting times each week. Time blocking cuts down on the cost of  switching and helps you slip into the flow state more easily.

You might want to start tracking your flow.

Tracking flow probably feels a bit like trying to hold water in your hand. The harder you squeeze, the more it seems to slip away.

Tracking flow is really about paying attention. It’s about understanding when you are productive. And when you are lagging. And then examining the work you were doing in both instances.

Keep a journal or make notes in your schedule about when you were in flow. Try and jot down exactly what you were doing and for how long. Don’t ignore your emotional state, whether you find the work taxing or enjoyable. At the end of a week and then a month, look back at your notes and take action to make your schedule work better for you.

Build support systems for your team to encourage and sustain flow.

Once you start to recognize flow and assess the frequency or duration, you can find your flow faster.

While Csikszentmihalyi believed we all could achieve a flow state, we don’t arrive there in exactly the same way.

People he termed “autotelic,” were task-oriented. They could find meaning in the constraints of a job and might be open or seeking new experiences.

Sound like you? Since you can likely navigate internal distractions that compete for your attention, you should focus on limiting exterior distractions. Set expectations with your team about your availability. Block off hours for dedicated coding time. Schedule meetings around your peak energy hours.

If your tasks don’t get you out of bed in the morning, don’t worry there’s still a path for you to find your flow.

Exotelic folks  – motivated by the end goal or what happens as a result of an action – need help managing internal distractions. This is where you may need to work to change the job or task itself to mirror what happens in a game.

Add more stimuli. Offer added attention, feedback, or praise. Tweak the difficulty or add in feedback (stimuli) once you’re engaged with a project, just as Huskey adjusted the difficulty of a video game, to try and keep a player engaged.

We all may arrive at flow in a different way; but we all can benefit from understanding more about the process of flow. Take the time to understand what you need to get into the flow and discover exactly what you’re capable of when you’re performing at your best.

Photo by Matt Bero on Unsplash.

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