Some days, we accomplish very little at work. Some days, we accomplish a lot. On our productive days, we are likely experiencing what Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called flow—a juicy, somewhat mysterious, highly focused mental state wherein we are completely absorbed in and effectively completing a task.
Can flow be invoked? What can we do to experience it more often? I asked three highly productive senior engineers how they maximize flow. Here are the top takeaways from those conversations.
1. Seize the good days
Matt Ronge is the CEO and co-founder of Astro HQ, makers of Astropad and Luna Display. He describes his experiences with flow as inconsistent. For example, he wrote the majority of the Astropad code in intense highly-productive periods, but he’s also no stranger to dry spells. “I’m very up and down,” he says. “I have periods of high production, then nothing.”
Because Matt has learned to expect these flow irregularities, he has in turn learned that, when he is in a state of flow, he needs to stay there as long as possible. “I try to really take advantage of those times,” he says. “I try to stay in that state as long as I can, because it’s not a place I can always kick myself back into.”
2. Know thy self
Andy Rahn, molecular biologist and senior developer at Iconfactory, has identified the times of day when he can expect good work, or flow, to occur. “I usually have three blocks of good work in me each day,” he says. “There’s one in the morning, one after lunch, and then one that wraps up around 7:00 P.M.”
Armed with this awareness, Andy is able to plan for and accommodate his personal patterns. For example, these patterns impact when he walks his dogs and his evening plans at home. “That evening block drives my wife nuts sometimes,” Andy says. “We work through it. The point is that you need to experiment with yourself and pay attention to what works.”
3. “Mise en place”
Zach Johnson is a game developer and co-founder of Space Mace. For Zach, flow demands a certain level of preparation, and he believes that many of us are quick to undervalue this prep work. “It’s an easy place to beat yourself up,” he says, “thinking the only real work is the flow work. When you do that, you’re not honoring yourself and giving yourself credit for all the work that has to happen before you can have flow.”
Matt agrees. “Think of it like cooking,” he says. “A lot happens before you actually start cooking. There’s all this time where you are just preparing. Making a plan, chopping up the onions, chopping up the carrots, putting it all in little bowls. Then all of the sudden, you are cooking.”
4. Flip your hourglass
It seems that flow, or the inspiration needed to get into flow, appears during or after some sort of physical or mental reset. For Andy, this reset occurs on Sundays when he plays music with friends. “It’s totally different than my job,” he says. “It just flips the hourglass.”
These “flips” of the hourglass can take many different forms. Einstein’s flip, for example, was shaving. For Matt, it’s a shower. “I go through these periods where I have no ideas,” he says. “Then I’ll be in the shower one day and have eight great ideas. It’s strange.”
Perhaps the simplest flip, the one you have no doubt heard before, is to just walk away from the task for a while. “Sometimes, your awareness of your inability to accomplish something is actually feeding into your inability to do it,” Andy says. “That’s when you need to walk away, relax, believe in your ability to accomplish the task later, and give yourself a chance to reset.”
5. Respect your mental health
Is there a link between flow and mental health? Andy thinks there is. He says that he is “almost always happy,” and he feels that this makes flow relatively easy for him to achieve. “I should be counting my lucky stars for that,” he says. Still, on some days, flow eludes him too. “Some days, you just have to recognize that your brain can be unwell in various ways,” he says. “It just happens. It’s like getting a cold.”
Zach also feels that mental health and flow are connected. When asked what tip about flow he’d give a younger version of himself, he said this: “Honestly, I would tell my younger self to get into therapy. There is an emotional experience to flow. You have to stop judging yourself. You have to be comfortable in your own skin and emotions. That is how you get into flow more easily.”
6. Have clear goals
Csikszentmihalyi identified “clarity of goals” as a key component of flow. For Zach, this is central. “You have to keep asking yourself, ‘What is the goal? Why am I here?’ If you can’t answer those questions, you’re not going to find flow.”
Flow is goal oriented for Andy too. It fact, he feels that his periods of flow begin with the visualization of a solution. “You’re constructing this mental model, and you’re trying to imagine how to get through it,” he says. “Once you visualize the solution in your mind, you are driven to execute on that mental plan before it evaporates. If you can build up that desire, you’ll find flow. At that point, it’s almost insatiable.”
How do we find flow on projects with foggy objectives? Zach suggests inventing a deadline. “When the goal is unclear, time often becomes the constraint that forces you to invent the goals,” he says, “because then you actually have to get shit done.”
7. Try short intervals
As senior-level talent, Andy, Matt and Zach have all experienced the effect that increased responsibilities have on flow. “The more responsibilities I have, the less time I have for flow,” Zach says.
The remedy? Finding flow in short intervals of work time. Zach says that these days, flow only lasts 15 or 30 minutes; when he was younger, it lasted longer. “Flow, like everything else, evolves,” he says.
Flow for Matt has changed a great deal too. “I used to think that I needed a five-hour block to get into flow,” he says. “I think I may have thought that because when you are in flow, you lose track of time, and it feels like you’re there a long time. But if you timed it, it’s probably not that long. I’ve learned that I can actually get a tremendous amount done in a much shorter period of time.”