Swaroop C H

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Get into the Flow

02 Feb 2009

A big question that keeps coming up for an attention-deficit person like me is "How do you get into the flow?"

There are two things that work for me and I find them at loggerheads against each other. The problem is that it has been difficult to stick to either of them.

One is called being a night-owl, the other is called the MIT factor.

I love to work late nights. Life is completely undisturbed, you're not going to get phone calls, there are no noises, nobody's expecting email replies from you, nobody around to disturb you. All good.

But being nocturnal ain’t easy. Your whole life is thrown off-balance as well as your body's natural cycle. Yet some of the best hackers I know are night-owls. They hack away their code and leave the rest to management. I'm not sure that's a viable option for us in a startup where we do everything including working with many partner companies. Besides, I don’t wish it to go to such depths of imbalance, for example, I want to maintain my regular running but it is not possible when you wake up late. And running in the evenings on Bengaluru roads is defined as insanity. The struggle is productivity/flow vs. life balance.

The second is called "The MIT Factor." Do the Most Important Task first thing in the morning. It's that simple. Don't think about what's ahead in the day, don't think about what bills are pending, don't think about planning to reach office on time (just have a fixed deadline when you have to start getting ready and think no more about it). Just switch on your computer or take out your pen and paper as soon as you wake up and start working on it. The important thing is Don't think. Just start working on it.

The problem with the second option is that if you don't wake up early, you again end up in the daily grind where you may not get focus. And you need to have the discipline to immediately start working. Whatever you do at the start of the day sets the mood for the rest of the day. For example, you check email first thing in the morning? You'll tend to do the same activity for the rest of the day.

The bottom line is I think there is a psychological concept where you have to load the entire problem, the entire domain on what you're working on into your head and that takes time, say 15-20 minutes and then you suddenly start solving problems. But if you subconsciously know that you'll get disturbed any time in those 15-20 minutes, the brain almost gives up and doesn't think it's worth putting in that investment to get into the flow if it is going to ultimately get disturbed. Is this true? I have no idea, just a theory that I'm beginning to believe (I can't remember if I read this somewhere or just an opinion I'm forming for myself).

I wonder how other people approach this concept of "getting into the zone."

Further reading:

Comments

Ramjee says:

Swaroop

I face similar problems.
I have one more option, after afternoon siesta. I start a lot of work about 4 in the after noon (lunch, a nap, browsing for some stories) and then get back to work.

digressing, in most of the offices i worked that peace of mind is what is lacking, something or the other disturbs you in the time it takes you to build the flow.

Ramjee

Sameer says:

This is something I'm sure a lot many of us face - especially as you start multitasking and some of those tasks include interfacing with others - partners, colleagues, vendors, customers. As the number of interrupts starts increasing, life gets completely taken over by those :) You're reacting all the time.

The solutions you've discussed are interesting. I've never managed to be a night owl - sometimes tried coffee and slept off immediately afterwards :) Plus with the wife and kids, the balance is all the more critical. The second actually does help - I've given up on classical "to-do" lists cause they usually degenerate into "not-done" lists which only continue to grow :) MIT does help a lot!

Sometimes, I just give up and "flow" with the interrupts till something becomes high priority. Sometimes I do a couple of no-laptop hours and sit with a notebook (the paper kind) and organize thoughts. Connectivity can often be a double edged sword, and often the discipline needed to keep that in check is just beyond us.

Nice post, will keep watching the comments - might just help :)

rambhai.com says:

Get Into The Flow...

“How do you get into the flow?” There are two things that work for me and I find them at loggerheads against each other.
One is called being a night-owl, the other is called the MIT factor....

Varun Thacker says:

i'm more of a night-owl especially during my holidays when i can afford waking up at 12 or later :) .These are the few things i can afford during my college life..lets see what the future holds ......

psk says:

hi swaroop,

I completely agree with your thoughts....

srid says:

Do the Most Important Task first thing in the morning. It’s that simple. Don’t think about what’s ahead in the day, don’t think about what bills are pending, don’t think about planning to reach office on time (just have a fixed deadline when you have to start getting ready and think no more about it). Just switch on your computer or take out your pen and paper as soon as you wake up and start working on it. The important thing is Don’t think. Just start working on it.


This is similar to what I do (just start working without thinking - and later after 15 mins or so, you get into flow) except that it does not have to be happening only in early morning.

Swaroop says:

@Ramjee Interesting, so you allocate time for activities in the motivation that you're not disturbed outside of that fixed time?

@Sameer Exactly, "You're reacting all the time."

I do the no-laptop notebook sessions too, I all it "paper therapy" :-)

I guess the point is that if we have a way to consistently get ourselves into the flow, then we can handle the critical important aspects of our job, and then spend the other half of the day on the urgent aspects of the job.

@Varun Heh, I guess that will change when you get a job, so beware :)

@srid Good point. The reason I don't have the discipline to do it after reaching work is that I already have a million thoughts buzzing in the head that I get knocked off the saddle and it's difficult to get back on, unless I'm already riding (I hope that was a tolerable analogy...heh!)

The_Other_Swaroop() says:

Hey Swaroop ,

the WSJ has this interesting article about paying attention, I wanted to share !

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124018463826033223.html?mod=googlenews_wsj#articleTabs%3Darticle


The_Other_Swaroop();

srid says:

Such intense focus [flow], Ms. Gallagher says, is central to "peak" or "optimal" experience. ... She quotes a meditation proponent who talks about achieving "a state of pure attention that occurs before thinking."

I have been practising something similar[1] with some success - except it is about "an experience that occurs before perception and feeling". Alas, feeling often fails to get the much needed notice.. instead that attention goes to thinking. My favourite example is this - can the experience of flow continue to exist when one begins to feel stressed/excited? (hint - stress/excitement is a feeling, not mere thinking).

[1] http://actualfreedom.com.au/richard/articles/attentivenesssensuousnessapperceptiveness.htm

Swaroop says:

@srid I understood your gist, but could not comprehend the article, honestly, I got lost in all the jargon :)

srid says:

That article is apparently the most difficult to understand as it describes aperceptiveness, sensuousness, PCE which are further beyond 'felicity' ... and thus requires a first-hand experience to have a clear understanding of just what they are.

I too do not have a clear understanding of such terms as I'm yet to have a PCE myself.

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