Getting Into the Flow of Things

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Productivity and motivation gurus always talk about flow. Flow is a psychological state of being immersed and concentrated in doing something that everything outside doesn’t matter. It is very difficult to explain the concept of a flow, until one actually achieves and experiences it.

I’ve heard about flow for many many years – when we were younger, my father used to bring us kids to motivational seminars where we’d learn how to get into the flow – and on many occasions I thought I had experienced flow. But I had not. I only truly experienced flow once in late 2008. And immediately, it clicked and I instantly understood why it was called flow.

The experience came with my first ingestion of Ritalin. Ritalin (aka methylphenidate) is a drug used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It was (and still is I believe) rather used and abused by university students who want to concentrate while studying. All I did was have a slow release of methylphenidate and I achieved flow while studying Game Theory. Since then I realized a few things: a) flow is the way of getting things done; b) I probably have ADHD that was never treated.

That however, is besides the point. You see, once you have experienced the flow state, you tend to want to experience it again – afterall, you typically exit the flow state with positive results at hand. I was familiar with the standard advice on how to achieve flow:

  • Have a clear objective
  • Said objective must be challenging enough
  • No interruptions
  • Instant feedback on the subject matter (to form the feedback loop that will feed the flow)

Easier said than done.  I remember many a days when I was in primary school, setting aside blocks of time of solitude to do my homework, but still end up sitting on the TV reading (yes, kids, back in the days, TVs were made of cathode-ray tubes and they were large, and I have a vivid memory of this incident of me ending up sitting on the telly while reading a Secret Seven book by Enid Blyton when I was supposed to be doing my homework or revising for exams). The same continued up to my university days, when I would set aside time to have no distractions, no internet, and yet achieve not much. 

After my first experience of flow though, everything changed. I suddenly understood that brain chemistry played an important role too, in attempting to get into flows. Since Ritalin supply was scarce (plus I did not want to develop an dependence on expensive drugs), I looked at other things that helped change brain chemistry.  I needed to get my flow, and I did.

Take for example a github project of mine – almost all the commits and pushes for this project are done during flow periods (almost). If I had not hacked out a system to get into the flow to do things, I wouldn’t have gotten things done.  So what worked?

First, the bad news: nothing really worked. Green tea worked by increasing the time I sat down to focus, but not long enough. So did daily meditation. But they did not achieve a focusing effect long enough to fully get into the flow. I found that caffeine – something like 5 or 6 espresso shots in 2 hours heightened my sensitivity to activity to a point of numbness, and that got a lot of work done, by the sheer speed I was doing things, but not really a flow either. I had monitored myself – green tea + meditation + coffee got myself a maximum of 30 minutes of focus (and that’s on a good day).

Then comes the good news. Through desperate experimentation, I discovered some hacks that worked for myself to prolong the period of time I am focused. Here are some:

  • Early mornings/Late nights
    I write code very late at night or very early in the morning. I usually get more done very early in the morning – when I am half groggy, I jump straight into my home office and start tapping away at the keyboard.
  • Planing for flow means fuckall for me.
    This is what they always teach you in motivation seminars to get things done: block out a period of time, and get in the flow. I have learned through trial and error that I cannot plan for flow situations. Now, I can feel a flow coming on, and quickly block myself out from the public world (at work, I wear headphones and put some music on to maximum volume – my colleagues know better than to disturb me)
  • Escalate Matters To Unsolvability
    This hack only works for me. When presented with a problem that I know would require some dedicated hours of problem solving, my mind would now immediately jump to the most complex and most challenging solution. This would get me sufficiently motivated and challenged to solve the problem. And sooner or later I would get into the flow, and while in the flow, I would get several “aha!” moments when I would simplify the solution.
  • Opposites Matter (Sometimes)
    I find that sometimes amid very very noisy and chaotic moments, I can get into the flow. I particularly recall a moment at work when all hell broke loose around me, and I felt the pull of the flow. I sat down and wrote a statistical test in about 1.5 hours, then I broke my concentration. I had been doing the opposite of panicking with the rest of the colleagues – a sudden calm set in, my headphones were set to noise-cancelling and I got to work. Then there were other times when it was too quiet and I personally had some really loud distraction going on in my headphones, and I felt the pull of the flow.

The problem with these hacks is that they are not consistent. As you may note in the Github impact chart above, not every week I would have the same amount of commits and pushes. Now, almost all my coding for the project is done on the weekend, as I rarely have time or concentration to do it on a weekday, so really the commits are really only weekend commits. Notice the lack of activity between 9th October and 30th October. Or that 6th of November only had 34 new lines committed.

Now this to me is a problem. I need more flow time and I am not getting it. I am dependent on my innate brain chemistry to pull me into the flow instead of being able to control when and where I want to have my flow. My deadlines are cutting pretty close for my projects and I need to get stuff done. What other tips do you have unconventional ways of getting into the flow?

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  1. I am researching this as well. My most recent blog posts have my latest insights but I’ll copy/paste here what I can.

    Comfort:
    – Not hungry/Thirsty
    – Good seats, no discomfort
    – reading only is way easier than trying to read and write so I focus on reading and integrating information just in my head.
    – I think good lighting helps too
    – Diet matters so much, eating white bread or sugar ect will ruin a study session so fast because it activates stress hormones and depletes energy levels, so eating clean is important
    – Getting enough sleep is important because even coffee has it’s limits and can becomes more of a stress than an aid and just one jittery and less able to focus