Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Productivity and Flow

I've been thinking a lot recently about that state of mind where you lose track of time, focus intensely, and generally are very productive. This state of mind is not only associated with working; it can be found when exercising, playing games, and other associated focus-intensive activities, but generally I associate it with work, mostly because my best work is done in this state of mind. I find that if I can lose myself for a while and disassociate with reality while working, I generally come out of that state with an amazing amount of work done.

I was thinking recently that if I could induce this state of mind more frequently, I could become a more productive person. After a short amount of googling, I discovered that there is an entire area of research in psychology devoted to this subject; it's known as "flow". One of the main researchers in this field is a Hungarian psychology professor named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He's published a few books on the subject, and the one I picked up is called "Flow: The psychology of optimal experience".

The book itself was a little too self-helpy for my tastes (if you look carefully, you'll see that the subtitle of the book above is "Steps toward enhancing the quality of life"), however I found tidbits inside could have been taken out of any of the software management books I've read.

After skimming through the bits on how and why you desire happiness, I found the core of the book: the elements of flow experiences.


1. Engaging in a Challenging Activity

He explains that the activity you're engaged in has to be at the edge between skill and anxiety. Even if your activity is complex, if you're too familiar with it, it won't be considered "challenging" to your psyche. You have to find something that is within your reach to learn or finish, but isn't easy.

2. Merging of Action and Awareness

Your attention is completely devoted to the activity, such that you have no awareness of the outside world. It is intense concentration, but seems effortless when deeply involved.

3. Clear Goals and Feedback

This is fairly self-explanatory, and it is also where I started seeing parallels in software development and management. On the development side, having small coding goals that are constantly achieved and iterated on is how I think many productive people program. On the management side, providing clear feedback and goals to your employees is a staple of good management.

4. Concentration on the task at hand

This is probably obvious, however what I found interesting was that he believes only a select range of information can be allowed into your awareness when in this state. Irrelevant information in your mental activity can break your concentration, and hence your flow.

Relating this to back to software environments, he goes on to state that quiet environments are essential to keeping your concentration. Much has been written already about how loud environments are productivity killers, and this just provides more evidence to that.

5. The Paradox of Control


He says that the flow experience is strongly associated with a sense of control. This resonates strongly with programming in my experience. One of the psychological benefits of programming (in my non-expert opinion) is the sense of mastery and control one gains over the system you're programming against. "Hacking" (in the Paul Graham sense, not the Kevin Mitnik sense) is merely another way of asserting your control and power over the system, by finding a non-obvious or faster solution to a specific problem. It's a very primal feeling that I think many, if not most of us, desire.

Mihaly then writes that the "paradox" of control "...is that it is not possible to feel a sense of control unless one is willing to give up the safety of protective routines". In essence, your sense of control comes by putting yourself into situations where you actually have less control, since the unknowns are much greater than in situations that you've experienced before. As he writes, "Only when a doubtful outcome is at stake...can a person really know whether they are in control".

6. The Loss of Self-Consciousness

Losing your sense of self-consciousness is a phenomena typically talked about in association with meditation, or zen-like activites. This loss is typically accompanied by, "a feeling of union with the environment". Projected onto programmers, this environment you feel a union with is typically whatever framework, system, or specific program you're working in.

Mihaly explains that what is temporarily lost is not the sense of self, but the concept of the self. High-performing violinists are very aware of their fingers, as runners are aware of their breathing. They haven't lost their sense of self, but the boundaries for how they define the self have temporarily vanished. This can be a very liberating experience, as "...the feeling that the boundaries of our own being have been pushed forward".

7. The Transformation of Time

It is normal to emerge from a flow experience and see that hours have passed without your awareness. What you're measuring when in this activity is not time, but states or milestones. When programming intensely, it's not uncommon to think of your progress not in terms of minutes and hours, but in terms of functions written, functionality working, and pieces integrated. Your world turns into a state-driven world, and not a time-driven one.


For the skeptical types (like me), I want to say that these elements are conclusions drawn from many studies of people experiencing flow in many different types of activities. While this doesn't mean that the conclusions are true, it does have more credibility than just some quack spouting off what he thinks brings about flow experiences.

Hopefully this has provided you with some thought-food to chew on regarding your own productivity. I think the main take-aways from this for me are that to really engage deeply in an activity, one needs:
  • A challenging task
  • A quiet environment
  • Clear Feedback (usually in the form of finished functions and functionality in what I'm writing)
  • A clear mind
  • Enough time set aside to engage deeply with the activity
I said earlier that I found parallels with this book and other software books I've read, and these take-aways prove it. These bullet points could be taken directly out of "Peopleware" or "Managing Humans", or any other book that deals with the topic of software productivity. It's always interesting to find parallels between different disciplines, and I think the psychology of programming to be particularly interesting.

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