Achieving Flow

"flow", that state where things seem easier, concentration is simpler and you just feel more productive. 
Alelxandra_koch (Pixabay)

Multi-tasking.  Our computers do it and we do it.  But should we be doing it?

There is an increasingly growing body of evidence that states multi-tasking is actually bad for you.  If you are always multi-tasking you never achieve “flow“, that state where things seem easier, concentration is simpler and you just feel more productive.  The colloquial name for it is being in the zone.  We’ve all experienced that, but how many of you have experienced it recently?  A significantly smaller number.

One of the main precursors to achieving flow is the the time and ability to concentrate.  If you are always being distracted than you have few opportunities to achieve this state of flow.  Now let’s talk about how detrimental it is.

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, did a study on “The Cost of Interrupted Work:  More Speed and Stress” and they had some interesting things to say about the cost, most notably that being interrupted/distracted had a tendency of increasing stress, frustration, and the perception that there was a greater pressure on time.  Essentially being interrupted / distracted makes us cranky.  Now, this is nothing new as I’m sure that all of you can testify to this, but it’s nice to see that science can actually quantify crankiness.

One of the leads in the study, Professor Gloria Mark, did an interview where she talked about this study and other work that she has done with regard to task switching.  When it comes to distractions there are both beneficial and counterproductive distractions.  Beneficial interruptions are those that are related to the task that you are working on and help you focus on the task.  Counterproductive distractions are those that are not related to the task at hand and force your brain to switch contexts.  Context switching is painful.  Computers can do it relatively easily (although even for them it is relatively expensive) but the human brain isn’t a computer, it takes more time to bring everything out of storage.  And, quite frankly, sometimes not everything comes back.  Have you ever had a “eureka moment” and then someone has interrupted you?  When you try to go back to recover that idea it’s gone.  It wasn’t around long enough to stick in those brain cells of yours.

That sucks.

So, you’ve lost your train of thought, but you’ve dealt with the interruption, so how long does it take to get back into the groove?  Well, if Professor Mark is to be believed, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds.  So, think about this, you’re going to spend eight hours writing a report.  Due to a number of interruptions (phone calls, text messages, drop ins) you get interrupted every 20 minutes or 24 interruptions throughout the day.  Even if these interruptions are for just a couple of minutes each, the odds are that the report will take you longer to write and you will never be fully engaged when writing the report.  You will also have a much higher stress level, feel much more frustrated and feel like the world is coming down around your head.

Sound familiar?

So how we combat this?  Every so often I spend the day at the library instead of at my desk.  Fewer interruptions.  I am probably more productive in that one day than in an entire week at the office.  No, there is no “probably” about it, I am more productive.  There is no one to interrupt me, no drop-ins, no phone calls at my desk.  I schedule when I am going to review email and only look at it during that period.  This won’t work for many people, but it does work for me.

But how does this constant interruption help/hurt the organization?  Once again, let’s turn to Professor Mark who discovered that people switch context, on average, every 10 and a half minutes.

Are we becoming more superficial thinkers?

I argue that when people are switching contexts every 10 and half minutes they can’t possibly be thinking deeply. There’s no way people can achieve flow. When I write a research article, it takes me a couple of hours before I can even begin to think creatively. If I was switching every 10 and half minutes, there’s just no way I’d be able to think deeply about what I’m doing. This is really bad for innovation. When you’re on the treadmill like this, it’s just not possible to achieve flow.

Focus in on the key phrase “This is really bad for innovation.”  Is this what has been missing from our application design, some peace and quiet?  Will we suddenly become brilliant developers / managers / people just by spending some time thinking about things?  The introverts amongst us are jumping up and down yelling “YES” while the extroverts are a little bit more reserved with a “MAYBE?”

Our matrix organizations increase the number of people that we need to deal with and decrease the amount of contiguous time we can spend thinking.  Our needs for social interactions with our peers cause distractions, sometimes of our own volition.  Our society and our organizational structures are conspiring against us an an effort to distract and interrupt us, yet at the same time saying that we need to be innovative, we need to be creative.  Cubicle living, close proximity to our co-workers, causes unintentional interruptions as they get visitors or phone calls.

What’s the solution?

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