Tuesday 2¢: Flow is Your Flywheel

Inspired by something I learned a decade ago, not a rant this week, more of a ramble about productivity, open offices and finding time for your most productive time; when you are in flow.


Ten years ago, one of my chums (Misia Tramp) introduced me to the name Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, she’d talk about his concept of “flow” in her internal and client presentations and of course we’d all be challenged pronouncing his name (according to Wikipedia: it’s like this). Reflecting on my week and realizing that flow (for me at least) is a flywheel, I wanted to share something a bit different for this week’s Tuesday 2¢.

Csikszentmihalyi is a a Hungarian-American psychologist and if you are not familiar with him you are almost certainly familiar with the feeling of flow that he studying and named, when you get pulled entirely into a task, you get a bit of a buzz and time just evaporates – or as he described it:

..that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow—a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter

Or as Stephen Kotler, commenting on the study of flow prior and since Csikszentmihalyi put it in Time Magazine:

The result is liberation. We act without hesitation. Creativity becomes more free-flowing, risk taking becomes less frightening, and the combination lets us flow at a far faster clip

I feel this when I am writing, coding for fun or even when I am developing a PowerPoint deliverable for a client, I lose myself, I’m stress free, I’m getting shit done, pumped, jazzed, cooking on gas (choose your metaphor) caught up in the work.

And then have to tear myself away, often with a forgotten, cold cup of tea (which is a sin) beside me for a call or a meeting, or maybe to shop or cook for the family or whatever other thing I need to be doing to bring balance to my work life balance.

This is fantastic for my productivity and stress levels, you feel like you could achieve in 30 minutes of flow (OK, two hours, you know, you lose track of time) something that might take a day or more when you are procrastinating or distracted.

It’s like a heavy flywheel, once it starts spinning, it’s going with a lot of energy and can take some force to stop it. The problem of course, like a very heavy fly wheel, it’s hard to start.

In the modern workplace, flow makes a great case for flexible working, working from home and quiet spaces outside an open plan. You end up chatting by the coffee machine, catching up on work projects, having meetings or.. basically, doing anything but lean on this wheel to get it going.

But, once you do and it starts flying, it doesn’t respect the office clock, it’s not ready to punch out at 6pm, ready to spin again at 9am. Given the opportunity some folks are doing their best work at 9pm, but it may take them until noon to crank it up.

Flow is also not respected by any of the interruptions that can bring its productive spin to a stop, so you need to clear away distractions. I’m not saying you have to find a bunker at midnight; I have been at my most productive in busy coffee shops, the airport or on a train, the important thing is to reduce interruptions.

Personally, when I have had a fixed hours office job the time before and the time after my colleagues were around, would be those magic productive times. But, let’s face it, despite the current view that open plan offices harm our productivity, the office is not the whole problem. I can find enough distractions in my home office, or in the 72 tabs I have open in my browser to have my flow flywheel rust solid on its spindle.

Plus, if you are “in the office” we collectively have this sense that somehow we achieve a level of productivity and fulfilment by simply being present in the machine, in the hubbub and at our desks. We come home thinking we did something. When maybe… let’s be honest, we didn’t.

One solution; plan and admit to yourself when you are not going to be productive (or less productive), as much as planning when you are.

Too often the time to do the sorts of things that need flow, like preparing presentations and writing is unplanned. We think we will get them done in the narrow slices of time around meetings and all the firm things we book into our calendar, we don’t plan and block time in our schedule to do them.

Back in the day when I worked with developers and did a bit of coding myself, I read a lot by Joel Spolskey, probably the first blog I routinely followed back in the early 2000’s – back then, he was my Godin. What has stuck with me is his assertion that developers need their own offices based on research that found that it takes a developer 15 minutes to start editing code after being interrupted. I just checked, he’s still saying that.

I know, we are not all developers, but I reckon the interruption tax on our productivity is about the same. You get interrupted, you remember you need some more tea (or coffee), you do a quick check of Twitter, you then slowly find your way back to where you were with the task at hand.

And if you are hoping to complete a project by Friday, but only in the slices of 30 minutes between meetings, are you realistically going to get anything done? Let alone hit flow?

Probably better to fill that time doing a non-flow task, like call someone, update your to-do list, book that dental appointment or catch up with social media or the water cooler chat – but not feel stressed or guilty about it. Then make time for flow – book some time away to complete the task when you won’t be interupted – schedule some flow time.

Maybe work from home that day – or wherever is your least distracting place – I encourage this in my teams: “I am working from home on this day as I need to finish this thing”.

Scheduling the time and being in this pre-booked place free of interruptions will not only send a clear signal to the world that don’t want to be distracted, but it also tells YOU that you need to lean into the task and focus on getting the flywheel spinning.

I admit, some days it’s hard to get spinning, but once it got going….

Oh…

Is that the time?

This tea is cold.


If you interested in a more considered approach to flow, I came across this lovely article when researching this post: 9 Steps to Achieving Flow (and Happiness) in Your Work