When I first started out as a software engineer I was in complete control of my day and schedule. Projects were several weeks in duration. I had freedom to choose what to do and when to do it, prioritising each days’ work for optimal productivity. I’d deliver before the deadline would arrive; then onto the next project. Everything was perfect back when starting out; I was earning good money: no commute and no real boss. Daily I’d get into the flow state – the work was rewarding and yet challenging. I’d reach a state of concentration that would last the whole day.
How do you get into flow when constantly interrupted?
As any business owner, freelancer or startup founder knows – that period would be short lived. Before too long I was looking back at those days as a fond memory. Projects overlapped, clients needed support, extensions on extensions meant deadlines pressured. Needless to say – hacking out code late into the night, was no longer for fun but a necessity.
Building the software, the actual coding was the work I enjoyed, but emails and phone calls were a constant interruption. Meetings, getting back to clients, drafting proposals, all necessary to keep the work flowing in. To get the work done I had to hire, manage more developers, plan resources across multiple projects, make wages and chase payments. You get the picture – besides doing less of what I loved I was now the ‘manager’ of a software company. Manager was not exactly what I had in mind as a vocation, but as an entrepreneur this is what we do… right?
I never forgot what it was like to have that clear schedule, freedom to build, create without interruption. I loved that feeling so much that I’d come to the office at 5 am in the morning just to get a few hours. The team would arrive and before long the phone would start ringing. A few hours were not enough, I’d barely get into it and just end up more tired and more frustrated. So I’d go to the office on the weekends aiming to get a whole day’s work in. Sometimes this worked out, but more often than not I was just wearing myself and my family down.
Can a creator be an entrepreneur?
Something had to break and eventually it did. A series of health issues meant hospital stays. This course of events forced time to rethink and take stock of my life and ask some big questions. My specialists pointed to a common thread in all the issues and that was inflammation. But where was this inflammation coming from? Regardless of my typically optimistic and happy demeanour it was clear that my body was suffering. Through my career I had built up a high tolerance for stress mentally yet my body could not handle it. From the inside the stress was manifesting in various forms of autoimmune disease. I had to make a change.
I came to realise the stress was of my own doing. My company was successful yet I was not happy in my deeper work. What was missing was that freedom to create. Artists paint, authors write and developers code software. For most creatives, money is less important than the work itself, and that was me. Most creatives cannot run a business and be creative at the same time – many give up. The creator personality type leads to the choice their work over their entrepreneurial ambitions – and let’s’ face it: opting for a regular pay cheque.
But it was not so easy, with a lifestyle, a family of dependents including three children, responsibilities to clients and a team built over the span of a decade I could not just stop the business and go walkabout or take a hiatus. The only option was to push through… to find the way.
Enter the flow state
I knew what flow was, but not by name. I experienced it frequently as an adolescent and early in my career. It became more elusive as the years dragged on. I would experience that feeling again fresh off a holiday or a long weekend. I never really had the correct name for it, I referred to it as “in the zone” you know that feeling, when you don’t want to stop, the ideas keep flowing and your hands can barely keep up on the keyboard.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes it as the optimal mental state.
“a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”– Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
In that mental state, I experienced euphoria – I’d think why was I struggling prior to the holiday? I’ll finish this project in a few days! I was superhuman again.
Getting into the flow state
I had read books on productivity which had touched on the topic and of course Mihalys’ work and had mixed results from the initial application of his theories.
- Start the day with a task that is balanced between challenging and yet familiar;
- Choosing a task that was intrinsically rewarding;
- Blocking off chunks of time without interruptions.
This worked and was relatively easy when the workload was light – say with one or two projects at once but when things got crazy as they do – then the wheels would fall off the cart. The reality was that having multiple clients (i.e. bosses) and simultaneous deliverables meant most days this was not possible. How could I maintain my flow state consistently?
Productivity is in the mind
The big breakthrough for me personally came when I realised that productivity is all in our minds on many levels. We have the power to decide how to view the workload and how to manage it. There has been a lot of talk over the last years about mindfulness, and if you are looking to be more productive I have no stronger recommendation than to be mindful as you work.
It might sound crazy to suggest. How is that possible? If I am concentrating on my work, how can I be mindful at the same time? Don’t I need to be laying down or cross legged Yogi style?
Like all things, practice is the key. You must train your mind to remain vigilant as you work. You must actively monitor your thoughts. Tweak and correct.
Saying “No” to interruptions
This is where the challenge lies. When the phone rings we answer it. When a client demands something done today what happens? we do it… we are naturally people pleasers as that is our default behaviour to survive in a society. This is just one example yet, your subconscious has hundreds of programs designed for survival. These programs appear to us in the form of involuntary actions and thoughts that result in words or actions without conscious filtering. Do you ever catch yourself saying “yes” to a request on a phone call and then regret it?… We shrug it off light heartedly and think “Great!, another late night”. But the real cost is that tomorrow becomes more stressful. A tired, less productive day, another delay, more stress and so on, and so on.
These programs come to us mostly from indoctrination by parents, culture and social norms. If you have read any books on self improvement you may have already improved or reprogrammed some of this internal ‘software’, yet unless you are actively working on it daily – old habits will return.
3 top tips to overcoming ‘the mind’ to enter flow
Be a hacker – We must remain vigilant to control our subconscious. Hackers monitor a system – it’s information flow. Then identify a weakness and replace or bypass some code with their own which gives them some advantage. That is the perspective we must view our minds. Then, act when we find something we need to tweak or improve by installing new software.
Choose Zen – ‘Zen in work’ is to have control of thoughts so you can use those that are helpful and set aside those that are not. You must learn to ‘turn the dim switch down’ on thoughts that are not directly relating to your current task.
Track your thoughts – Note daily negative or unproductive subconscious thoughts you encounter. Reflect on these at the end of your day and work on reprogramming these thoughts.
Best tools to enter the flow state
It is not easy to overcome the mind. You are undoing millions of years of genetic programming as a ‘human being’. Nurture and nature from your upbringing and the learning from every social interaction you have had in your entire life.
One of the best techniques I found to help maintain focus and lower distractions was to work in short periods of absolute focus. These bursts of short intense focused work are typically 25 minutes followed by a 5 minute break. This technique was made famous by Italian author Francesco Cirillo in his book the ‘Pomodoro Technique ©’. Having read this book, I designed and built the DayNinja App. The goal of the app was to mash up a number of other science based techniques I was already using. I applied these techniques for a better to-do list and time management with a Pomodoro timer. As an app developer, I initially designed it for my own personal use. Later in 2016, I released it to the app stores hoping others would benefit.
The DayNinja App was just part of the puzzle, for both me and its’ users. I found it useful in getting things done. The app was a helpful tool but I still was not able to enter the flow state readily. I’d need to go deeper.
The scientific method – meet the ‘lab rat’ (me)
I kept reading, researching the mind and body to understand where thoughts come from – how to control them – how to get more energy, more focus. No, despite how it sounds I did not go off to a monastery high in the mountains. I stayed at my keyboard working. But this was the best part: my days were roughly the same each day, everyday I used myself as a “lab specimen”. I made tweaks to everything from sleep, diet, exercise and measure the changes. By training myself to become acutely aware of how my mind was functioning each day. My goal was to figure out what worked and was not helping and then tweaking in iterations.
“What gets measured, gets improved”– Peter Drucker
I had always been a hacker and tuner and deeply interested in productivity, this started from the time I first coded and all through university and my early career. From early reading I knew the power of focused work and what it could do for my success and happiness. Yet, I had lost flow for a good chunk of my life. After 10 years or more of only feeling flow rarely – perhaps just three times in the whole year – I finally had it back! But not only was I experiencing flow again, I could turn it on daily at will.
In my research I found the experts in this field are psychologists, neuroscientists and authors of self help books. In my opinion, their methods were interesting yet not always practical. Maybe they’re applicable to employees with a cooperative boss yet not suitable for me. Further, their methods applied techniques of their particular field of expertise. Whereas, my answer to turning on flow only came from stepping back and applying a holistic process of measurement and improvement then deeper aspects of their advice. This method was not born in academia but in the throws of extreme, real life pressures. I am not one of the aforementioned experts. However, I have solved this through the scientific method and reverse engineering of how the mind works in regard to flow. I now help others to achieve the same.
How to induce the flow state daily
The DayNinja Method is my approach to turning on the flow state at will. Over the time of intense experimentation which spanned 5+ years, I tried many tools and techniques. Of course being a software guy, I coded more tools, spreadsheets but what I found worked best was a simple printed sheet. One of these sheets is by my side every day. I scribble my hand written notes all over it without switching apps or breaking concentration. I’ve evolved this resource to include just the items that are crucial to measuring and improving peak performance. You can download it here.
Once you get started I’ll also send you the weekly review sheet and free training to get you started with the DayNinja Method. A printed paper sheet may sound primitive and laborious but each of us are unique and getting to know your own mind is the first step. Don’t worry I’ll fast track you some years in the training that will follow. Download the Day Sheet here to get started.