Increasing your chances of entering flow

I recently ran across a tip from Mark Hepburn that caught my eye. The content of the tip isn’t important here but rather his justification of the tip:

It sounds trivial, but it can really help keep you in the flow.

This line jumped out at me because I’ve been thinking about my work habits lately. Now that I’m self-employed, I have the opportunity to develop new habits. My excuses for not trying different ways of working have been stripped away. Maybe my excuses weren’t valid before, but it’s obvious that they are not valid now.

Small customizations like Mark mentioned are under-appreciated in part because they are trivial, at least when viewed one at a time. But the cumulative effect of numerous trivial customizations could be substantial. Together they increase the probability that you can act on an idea before it slips your mind and before you lose the will to pursue it.

Small customizations are also very personal, and so they don’t make good blog posts. I suspect that productivity bloggers primarily write about things they don’t actually do. They write about things that a wide audience will find entertaining if not useful. The little things that make a difference to the blogger may be boring or embarrassing to write about.

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Instead of giving a simple list of related links at the bottom as I usually do, I’ll give some links along with commentary.

Henri Poincaré had a radical work schedule: one two-hour sprint in the morning and another in the afternoon. Some people look at that and think he put in half a normal work day. But if he had four hours of concentrated focus, I imagine he put in four times a typical work day.

Here are posts on changing how you type and how you use a text editor.

And here are a three posts on how mundane things are undervalued:

And finally, here’s a post on customizing conventional wisdom to your circumstances.

11 thoughts on “Increasing your chances of entering flow

  1. I’m always curious about the value of getting into the flow. It seems good for getting work done, but it seems prohibitive for creativity. There seems to be evidence that disruptions and movements are conducive to creativity.

  2. That’s why Pomodoro recommends taking breaks and reassessing tasks priorities: it’s an attempt to find a balance between high concentration to get stuff done, while keeping big picture in sight. The rhythm is supposed to help you get quickly into the flow.

  3. I like the Pomodoro idea, but I find its work blocks far too short for math and coding. I use 90 minute focused blocks with 30 minute breaks or, to fit external obligations, 45 minute blocks with 15 minute breaks. Four long blocks (6 hours) of focused work in a day and I’m doing pretty well. Not up to PoincarĂ©’s standards, but it’s yielded a huge improvement for me.

  4. That small things add up is one of the eternal verities that’s worth keeping on the refresh list:
    “Adde parvum parvo magnus acervus erit.”
    [Add little to little and there will be a lot.]
    — and Fred Brooks…

  5. lens: Thanks for the Ovid quote.

    Gerald Weinberg tells a similar story in his book The Secrets of Consulting. The way he puts is is no change plus no change plus no change eventually equals a big change. He illustrates this telling the story of someone who commercialized a recipe. When someone scaled her operation from her kitchen to a factory, all along the way were changes that made little difference, but the final product was nowhere as good as the original.

  6. Yeah, there’s a reason I keep a paper notebook and pen next to my keyboard at work. I keep notes on what I do, need to do, and results of various investigations. I have Notational Velocity set up here as well, but somehow paper seems to work best for most things.

  7. I love monolithic Skyscrapers. I used to love their purity, and the Twin Towers were my favourite buildings, only after them, other more ‘detailed’ skyscrapers followed.

    I have mourned them terribly for themselves (and for two sculptures on the plaza) and when after years I looked up again I saw that square office buildings altogether had become obsolete. Once again America had surprised me in her rapid somatization.

    I will build the architecture proper for entering Mihaly’s state of Flow (which does allow creativity, that’s the point), and for relaxation, and even with some more work, places and furniture that might contain or dissipate the states of stress.

    Other companies are and will be designing the personal capsules (earbuds, augmented reality, mobility) that will enable us to live in a new human landscape.

    Every person should be able to chose a comfortable position, and a jungle to utilize out four limbs to relieve stress, and enjoy the gravity lessening effects of tensile nets and water.


  8. I’m glad you mentioned text editing at the bottom as an example, as I was thinking of exactly that when you spoke of making small changes. Because Vim is such a big tool, there’s always another way to save a few seconds with a new map, or by using a feature you’ve previously ignored. (I’m sure many other text editors are just the same. And to take the example further, I’ve found the same pattern using Gimp lately, just because I use it more now than I used to.) Sometimes colleagues take the mickey if I’m pleased with myself for making such an improvement: they claim the few seconds I save each time will never amount to a return on the time I invested learning the feature or setting up the map.
    They’re still amazed when they see how fast I make a large change. All those seconds do add up. And even more: sometimes, saving a few seconds in the middle of an intricate code change makes the difference between doing it in one smooth operation, and having to stop and write notes. Just like how in a computer that one word can make your struct span two cache lines instead of one, or one extra temporary means you have to spill registers in a tight loop.

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