Reading an article by Mark Cuban about how he fell in love with programming, to the extent that “hours passed like minutes” while he was coding triggered a memory of the something called the flow state.
Flow is when you are so totally engrossed in some task or experience, be it art, work or play, that you are in the here and now – not worrying about what will happen in the future or what has happened in the past. That feeling of being in the here and now is common to athletes, when they “get into the zone”; musicians, when they improvise; artists, when they paint; or a scientist immersed in an experiment, or anyone intensely involved in something that is simultaneously challenging and rewarding, as this diagram from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Ted Talk illustrates.
The flow state is literally the sweet spot where your skill, be it basketball shooting, like Stephen Curry or piano improvisations, like Keith Jarrett aligns so well with the challenge you set for yourself that you are literally “in the groove.” All of your attention is taken up with the current activity, leaving no attention for anything else.
But what does this mystical sounding state have to do with startups? Plenty! As Mark Cuban and thousands of other software engineers have found, the challenges of programming a computer to do what you want are incredibly involving and exhilarating. Work doesn’t feel like work, it feels like bliss.
Imagine if those creative people in your startup could enter the flow state and stay there for extended periods of time. Not only would they be personally fulfilled but their productivity would skyrocket.
To better understand the flow state here’s another screen grab from the Ted talk:
As you can see from this list of seven attributes, the flow state is not something that can be maintained for extended periods of time, but it is a self-reinforcing state, as it is intrinsically motivating – whatever produces flow becomes its own reward.
So how can you help your staff enter the flow state and benefit their own well being as well as your venture?
- Minimize distractions – choose your office space with care. Quiet is important, as noise can be very distracting.
- Minimize interruptions – Providing your staff with long, uninterrupted time to not only work, but to think and reflect, will give them a better chance of entering flow. This means cutting down meetings and what meetings you have should be regularly scheduled and begin first thing in the morning to enable everyone to plan for them and get them out of the way before diving into their own tasks.
- Consider real offices with doors – Yes I know, this is very old school and today everyone sits in one big room all wearing headphones and listening to the music of their choice. And studies have shown that actually some types of music can increase productivity. But listening to music on your ear pods will ensure you never get into the flow state. If this is too radical an idea consider a quiet room, where it goes without saying that no talking or other interruptions are allowed.
- Enable staff to work off site – Again, this is counter the prevailing trend of reining in telecommuting. And I’m highly in favor of face to face interactions. But allocating even just a day per week to work at home or elsewhere may enable your engineers, designers, marketeers, and other creative staff to get away from the myriad distractions of the office.
- Provide work that is challenging – but also a good match for your staff’s skills. As you can see from the diagram, work that is overly challenging can create anxiety, whereas work that is not challenging induces boredom.
- Introduce them to the concept of flow – You can start with the 18 minute Ted Talk but I highly recommend you make available copies of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by
Flow is an exceptional state of mind. It’s not something you can expect anyone to attain constantly or even regularly. But as a founder you can expose your staff to the concept and create an environment conducive to entering the flow state. This screen grab of a quote from the founder of Sony says it all: