The importance of flow
What is flow and how to reach flow
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been chasing a feeling, a state, a moment in my work. It sounds hokey, but it feels great when you are in it. People call it by various names: in the zone, hyperfocused, tuned in, etc. In psychology, it’s called flow.
On normal days when I bounce around from one unrelated meeting to another, I reflect upon how poorly I’m building the condition for flow. But why am I chasing it and why is flow necessary for a PM?
What is flow?
Named by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975, flow is “what we often describe as a state of grace, when the world disappears, and our attention becomes entirely consumed by the task at hand.” It’s that moment when time no longer matters, hunger is forgotten, or you even no longer think about yourself. Currently, I reach it most frequently when exploring usage data. Playing with and visualizing the data can create a state of flow. How I wished I’d get there writing substack, but alas, I’m not skilled yet (we’ll get to the point why skill matters).
Can you recall the last time where you lost yourself while working and it felt good?
The condition for flow
Besides the positive feelings and gratifications you experience in a flow state, being in flow is incredibly productive. Thus, not only do I get more enjoyment from work, but I also produce more creative ideas or observations.
Previously, I’ve recommended blocking calendars for uninterrupted time to work, but I’ve learned that removing interruptions isn’t sufficient to a starting condition. Interruptions are bad when you are in a flow state because it pulls you out. But as you can probably attest, blocking 2 hours from your calendar with the goal of accomplishing XYZ doesn’t mean you’re going to suddenly enter a zone. So, let’s discuss the preconditions that will help increase the possibility of getting into a zone.
There are three preconditions for any task that could induce a state of flow. They are:
Clear goals for the task that you understand
Immediate feedback while you work on the task
Challenging task, but not impossible task for your skill level
To illustrate, I’m going to use my data exploration.
I have developed clear north star metrics and decomposed input metrics so I understand what I’m trying to measure and why. Furthermore, I have created a dummy report using illustrative data with column names and example data (i.e., output). This means while I know what I’m trying to query.
In writing SQL, I get immediate feedback. The query runs or doesn’t. The resulting table is what I’m seeking or not. If I get stuck, there’s a lot of documentation online and there’s always StackOverflow.
I have some SQL experience, but I’m not an expert. Thus, writing the correct queries to reach my goal is challenging because it isn’t as natural or boring as writing the alphabet. But SQL isn’t so challenging to me that I don’t know the basics such as connecting to DBs, parsing JSON in relational tables, or writing scripts. Challenged, but not frustrated.
After an hour, when everything works and I get a nice report that I can then graph, it feels really rewarding to see if the usage data supports or refutes my unspoken hypothesis. Furthermore, when I overcome small SQL challenges by learning new techniques, it makes the work feel extra rewarding.
In addition, there are three other important preconditions.
Optimism → Verbally saying positive affirmation statements about self and task
Concentration → Dedicated block of time
Motivation → Wanting to do this
I’ve already covered concentration in previous articles. In short, you need to remove distractions: block off dedicated time.
But the other two preconditions are more internal to yourself: optimism and motivation. These two go hand-in-hand.
First, understand that for flow to occur, the task needs to be challenging. By being challenging, there is the possibility of failure (i.e., you don’t reach your goal). In my attempt to reach a state of flow, I frequently don’t achieve it and get frustrated. That’s okay and is part of the process of reaching a state of flow. You need outlets for these moments so you don’t become pessimistic. There are several techniques you can practice:
Keeping a list of past successes. When you’re down, review them
Going to a person you trust to vent, get out your frustrations.
Finding a different person to go to for help. Tell them ahead of time so they can allocate time when you need helps so you don’t get frustrated when they inadvertently say no.
Looking in the mirror and yelling out loud positive affirmations: “I can definitely do this.” or “I’m a great product manager.”
Second, let’s discuss motivation, which contributes to optimism. To overcome the challenge and remain optimistic, you must be motivated, ideally internally motivated. This one is a big problem when it comes to much of what we do as product managers working for others. For many tasks, we are assigned, ordered, financially rewarded, or fearful of the consequences if we don’t accomplish the task. These external factors (money, power, fame, fear) remove the intrinsic motivation, robbing us of the motivation necessary for flow.
Recall the data exploration example I gave earlier? I keep that task a “secret” from others. I don’t hide what I’m doing per say, but it isn’t a critical path to any external factor. It’s my side project. I believe this is why Google’s original 20% time and why hackatons can be so powerful. Both of these, when run with the right principles, help expose people’s intrinsic motivations.
How you can reach flow as a PM
Find something you are motivated to learn more. What are you curious about?
Evaluate the area to see if you have some skills. Remember, you need to pick something challenging, but not impossible.
Define a goal you want to accomplish. Is the end result a clear picture?
Don’t make it a formal project, don’t tie it into your performance reviews or any external factors. Kept it a side-project.
Block out dedicated time where you can work without interruption on your side project.
Maintain a positive attitude. If you’re fearful of failure, use verbal self-affirmation. When you are frustrated, reach out to vent and ask for help.
Chasing flow (A short, beautiful reflection on flow)
Factors influencing the occurrence of flow state in elite athletes