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Establishing and maintaining flow

slayemin

1246 views

Definition:

"Flow" is that mental state you enter into when you are focused and highly productive. It is a pleasurable state to achieve and leads to productive gains (aka, "getting into the zone").

When it comes to any sort of creative work (game development, writing, artwork, design, etc), it is really important to get into the flow state and maintain it for as long as possible. I would dare to suggest that this is one of the most important things for you to manage in yourself and others, and success is hardly possible without consistent progress. You want to get into this flow state when you begin creative work.

Establishing Flow: Onramps

The reality is that establishing flow is a fickle beast, and it's not something that can be toggled on and off like a light switch. Sometimes, you may spend an entire day trying to establish it and have no luck. These days are generally wasted, unproductive days. However, there are various controllable factors which make it easier to enter into the flow state. Some factors have no effect on some people, but some factors are universal. Here is what I have found to work:

Coffee: It is brown, hot, delicious and a caffeinated stimulant. It gets my brain juices flowing.

Music: I find that music helps to eliminate external distractions and can be invigorating.

On ramps: I purposefully design my task list so that I have an easy entry point for the next day. Leave yourself something easy and accessible to start the day with. You want a quick and easy victory so that you can build momentum. Once you have momentum, you can increase task complexity/difficulty and slide right into the flow state. If you don't do this, you create a barrier for entry for yourself the next day and its mentally easier to procrastinate or avoid work because its hard. Example: "This bug is super simple to fix / this feature is super fast to implement, I'll leave it for tomorrows onramp."

Exercise: By exercise, I don't necessarily mean going to the gym or sweating up a flight of stairs. I like to briskly walk to work, which increases blood flow and wakes me up.

Intention to work: I find it's helpful to have an intention to go to work to get something done. Clench your fists and say, "I will get this done today, no matter what.", and make it happen. Set a resolve for yourself. If you are in an environment filled with other people, you will share their intentions. If they intend to screw around all day and do nothing, so will you. If they intend to focus and get work done, so will you.

Enjoyment: It really helps a lot to enter into the flow state if you enjoy what you are doing.

Habit: If you have established a habit of consistency, you will find it's easier to repeat a pattern. This can be good and bad, because habits can be good and bad. Focus on creating good habits and breaking bad habits. 

Days off: We are not machines, we're humans. We need to take days off from work in order to maintain fresh minds eager to work. If you don't, you risk burn out and your productivity will diminish to zero whether you want it to or not. Its more productive to not work every day. That doesn't necessarily mean you have to take off every weekend -- take off a week day. You know its time to take a day off or go on vacation when you mentally feel like you are in a repetitive grind, doing the same thing, day in and day out.

Sleep: From experience, it is not possible to enter into the flow state and maintain it when I have not had sufficient sleep. I am adamant about this. If you need an extra hour of sleep, take it! Would you rather spend the whole day fighting against brain fog due to lack of sleep (resulting in a wasted day) or would you rather spend an extra hour or two sleeping so that you can be maximally productive for the rest of the day?

Distractions: The flow crash.

I think of flow like traffic and driving cars. You have to gradually increase your speed before you reach this optimum cruising speed of maximum productivity. Distractions are like getting into a head on collision or hitting the ejection seat button. Here are the distractions to worry about and why they are distractions

People interrupting you - They come up to you and start a conversation with you while you were in the flow state. Now, that state has been ended and you probably lost about 15 minutes of productivity time in addition to the time it takes to have the conversation. You want to design your work situation to prevent people from interrupting you. Lock the door. Have reserved distraction free time. Work alone. Schedule meetings instead.

Side conversations - Someone else is talking about something to someone. They're having a conversation about something. It doesn't even have to be interesting. Whether you want to or not, you are probably listening to bits and pieces of this conversation. Every time you switch your mental focus from your task at hand to the conversation, you are interrupting yourself and getting distracted. Ideally, the way to counter-act this is to work in a quiet space without distracting conversations or noises. A second best solution is noise cancelling head phones with music which has no vocals. This is one of the top reasons why I think "open office" floor plans are terrible for productivity.

Social Media & Email - Holy crap, this can be distracting and a major time sink. This warrants a category on its own because it can really destroy your day. How? Let's say you get an email from someone. What happens? Do you get a pop up notification and a noise? This suddenly attracts your attention to this email event, even if you ignore it. Flow = hitting the brakes. Social media is terrible as well because it can turn into an addictive cycle. "I wonder what's happening on facebook? Do I need to catch up on twitter? Reddit? instagram? email? online forums?" The curiosity can haunt you when you're trying to establish the flow state and you can easily give in to your own curiosity and accidentally waste 15 minutes to 5 hours on social media and email. This is a robbery of your time. For what? What tangible value do you actually get out of it? 

Cell phones - Yet another source of distractions. They ring and make noise when people are trying to call you. You feel obligated to answer calls or risk being rude. You get text messages from people in your life. Ideally, I would throw my phone into the ocean and never get another one. Practically, you should put your phone on silent. Let your loved ones know that you are unavailable during certain hours.

Home life - If you work from home, there are more distractions than you can count. The more people, animals and noise there are, the more distracting home becomes. Is your spouse trying to spend time with you? No work gets done. Do you have kids who need attention? No work gets done. Kids also have no concept of interruption, so they can't sense when you are busy. If you have animals, what happens when the dog barks at a noise? Or the cat meows for attention or walks across your keyboard? What about chores? "Honey, can you take out the trash? Can you do the dishes? Vacuum the living room?" etc. Home is generally a terrible place to get work productive done. If you must work from home, you should have a quiet study to work from, where you can lock the door to keep people out. Alternatively, you should work away from home.

Food and bathroom breaks: It's a biological necessity for survival to eat and drink, and generally something you should do. Keep in mind though, excessive drinking of coffee (or other liquids) can lead to frequent bathroom breaks, which interrupt your flow. If you smoke cigarettes, smoke breaks can also be flow breakers. I advise against drinking alcohol if you're attempting to remain productive. If you get hungry, you should eat. Continuing to work while hungry turns into a flow interrupter because the pangs of hunger start turning into repetitive interruption signals.

Technology - You have to be very careful with technology. Some technology is beneficial and enhances productivity, but other technology is a source of distractions with limited benefit. It's sometimes hard to tell the difference. Generally, instant messengers, skype, discord, email, and any application which interrupts you with a notification of any sort is bad for flow maintenance.

Entertainment - In 2017, you have a ton of entertainment available for you at your fingertips, at any time you want. You can watch netflix. You can play video games. You can browse videos on youtube. Watch movies on demand. Stream TV shows. Use social media. This overabundance of available entertainment makes life fun, but it drains away your ability to be productive. This makes creative work much more challenging because there is an overabundance of distracting time sinks available to rob us of our productive time. Have fun, but be disciplined and use set hours for entertainment (start times and stop times).

Conclusion:

Overall, if you work in a quiet, isolated environment, you can get a lot more work done (Some people work late into the night because its quiet, isolated and distraction free). Take the time to be introspective about your work day and assess how it went. What was good and helpful? What was bad and unproductive? Some days, you won't enter into the flow state. Don't beat yourself up over it. It happens to everyone. Instead, focus on how you can make tomorrow a better day. What can you do today to make tomorrow better?

I'm interested to hear what you guys think. Did I miss anything huge? What works for you? What hinders you?



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One more distraction to work that can be added is False achievement. This is where you have a list of things to do and you complete a few and feel like you had done enough for today.

Then when you go back to finish it the left over work feels more of a burden that the rest and it's very hard to get into the flow again.

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Good list! This one is kind of tricky, being somewhat fluid in priorities can help as well, e.g. don't feel like working on x atm, lets do some y first even though it would be nicer to have x done first.

Another thing that can prevent you from ever getting into the flow is technical debt. Might not always be up to you, but don't let it pile up too much. If it does ever get too that point, I personally like to start from scratch using all the new insight and knowledge gathered in the meanwhile.

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I've given a talk last weekend about "Motivation". One of the points was focussing on one task at a time, which dramatically increases your productivity. Other very important activities include taking breaks, enjoyment, prevent interruptions and the mental attitude to succeed. If you're curious what else was nearby identical, visit my blog and check out my Slides (which are in English, meanwhile the comments are in German). I'm pleased to agree with you in many of these points. Good work!

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