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Thoughts on Getting Into The Flow or Zone

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 02/07/2012

There is an article today in New Scientist about what I call the Zone, but is apparently called the Flow in research circles—whereby the sort of spontaneous mastery kicks in that takes humans 10,000 hours to achieve, per Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule in Outliers. The mental Flow state is characterized by reduced brain activity in the prefrontal cortex, more highly pronounce alpha-waves (the restful white noise of the brain) and effortless concentration. This state seems to be in common to experts of all types, from Olympic athletes to chess masters.

The article talks about transcranial direct current stimulation to help achieve this state, as being investigated by DARPA and others. But artificial means of achieving this is not what’s of interest to me. It is the clarity of the topic itself. For long years, I have known that there were productive days and non-productive days, determined in great part by the number of phone-calls and meetings I had to take during the day—which almost by definition jolts back on activity in the prefrontal cortex, having to do with higher-level thoughts and verbalization.

Now this flow state is not only a characteristic of someone whose achieved mastery, but it also helps with learning, reportedly reducing the time it takes to master a new skill by half. In my mind this goes a long way to reinforcing my belief in the importance of solitude and focus. There was a New York Times article a few weeks ago about how group-think, meetings and brainstorming doesn’t necessarily result in better ideas and more productivity. Evidence shows creativity and productivity go up in isolation.

All these concepts congeal in my mind, tempered by the reality of an open-office meeting-driven job I cannot give up in pursuit of some ideal state that would help me do my job better. It’s a catch-22 you see, and how well a person deals with this situation is a measure of your effectiveness in a knowledge-based economy. Youngsters with no family obligations and strong constitution can put in long hours burning the midnight oil to capture that super-valuable focus-time after-hours, when your employer literally can’t stop you.

Us older mortal folks with a family, kid, mortgage and dog don’t have that luxury. The idea is to not get yourself into a situation where you neither have the right skills nor have the time or focus to accumulate those 10,000 hours of experience in pursuit of spontaneous mastery. That situation is the inescapable daily grind where you are working just to keep your head above the surface. That is despair, but I think it is more-or-less the state of affairs for 99% of the population. I watch movements like Occupy Wallstreet, and hear discussions of the 99% and think to myself of the Pareto curve of wealth distribution, which allegedly applies to pretty much any society no matter the culture. Only 1% of the people overcome all those things in life that keep you from bootstrapping yourself. I closely equate getting into the Flow with joining that 1%—of course, not in all cases. Plenty of people achieve flow, but in areas of expertise that don’t necessarily lead you to the 1%.

Do you really need to run electricity across your temple and down your finger to bring about flow as that article suggests? I rather tend to think it’s the observer’s paradox—a.k.a. the Hawthorne effect—knowing that the researcher is observing you, and you somehow maintain better focus through a placebo effect. At the office, in order to get me into the flow, I often put headphones on even without music going, just to broadcast to everyone around me that I’m in that zone.

Okay, so what about right now?  What about at this very moment? It is ironic that the daily journal writing process gets your prefrontal cortex firing on all cylinders, while that sort of brain activity fading away is what’s indicative of expert behavior. Hurumph! I do believe I’m onto an important principle here. That prefrontal cortex verbalization and narrative behavior is to shut out stimulation and sensory input of all other sort, in a transition into the flow.

And making that switch from narration to expert doing… THAT is the trick. That is where the difficulty arises. But now, I have a perfect golden opportunity to do it. I have almost a solid day of focus here. But almost everything seems to interfere. How can I REALLY achieve this?

Frig! Okay, okay. Get over that hump! There’s ALWAYS a distraction. Focus on your target! The next level in your career. A tremendous personal brand! The Levinux version of Linux. An open source movement with a tribe. Rekindling the good old days of the feeling of Commodore, the Amiga, Scala and HitTail… but with YOUR OWN THING… or 360i’s thing. The perfect USB version of virtual Linux under version 2 of Tiger is what will probably become “my thing”. But this is still gradually congealing into something I can visualize and make my target. Version 1: hosted & creates initial excitement in the SEO and social media marketing circles as a thought-leadership move by 360i. Version 2 evolves it into something totally unexpected—the foundation for a movement in computer literacy education.

But to get there, you have to kick your own ass and push yourself forward.

Okay, target in view. Next step?

Design the public Meme of Tiger. Tiger has a meme, just like HitTail had a meme, tied to optimizing for the long-tail being easier than more competitive terms, then “swimming upstream” from there.

Tiger will always work in 25-page chunks. That’s a good starting point. A default crawl is 25 pages. Maybe even take away the amount to do a larger number of pages from kicking off a crawl. You can always ask for a larger number of pages later… at which time, it limits itself to only processing 25 pages each time! Hmmmmm.


I hardwired the crawl to 25 pages (telling them so in the requestor). This is a good approach. I can feel the load on Tiger being particularly heavy right now. I feel the need to break off our instance to a higher capacity server than the tiny Rackspace cloud instance that I’m paying for. I figure I’ll put in a request to IT now. Hmmmmm. Still may not be worth it. Never go with your hat in your hand if you can avoid it. Just get the virtual machine back up to snuff. Isn’t it working already? Test it out. Update the latest.

At least my latest distraction was Tiger-related. There were several complaints that Tiger wasn’t working, but it was being used to process sheets with 28K rows. I try to limit it to 5,000 rows, and think that 1,000 or less is best. That is good insight for preparing the public version. I did a lot of good stuff today to simplify starting the crawl, and putting up better messaging if the Tiger server doesn’t respond immediately. And I should keep hammering on it in ways that will make it rock-solid for the public. Limiting it to some number of rows would be ideal. Hard-wire that.

Okay, so I set the system so that it could ever only retrieve a maximum of 1001 rows, which will really help alleviate memory usage on the server. But what I really want to do is prevent the processing of more than 25 rows per click. Simulations with that, I’ll have to make different behavior if you’re a company employee versus a member of the public. I don’t want that limit on our own employees, even on the same codebase. I don’t want to fork the codebase—just maybe a config file. Even config files, I’m not crazy about.

Now that I have it limited to pulling a maximum number of 100 rows of data, I need to make it only able to process a maximum of 25 (or some set amount) of rows at a time.

Okay, I have the maximum number of rows it can interrogate limited to 1000, and the maximum number of rows that it can process on any one click to 25. This is a very good model for the public version. I will have to put in the conditional behavior for if you’re using a company-bookmarklet or email address.

Finishing up at 11:00 PM.