What is Getting Into The Zone?

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 02/08/2012

It’s already Noon, and half the day seemed to slip away. I had two phone-calls so far, and another coming up in 1/2 hour. I have to develop the skill of diving down into the flow state. I am highly distract-able. Of course, phone-calls jolt you out of that state, slamming the prefrontal cortex back into control. Every once in awhile, you read an article that really effects your thinking, and recently, this one on zapping your brain into the zone is it. Now, I’m not a believer in the using electricity part of the article, so much as I am about how clear of a topic “getting into the zone” is actually becoming in science and the military. This zone or flow stuff is dove-tailing with the 10,000 hour rule about expertise that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, to help guide my transition into the free and open software (FOSS) world, programming, and next step in my career.

This zone/flow stuff can mostly be applied to tasks where the conscious mind relaxes and muscle memory takes over. This stuff tends to have a rigid set of rarely changing rules. Physical tasks like battlefield combat and pole-vaulting come to mind, were there needs to be a tremendous efficiency of movement, conservation of energy, and elimination of hiccups or glitches—pauses by the conscious mind that can get you killed. You have to be on automatic, so to speak.

But it’s not all physical tasks. The same being-in-the-zone can apply to mental tasks as well. They use chess as an example in the article, but I believe that getting into the zone can probably apply to a large set of challenges of either a physical or mental nature, and that the key thing is that there have to be a large component of rigid boundaries—like the rules of chess or the kill-or-be-killed of the battlefield. The paragraph from the article that most impressed me is this, regarding the common feelings that everyone reports about getting into this state:

The first is an intense and focused absorption that makes you lose all sense of time. The second is what is known as autotelicity, the sense that the activity you are engaged in is rewarding for its own sake. The third is finding the “sweet spot”, a feeling that your skills are perfectly matched to the task at hand, leaving you neither frustrated nor bored. And finally, flow is characterised by automaticity, the sense that “the piano is playing itself”, for example.

So, my question is how much can getting into the zone help creativity and programming? I imagine it’s got to be a lot. It’s not so much about going into automatic on all counts as it is about going into automatic on everything that should fade into the background—eliminating as many things as possible that can jolt you back into the moment and put your conscious mind back into control. I think that’s one of the largest evils of the mouse-driven user-interfaces. You have to take your hand off the keyboard, and re-orient yourself, and re-orient and re-orient. This constant re-orienting keeps you from descending into the zone. This is one of the reasons I’m favoring vim as a text-editor, with its ability to do everything from the keyboard.

So, in the case of mental and creative tasks, getting into the zone is a matter of eliminating the jarring jolts that return your sense of time. Half of this is just shutting off external stimuli, like phone-calls and emails, from reaching in and yank you out of the zone. The other half is preventing the creative process itself from having mini versions of those same distraction, such as arranging windows, switching between windows, taking your hand away from the keyboard, or just about anything that breaks the flow—anything that flips off that auto-pilot switch.

Today, that distraction is definitely meetings. You don’t have to fill in your whole schedule with meetings to prevent getting into the zone. You just have to have enough of them so that they intermittently break your focus and stop your momentum.

How can I get SOMETHING done today? Well, I need to visualize the task. I would like to release the updated code across all bookmarklets. But I could not very well limit all our users to 25 rows every time the bookmarklet is clicked. So, I will have to implement some sort of behavior-split, based on whether they are using an internal email or not.

Okay. Hmmmmm.

I need to make it a simple 2-state solution, with as little variable behavior as possible. You’re either privileged or you’re not. And a few numbers are set differently one way or the other. I didn’t even need to add a new variable. I just check what email address you’re coming from, and conditionally set different crawl and question-mark replacement limits. Very light touch. Chisel-strike accomplished!

One thing that remains is that a crawl will go to 1 greater than the number of pages you ask for. I need to limit it, probably using the same “insheet” control parameter that I put into the spider function yesterday to make the displayed numbers accurate. So, I’m handling the displayed number right, but not the look controlling the crawl, for which I have to do the same thing I did for the displayed numbers.

Okay, that will be for tomorrow. I need to leave early today.