Welcome To The Zone: How Engineers Unlock a Productive Flow State
In the climax of 2006’s Best Picture nominee, The Social Network, an enraged Eduardo Saverin — played by Andrew Garfield — stomped out of the glass conference room at Facebook HQ to confront his co-founder, Mark Zuckerberg.
“He’s wired in,” explained Sean Parker.
It took a laptop, furiously picked up and flung against the desk, to wake the Jesse Eisenberg-portrayed Zuckerberg from his coding flow state.
While embellished for cinematic flair, this notion of a dialed-in engineer reflects a trend common in the industry. Even back during the emerging era of tech startups in the early aughts, engineers have espoused the value of being in the zone: A productive fugue of total concentration.
While the pressures of a work crunch or the adrenaline before a product launch might induce such a meditative response in engineers, the conditions required to unlock flow states varies between people, as observed by Sovrn Holdings’ staff software engineer, Paolo Tomas Slepoi.
“Getting into a flow state is not always an easy task,” he said. “It really depends on if it is something I want to do that triggers my curiosity, or simply something that I have to do, like meeting a deadline for a project.” But once he’s reached the ideal state of consciousness, time ceases to be a factor as it adapts to his workflow — an hour can feel like a minute.
For Slepoi, having a distraction-free mindset is crucial for entering a flow state. “Try to focus on something else for a bit,” he suggested. “Relax your mind, plug in your headphones and try to isolate yourself from the rest of the world.”
Built In Colorado sat down with Slepoi for an entertaining and enlightening discussion about flow state, husband-and-wife dialogue, the musical powers of AC/DC and Chopin, and some top tricks for getting in the zone.
Sovrn Holdings is a publisher technology platform that offers tools to manage data and monetization across advertising, commerce and audience engagement. The company’s wide reach encompasses more than 80,000 websites and 416 million daily readers, with consumer insights and data that don’t rely on cookies.
First, describe what your flow state looks like.
It’s 6:00 pm. My wife asks, “Hey, are you done for the day?”
I reply, “Honey, can you give me five more minutes?”
Thirty minutes later, my wife repeats the question.
“Almost done, I promise, just give me five more minutes,” I say.
An hour later: “Dinner’s ready!” and “Five minutes and I’ll join you!”
Two hours later, my wife tells me that the cats are eating my dinner. But all I say is, “Sure, honey, five more minutes and I’ll join you.”
The funny fact is that in my head, while I’m in the zone, I really think that I’m just 5 minutes late. I keep “snoozing” my wife without even realizing what is going on in my surroundings and how time is flowing. An entire hour passing by seems like one minute.
I’m completely focused on what I’m doing and the whole world just stops existing — nothing else matters. This usually happens when I’m at home, late in the day or in the office when everyone else is gone or busy with something else. Even on the train, while listening to music and thinking about something. What triggers this state of mind is just an obsession over finding a solution to a problem that gets my attention: why this or that is not working, what the answer is to a specific question. In other words, satisfying my curiosity gives me happiness.
An entire hour passing by seems like one minute.”
Next, how do you personally get into a flow state?
If it’s something I want to do, I suddenly get in the zone without even realizing it. I stop speaking or doing whatever I was doing, and my mind switches to autopilot mode. If it’s something I have to do, when I’m forced to get in the zone, I usually follow three simple steps.
First, I need to get distracted: Playing video games, watching funny videos on YouTube or simply reading the news. This helps clear up my mind. Second, I need to isolate myself with music: AC/DC, Beethoven, Chopin, Vivaldi or The Piano Guys when I’m in a rush — urgent bug fixes, deadlines, under stress — and jazz, blues, rock or anything else when I’m relaxed and just need to get stuff done. Third rule: No phone or Slack notifications allowed.
Sometimes being stressed also helps. I push my limits without sleep and keep the tension high until I’m done. As soon as everything is over, I always feel happy and satisfied.
What tips or advice do you have for others who might be struggling to get in the zone?
I personally think that in most cases the issue is a combination between getting distracted by something and putting too much thought on what you are trying to achieve. As an example, think about when you are trying to fall asleep and you keep constantly looking at the clock while wondering why you can’t sleep. You get distracted by the ticking clock and think too much about the fact that you are not falling asleep. The same happens with any kind of goal you are trying to achieve.
If you have a deadline, just forget about it for a moment — you are faster if you are in autopilot mode. Don’t try to force yourself into the flow state of mind on something that you either don’t like or isn’t the right difficulty level, it will never work. Rather, challenge yourself with something that teases you enough to make your brain go crazy and just follow the flow. After the excitement and once you are done, you’ll feel happy and relaxed.