Any engineer knows that coding, testing, and designing products requires intense concentration. “Being in the zone” is critical for many engineering tasks as juggling several variables in your head demand laser focus. Engineers in this state of flow— where knowledge, motivation, and focus all magically align— can produce more quality work in a single afternoon than in days of non-flow.
But as most engineers also know, this state of flow is elusive. As soon as you buckle down to do engineering work, intrusions may shift your attention. Before you know it, you’re waist-deep in two or three other unanticipated tasks. In an era of endless Slack messages and open workspaces, we’re bombarded by distractions. In reality, doing real engineering work can seem few and far between when interruptions are pulling you away from complete focus on important projects.
At the same time, studies show we can’t help ourselves—our brains are hardwired for short bursts of attention. From an evolutionary standpoint, we’re programmed to be on the lookout for any surprises, threats, or important needs.
However, switching between tasks hurts productivity, increases stress, and takes more time to accomplish quality outputs. So how do engineers regain control of their focus and increase their chances to enter the state of flow?
Maximize productivity in a state of flow
Knowing the preconditions for getting into flow is a good place to start. Flow researcher and expert Mihály Csíkszentmihályi described three conditions for flow:
Clearly-defined goals and progress
How do you define success? Having a clear set of goals and progress offers structure and direction for projects. When you can map out what to do, you can work smarter and learn where to break down work into manageable chunks. The point isn’t to be in control, but to exercise control in difficult situations.
Clear and immediate feedback
How can you test quickly and effectively? If you can’t see results quickly, then you’re spending idle time waiting for computers. This means more opportunity for distractions. Monitor your performance so you’re on the right track. Consistently adjusting to nuances in your work can help you track progress and generate quality work.
A good balance between challenges and skills
Are you comfortable with the level of skill required? What are the possible bottlenecks in your assignment? If you’re bored, your motivation will waver and you’ll lose your state of flow early. If you’re overwhelmed, frustrations and limited knowledge will impede progress. Understanding what internal blocks exists in your process can help you pinpoint solutions and move onto the next step quicker.
On top of this foundation, there are a few other ways to support flow:
Creating uninterrupted focus time
Remove all distractions that could take you away from deep, focused work. While limiting mobile or desktop notifications can help, it won’t completely eliminate interruptions at the office. Consider sending a “do not disturb” signal like wearing noise-cancelling headphones or moving to an isolated room to increase privacy.
Setting aside sufficient time
It takes at least 15 minutes to orient yourself in a new task, so be sure you’re giving yourself enough time to ramp up and settle in to your project. It’ll most likely take a while before you’re fully immersed in flow.
Your habits as well as mental and physical health can affect your process of flow. When your emotional state or energy levels aren’t ideal, take a break. Try going for a walk, reading something new, or talking to a friend. A good break can trigger new connections and creativity.
Deliberately training yourself to achieve the ultimate level of focus allows you to do your best work. All it takes to consistently get into a state of flow is some patience, grit, and practice.
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