Do They Flow?

Lately I’ve been having a lot of conversations with people about what environmental factors go into creating the perfect work/space environment for a person.  This in part may have been introduced by Eric Spiegel over at Datamation posting a couple of articles recently asking Where’s Your Coding Happy Place and Finding The Coding Zone: Your Perfect Trifecta.  In the articles he discusses where is the best place for him to code and what external stimuli facilitates that.

In User Interface design there is a concept called Flow.  Flow represents that “in the zone” state about which Spiegel talks.  It is this perfect state of unity with ones work.  It’s a wonderful place to be and when we can achieve it we are at our most productive and do our best work. The problem with Flow or “being in the zone” is that it is amazingly easy to interrupt.  A ringing phone, a coworker asking a question, or piece of email can all break you ot of your Flow and completely disrupt the brialliant work you’ve been doing.  And once Flow is interrupted it is fairly hard to recover again.

Breaking flow is really easy to do and there are a number of pieces written about things that do this.  Just about any kind of interruption or distraction will do it.  In a User Interface, for example, a popup dialog box or an animated paper clip can be enough to completely destroy the user’s Flow.  It’s considered bad UI Design to create activities that break flow.

What is much harder to quantify is what exactly does it take to achieve flow?  This is ultimately the question that Spiegel is asking in his article about “The Coding Zone.” A lot of people go about achieving Flow in different ways: turn off the phone, close the email application, close the door, blast the music, have food and drinks at hand, turn the light on, turn the lights off, work at 3am in the morning, whatever it takes.  And a lot of people know what it takes for them to find Flow.

For me, Flow is about comfort and ignoring the rest of the world.

First and foremost I need to be comfortable.  A good chair, appropriate lighting, keyboard perfectly position in relation to seat.  All these things factor into comfort for me.  In particular, lighting is very important.  I’m one of those “likes to program in a cave of darkness” person.  Unfortunately, I’m also one of those people forced to work in a cubicle with overhead florescent lights.  I have managed to convince my fellow cube mates to keep the overhead lights off and rely on the personal cubicle light, but sometimes this takes a little arm twisting.

As to ignoring the rest of the world, well that’s fairly easy: turn up the music so you don’t hear outside sounds, don’t answer the phone (unplug it if necessary), and turn off the interrupting applications.  I’m pretty adepts at just ignoring the Instant Messages, Emails and Phone Calls that cross my desk.  I’ve also minimized the interruptions that they present… for example, email plays a simple low volume sound for me, but nothing else.  It lets me know it’s there, but does not draw me away from what I am doing.

Flow allows us to work at our highest, most efficient levels.  So why do our employers fail to set us up to achieve flow?  Instead of helping us to find our “zone” they do everything in the power to surround us with distractions.  In my workplace I have to dress a certain way, I have to be there at a certain time, I have to work in a cubicle listening the the minutia of my coworkers.  None of these things is helping me find my Flow.  In fact, all of these things are actively hindering me from doing my best work.

Let me repeat that: My company is actively hindering me from doing my best work.

Kind of scary when you think about it.  You would think that for a company, quality is the most important thing.  Yet from the actions of most companies, that’s hardly apparent.  In my workplace, quality is second to how the company appears to the outside world.  Perhaps that’s the nature of business, but it really just speaks to a lack of quality.  That makes me sad.

So, let me leave you with a question… but instead of asking how you find the best Flow like Spiegel does, I’m going to ask you this: Is your company intersted in quality or something else? Do they encourage flow, or do they discourage it?  Do they Flow?