Enter Flow State While Programming to Boost Your Productivity and Creativity

Uncover methods to increase productivity and creative thinking in programming through the flow state.

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Enter Flow State While Programming to Boost Your Productivity and Creativity

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In this article, we explore the concept of flow state, a psychological term describing the feeling of complete immersion and focus in a challenging or creative activity. We discuss the factors that influence entering a flow state, including skill level, challenge level, environment, and mindset. Additionally, we provide techniques to enter and enhance the flow state, such as setting clear goals, eliminating distractions, creating a dedicated workspace, practicing mindfulness, and encouraging exploration. By understanding and harnessing the power of the flow state, individuals can boost their productivity, creativity, and overall satisfaction in their work.


Introduction

a person typing on a laptop on a desk

This article is part of a series called Bit by Bit, a series devoted to all things programming. Whether you're still a computer science undergrad or the CTO of Apple, there's something for you here.

New articles in this series are posted every Tuesday!


I. Overview of flow state

fluid art

Imagine this: you sit down to program and the entire world melts away. Suddenly, all of your worries and fears vanish. The only thing that exists is your mind and the computer in front of you.

Any prior feelings of fatigue, hunger, thirst, and discomfort are no longer there.

Your eyes are locked onto the code editor with razor-sharp focus. Your fingers seem to be typing as fast as your thoughts.

You're effortlessly generating ingenious solutions and executing those solutions with such elegant code.

Anytime you run your code and get an error, you're able to debug with such grace as if the error is just some dust that you're wiping off with a microfiber cloth.

This is exactly what being in a flow state feels like.

The flow state is a term from the field of psychology that describes the feeling that people get when they're fully immersed in a task/activity. The activities that are associated with this state are individual to every person but are typically activities that a person is passionate about and skilled at.

a) Effects of achieving a flow state

Some of the common effects that people report when they enter a flow state include:

  • Intense focus

    • It's very hard to get distracted while you're in a flow state

    • You might get a little irritated if someone tries to get your attention while you're in a flow state

  • Reduced stress/anxiety

    • Being in a flow state can make you feel very calm without feeling sedated

    • A flow state can make you even more productive than a cup of coffee can but without any of the negative effects (jitters, anxiety, etc.)

  • Increased self-esteem/confidence

    • When you're in a flow state, you feel like an absolute expert in the activity that you're engaging with

    • You have no self-doubt about your capabilities

  • An intense feeling of joy

  • Enhanced creativity and problem-solving skills

I've entered into a flow state numerous times while programming or solving math problems in coursework and I've experienced all of those wonderful effects that I described above.

Typically, a flow state for me can last anywhere from a couple of hours to the entire day. In the cases where I was in a flow state the entire day, I wouldn't even take breaks to eat or socialize (unless I was working alongside one or more people).

Although, on days where I was in a flow state the entire day, I'd sometimes take 15-30 minute walks to draw inspiration from music (usually Kanye West :D ) and get a little mid-day exercise in.

apple music badge

Even during these walks, I would still feel all of those effects of being in a flow state and my mind would continue to conjure up solutions related to the activity that I was engaged with.


II. Factors influencing the flow state

person playing the keyboard

The greatest thing about the flow state is that everyone can organically enter this state.

With that being said, certain factors at play influence whether you can successfully enter a flow state for the task that you're engaged in.

a) Skill level

Perhaps one of the most important factors for entering a flow state is how skilled you are at that particular task/activity.

If you're a programmer, this doesn't mean you have to be on the same level as Guido van Rossum (the creator of Python). It just means that you should already have a solid foundation.

If you're just starting to learn how to program, for example, then it's much harder to enter into a flow state.

Alternatively, if you're past the learning curve and now able to build cohesive programs, then you might find it easier to enter a flow state.

I think it's worth noting that this doesn't necessarily mean that you can't feel generally focused and rewarded during the learning process. As long as you're passionate about software engineering, then the learning process won't feel dull.

It's just that you won't be able to reach that specific feeling of being in a flow state while you're still learning.

b) Challenge level

The challenge level of the activity is a factor that goes hand-in-hand with your skill level associated with the activity.

If a task is too easy, then you'll just end up feeling bored and unsatisfied.

But if the task is fairly challenging, then it'll be much easier to enter a flow state.

Once you're able to combine your high skill level with a challenging task, you'll become unstoppable.

c) Environment

The environment you're in while you're doing the activity is a highly individual factor for inducing a flow state.

What might work for someone else may not work for you.

I know that the perfect environment for me to enter a flow state is at nighttime at a coffee shop with a low level of distractions and surrounded by other busy people.

If you've never experienced a flow state, start by asking yourself where you're usually the most productive.

Think about the noise level, whether you're alone or around others, in public or private, the time of day, and even the weather. Obviously, you can't control the weather, but if you find that you're more productive on rainy days, for example, maybe try simulating that by playing the sound of rain and getting a hot drink (if you do that on rainy days). If you notice that you're more productive when it's warm and sunny, then maybe try doing the activity in a bright location.

d) Mindset

Similar to the environment, your mindset is another highly individual factor.

A positive, or at least neutral, mindset is conducive to entering a flow state.

If your mind is too focused on negative thoughts before engaging in the activity, then it'll be hard to enter a flow state.

In my own experience, it's also the context of the thoughts that matter as well. If my mind is occupied by stressors and anxiety that are completely irrelevant to the activity, then it's almost impossible to enter a flow state.

Although, it's possible for me to still enter a flow state if I have negative thinking that's directly related to the activity.

For example, if I'm pressed by a deadline, then I find that this doesn't prevent me from entering a flow state. Further, the flow state will even completely override the stress of the deadline.


III. Techniques to enter flow state

programmer sitting at laptop and coding

Now that you understand the main factors that go into entering a flow state, you can learn specific ways to enter into a flow state.

Sometimes, you might notice that you "accidentally" enter into a flow state without even trying. However, there are tricks you can do to purposely enter into a flow state (assuming you have all those main factors covered).

a) Set clear goals

Being in a flow state is naturally very productive and goal-driven.

So it makes sense that one of the steps you should take to enter a flow state is to know exactly what you want to accomplish.

If you have a clear roadmap, then you'll be able to gauge your progress and clear all the confusion revolving around the path you need to take. With all the confusion out of the way, your mind has more room to focus on the actual activity.

In software engineering, this can very easily be accomplished by doing things like flowcharts and pseudocode before writing code.

b) Eliminate distractions

To enter this immense state of focus, you'll first need to clear any distractions that are demanding your attention.

This means to get rid of anything that is not directly related to the activity/task you're about to do.

If you're programming, this means putting away your phone, putting your code editor into full-screen mode, and not talking to anyone about anything unless it's about that specific program you're working on.

c) Create a dedicated workspace

This tip does not have so much to do with the actual space around you (I had already discussed the environmental factor above). Rather, I'm referring to the tools and resources you interact with during your activity.

For example, when I'm programming, I always use the same laptop, the same code editor(s), the same color theme, and even the same code editor layout (I like keeping a terminal open in the bottom panel of the code editor ;)

Figure out what works best for you and stick with it.

d) Balance skill and challenge

As I mentioned above in the main factors, you want the activity to be challenging and stimulating, and you want to be skilled in the work related to the activity.

However, don't overestimate your abilities, otherwise, you'll just end up getting frustrated.

For example, if you're engineering a game and you reach a point where you need to use a new library/framework to achieve the next step you need to do, then take the necessary time to study and learn about the library/framework.

Make sure that you're knowledgeable enough about the tools required for an activity before attempting to enter into a flow state.

e) Practice mindfulness

Start practicing mindful meditation!

Mindful meditation is the practice of closing your eyes, relaxing all of your muscles, and centering all of your attention and focus on your breath.

A lot of the ideas and feelings around the flow state are related to the same state that a human can reach while in a mindful meditative state.

The key difference between mindful meditation and a flow state is that mindful meditation does not involve engaging with a task (besides meditating).

Not only can mindful meditation open you up to the feeling of a flow state, but it can also make it easier to integrate mindfulness into every aspect of your life.

Understanding how to be mindful will make it much easier to naturally enter into a flow state.

f) Meditation techniques

Mindful meditation is only one type of meditation. Another powerful meditation technique is transcendental meditation.

Transcendental meditation is a completely silent meditation practice where you close your eyes, clear your mind, and silently repeat a mantra in your head. A mantra is usually a one or two-syllable sound that holds no sentimental meaning to you.

It's considered best to practice transcendental meditation twice a day for 20 minutes each time if you want to reap the benefits. Also, you should choose one mantra that you'll use every single time.

While transcendental meditation is very simple, it can be hard if you're completely new to meditation.

Unlike mindful meditation, transcendental meditation has nothing to do with focus and attention. Instead, transcendental meditation is about entering a "restful-alert" state where you're awake but your mind is not in a fully conscious state. Instead, your mind is in what's called "default mode". If you're curious to learn more about how transcendental meditation affects the brain, I left a link to an EEG study that analyzes brain activity during transcendental states.

Even though transcendental meditation isn't focus-based, it can lead to enhanced creativity and a calmer resting state throughout the day, which are both things that are conducive to entering a flow state.

g) Don't force it

Lastly, don't rush the process.

One of the worst things you can do when trying to enter a flow state is to try to force it and become frustrated that you're not getting there.

Be patient with yourself and allow it to come to you.


IV. Enhancing creativity in a flow state

laptop halfway closed with screensaver background

Now that you understand how to generally enter into a flow state, you can learn how to maximize the benefits of the flow state to achieve the task at hand.

a) Encourage exploration

Don't be afraid to explore new ways of doing things, new perspectives, and fresh insights from other people.

If you stay stuck believing that your way is the only way or the perfect way, then you'll never even have the possibility of discovering a more efficient or creative method.

For example, if you casually stumble upon an article or video explaining a method of accomplishing some programming task, then don't be afraid to implement that method into the program you're currently working on.

I can't tell you how many times I've refactored my code the very next day after realizing that there's a more elegant way to accomplish the task, or a more efficient method that saves compute time and power.

b) Experiment with different programming techniques

This is similar to my last point, but try techniques that you've never used before.

For instance, if you always define subarrays with loops, then try switching it up by using set comprehensions.

Oftentimes, making even small changes in habits (albeit, that example habit isn't inherently bad) like this can potentially lead to new insights in problem-solving.

c) Seek inspiration from various sources

Finally, find a good set of people that inspire and motivate you.

These people don't even necessarily have to be involved in the type of work you're doing.

When you find at least a few people who strike the right chord with you, then you'll naturally find it much easier to have hope and be more positive in general.

For me, I find that Kanye's music greatly inspires and motivates me, so it was very effective for me to listen to his music while taking short walks on days when I was in a flow state.

Find artists, scientists, leaders, etc. that boost your motivation and make you feel captivated; then find ways to consistently be reminded of their work.


V. Conclusion

I hope that you now have a better understanding of what the flow state exactly is and how to enter into a flow state to effectively accomplish your goals.

Remember to stay patient with yourself and take the time necessary to build up the skills and knowledge required for the activity/task you're going to embark on.

If you have any questions or suggestions for a topic you want me to cover in the future, then feel free to leave a comment down below.

Lastly, make sure to follow my newsletter to never miss out on when I post new content!


VI. Additional resources

a) Articles

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