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How Do You “Flow”

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

Recently, a budding entrepreneur sent me the following question:

How valuable is “the zone” to you – that working flow state?  If it’s extremely valuable how do you protect it (closed doors? headphones? etc.)?  How do you protect it without alienating family?

I thought this was a fascinating question and syndicated it out to some of my fellow entrepreneurs and people I know and respect. Here were their answers:

Brian O’Kelley

I sit smack in the middle of the AppNexus office. We don’t have cubes, just lines of tables. It’s my job to be the nexus of communication for the company, to hear the  sales pitches and creative ideas (and dumb ones). I think I exude a “don’t bother me unless it’s important” vibe, but let me tell you: if somebody interrupts me when they know I’m in the zone – it’s important, and I want to be bothered.

Some of my developers say the buzz and murmur of the office is annoying, so they wear headphones. I don’t like headphones, because you don’t hear anything going on around you. There’s a lot of ambient information floating around. I can tune out the noise, and I’d argue that selective hearing is a skill that entrepreneurs need. I think it works well at home (and not just when the baby is crying). My family is priority #1, so they get dibs on my attention – but they also respect my need to focus.

Finally, I’d say that the ability to context switch quickly and fully is imperative. I can’t type and listen fully to someone, so I need to stop typing, give you my full attention, and then go back to total focus. Cooperative multitasking, if you will. That mitigates the need for “the zone” to be protected. If I can pop in and out easily, interruptions aren’t that big of a deal.

Dave Troy

It’s all about planning how you’re going to use your time. I block out each day in terms of what I plan to do; if I’m doing email, I plan a couple of hours to focus only on that. If I’m doing programming, I set aside a block of time for that. In general, bigger blocks are better. Also, if you really want to program creatively, there’s nothing worse than having something hanging over you – like a phone call at 3pm. Block out the whole day and leave yourself an open end-time. Amazing how creative you can be in that context.

Mike Subelsky

When I am feeling stagnated, I tend to leave my house and go to a coffee shop.  I can get a lot of things done outside the house, even though I have a pretty sweet office setup.  When I’m home and working I turn on a loud white noise generator app that blocks out all sounds, so I’m less tempted to stop what I’m doing every few minutes to see what awesome things my kids are up to.

But, I just recently started to change my mind about the importance of all this.  The Zone is extremely valuable to me, but there’s only so much I can do to get it. As much as I want to be in the zone all the time, I don’t want to miss out on a second of my young children’s development.  My wife also works and we share the childcare duties 50/50, so there’s a real limit to how isolated and creative I can be on a given day.  So, I’ve started to squeeze what productivity I can out of the short intervals that I do have.  I guess I’m saying that while nothing beats being in that flow state, I’m finding I don’t have to be in a flow state to be creative and get things done.

Andy Monfried

“the zone” is hugely valuable to me.  it comes in two ways.  one is verbal — which is phone time, and the other is idea, or email, writing time

i like to make my commute in, and drive home (and drive 60-90 minutes each way in and out of nyc, and its only a 15 mile drive) my “phone zone.”  i use this time to connect with employees, clients, and people i need to speak with.  i typically make a list of 2-3 calls i MUST make — and make sure i call them (scheduled or not) then.

second is writing emails and/or jotting down ideas.  most of my ideas come to me at odd times, therefore i leave myself long voicemails, and then the next day listen to them, and briefly transcribe my thoughts.  i will leave myself generally 3-5 essages on my phone per week (i call my office number and leave a message) — and, i’ve done it in the middle of the night, or while watching a game.

my REAL zone of thought and output typically comes from “solo” time (commuting, traveling on a plane) and 99% of my ideas are not good — but the 1% is important that i can capture the “lighting in a bottle” to remind myself and DOCUMENT when the “goodness” of the zone happens.

Capturing and documenting sometimes is AS IMPORTANT, as finding the zone….

Jonathan Mendez

best way to protect is get your flow on from 9pm – 2am when you can’t be disturbed

Jerry Neumann

It’s very valuable to me, when I can find it.

I protect it by:

(a) having an office (can’t get it when kids are around)

(b) having blocks of time when I don’t plan any meetings or calls, either whole days or half-days

(c) occasionally turning off the internet, when I’m having trouble concentrating