Tuesday, 27 January 2009

The Importance of "Flow"

“Flow” is a term used in psychological circles to describe a human state of high concentration, which most people refer to as being “in the zone.” Whenever a person is engrossed by a task they become immersed in a state of flow and are oblivious to the passage of time, whilst experiencing a mild state of euphoria.

Effective creative workers enter a state of flow for several hours, during which time their productivity skyrockets, but flow requires silence to be achieved and cannot be switched on and off like a tap. The average person takes around 15 minutes to start flowing, whilst it only takes a matter of seconds to be distracted and thus removed from flow.

Software developers must enter a state of flow on a regular basis in order to write code that solves a specific problem. Roughly half of a developer’s working day involves solving problems on their own and as such they need to work in an environment that encourages and sustains flow. The remainder of their day is spent communicating with one of more people, either collaborating or attending meetings etc.

Consider that it takes 15 minutes for a developer to enter a state of flow.  If you were to interrupt a developer to ask a question and it takes five minutes for them to answer, it will take a further 15 minutes for them to regain that state of flow, resulting in a 20 minute loss of productivity. Clearly, if a developer is prevented from flowing several times during the day their work rate declines substantially. 

Such interruptions needn’t be direct communication with a developer and can result from ambient noise levels, such as people talking to each other at elevated volume, a fire alarm test, a shredder or photocopier, the sound from a colleague's PC or the constant ringing of an un-answered phone. A noisy environment is a sure fire way to disrupt flow, which is why the large open plan office is the scourge of creativity and why a lot of developers wear headphones. Listening to music uses a different part of the brain than that required to solve problems and can be used to filter out ambient noise.

A minority of creative professionals are oblivious to their surroundings and cannot easily be distracted once in a state of flow, but the majority need a quiet and calm environment in which to prosper.  Extreme concentration almost always requires complete silence. 

The cost of office space can be very high and companies try to make the best use of their available room by putting as many people as possible into the same office. Whilst this approach may seem fiscally sensible it actually has a negative impact on creative thinking and probably costs more in terms of lost productivity and delayed projects due to innumerable daily disturbances.

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