Developer Productivity: A guide to finding flow

Ellen Weaver
December 4, 2022
min read

It's 9:00 AM. I sat down to work at 7:45 AM, and my phone already notified me 17 times. My dog let out 3 big barks. My partner stopped by my office to chat once. My slack pinged 4 times. Luckily, my email is silenced. All those distractions don't even account for internal interruptions like multitasking, worry, or day dreams. Does this sound familiar?

UC Irvine found that it takes on-average 23 minutes for most workers to get back to the task at hand after an interruption. Going further, a study from the Georgia Institute and Technology found that it takes an average of 10 to 15 minutes for programmers to resume code edits after an interruption.

Give yourself a moment to reflect on how often you experience interruptions, and how long it takes to get back to your train of thought. Is this you?

It doesn't have to be.

The simple antidote that silencing notifications, hiding your phone, and wearing headphones will squash distractions is wrong. If only mastering productivity was that easy. However, 'finding flow' is a proven strategy that results in unparalleled performance and fulfillment.

What is flow?

Flow is a state of mind categorized by heightened focus, performance, and creativity. Often used interchangeably with being "in the zone", flow blocks out the world and allows you to fully involve yourself with whatever you're doing. You feel increased confidence, motivation, productivity, and happiness all while being immersed in your work. Flow is sought after by developers, artists, and athletes alike for its performance enhancement and its well-being benefits.

Finding flow doesn't work like an on/off switch. It requires extra work and mental fortitude, but with practice, it's accessible to all. More on this to come. First, let's take a closer look at what to expect when experiencing flow.

The 9 Flow Characteristics

The concept of Flow cemented itself in the cultural zeitgeist in 1990 with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience", a thought provoking work threading together decades of research that pursued the root of enjoyment, purpose, and the superhuman strength of focus.

Csikszentmihalyi, referred to as 'The Godfather of Flow', is among the world's leading researchers of positive psychology. His findings surrounding flow carved out the universal criterion for flow state characteristics used today. Csikszentmihalyi identified the nine flow characteristics as:

  1. Complete concentration on the task at hand
  2. Clear goals in mind
  3. Immediate Feedback
  4. Time appearing to speed up or slow down
  5. Feeling intrinsically rewarded by task
  6. Effortlessness and ease
  7. An appropriate balance between challenge and skills
  8. Loss of self-conscious rumination
  9. A feeling of total control over the task

Some of these characteristics are also found to be flow triggers, too. More on this in later sections.

Complete concentration on the task at hand

When in flow, you're singularly focused. You're able to deeply think about your task without interruption from external or internal distractions. Living and working in a world where countless apps are competing for attention, the ability to focus is powerful commodity. To reach full productivity in the flow state, focused attention is necessary.

Clear goals in mind

During flow, clear goals and objectives help you stay on course. The process of setting and achieving small incremental goals focuses purpose and maintains motivation. Otherwise, you may flow for hours down the wrong path, or lose interest altogether.

Immediate Feedback

This refers to the ability to perceive feedback and make informed decisions to bring you closer to your goal. For example, every movement a rock climber makes provides immediate feedback and prompts the next course of action.

Time appearing to speed up or slow down

Have you ever been so immersed in a project that time flew by without you noticing? Or maybe you felt like you worked for hours and you checked your watch to see that only 10 minutes passed? When in flow, the concept of time disappears, and you're left existing within your work.

Feeling intrinsically rewarded by task

Often times, intrinsic reward is associated with meaningful and difference-making projects. But as you know, not everything you work on is, by itself, intrinsically rewarding. Many tasks feel mundane or like a waste of time. Interestingly, though, when finishing tasks during flow, you experience an undeniable feeling of intrinsic reward, even if the task otherwise is unappealing.

Effortlessness and ease

A sense of effortlessness is very common when in flow, even when the task is objectively challenging. This is because of increased feelings of confidence and motivation and decreased feelings of self-doubt and task avoidance.

Feeling balanced between challenge and skills

An important characteristic (and trigger) of flow is a proper balance of task difficulty and personal skill. To experience deep flow, the task needs to be within your skill set while simultaneously offering a challenge.

Csikszentmihalyi’s 3-channel flow model

Loss of self conscious rumination

Csikszentmihalyi believed that the reason flow is a positive experience because of the absence of self-rumination. His theory was if a person learns to master focused attention, they can free themselves from restraints of self-consciousness.

Csikszentmihalyi said that preoccupation with the self occurs because "in everyday life we often feel threatened. Whenever we are threatened, we need to bring the image of ourselves back into awareness, so we can find out whether or not the threat is serious and how we should meet it." It's how our brains are wired to work. However, when focus shifts from the self to work, you're able to access deeper productivity and thought.

A feeling of total control over the task

While in flow, a sense of control overcomes you. Without self doubt, you're able to more clearly see the needs of a project and shift your focus to satisfy those needs. Nothing is overwhelming anymore, and you're able to manage the varying components of a project.

Csikszentmihalyi's administered one of the largest psychological studies recorded to better understand flow. His astounding work yielded insights to the human experience that researchers hadn't seen before. For over three decades, his flow criterion continue to hold true.

Csikszentmihalyi primarily conducted qualitative research. He interviewed thousands of individuals across different professions, classes, and countries to understand the incredible, joy-bearing phenomenon of flow. Because of the qualitative nature of his research, the characteristics of flow became obvious, but the why remained a mystery. Unfortunately, this knowledge gap quickly filled with unfounded assertions from New Age-y groups, leaving the scientific nature of flow tarnished.

The Face of Today's Flow

"My mission for the past 15 years has been sort of to reclaim flow research from the hippie community, from the New Age community, and put it back in a really hard science footing," says Steven Kotler, Executive Director of the Flow Research Collective.

Kotler is a renowned author, journalist, environmentalist, and flow researcher. He reveres Csikszentmihalyi's research but saw how it easily it was reframed by frivolous ideologies. Through neuroscience, Kotler and colleagues fortify a malleable topic with firm scientific research and rationality. He explains the scientific breakdown of flow in this series of bite-sized videos, but here's a quick recap of Kotler's research:


During flow, the brain shifts into transient hypofrontality, meaning activity slows down in the prefrontal cortex. Once the prefrontal cortex quiets down, so do the areas it controls. This includes higher cognitive functions like sense of self and self-awareness, along with time perception.

This accounts for the loss of self consciousness and the experience of altered time Csikszentmihalyi found throughout his research.


The brain releases the performance enhancing chemicals norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, serotonin and endorphins during flow which leads to feelings of strengthened creativity, motivation, stress-relief and learning. This cocktail of chemicals results in high feelings of motivation and intrinsic reward, as well as increased pattern recognition, lateral thinking, and decreased stress relief.

Neural oscillations

Neural oscillations are the rhythmic electrical activity that take place within the brain. For example:

  • In typical waking life, the brain oscillates on the beta wave
  • A daydreaming brain oscillates on the alpha wave
  • When falling asleep or in a REM cycle the brain oscillates on the theta wave. Theta waves hold the key to the subconscious mind, and are exclusively coupled with the gamma wave.

When experiencing flow, the brain oscillates on the border of alpha and theta. Because of the proximity to theta waves, knowledge processed and stored by the subconscious mind is now more accessible, leading to profound insights.

Finding Flow

"Flow follows focus," says Kotler.

People accidentally find flow all of the time, especially when engaging in activities that spark excitement and curiosity. But, not every task is novel, and procrastination is often easier than work. To hack in to flow and achieve ultimate productivity, it's important to understand how flow works. Kotler found that the flow experience is actually broken up into a four-part cycle.

The Four Part Flow Cycle

The Struggle

You're bombarding your brain with information, and your waking conscious begins the labor of processing. It's uncomfortable, overwhelming, and tiring. Having the mental fortitude to pin down focus and lean into the discomfort is the first step. You may be tempted to slip into task avoidance here, but it's important to get stuck in.

The Release

You've done the uncomfortable struggle of conscious processing, and now your working brain needs to do something else like walking, gardening, or meditating -- pefrrerably a mindful and relaxing task. Your working brain gets a break while your subconscious brain picks up the labor of processing, and it's much more efficient. During The Release phase, you release nitric oxide that signals your body to flush out stress hormones and replace them with feel-good hormones.

The Flow

Now your brain has processed information and flooded with hormones that improve motivation, productivity, and creativity, you're ready to flow.

The Recovery

Eventually those feel-good hormones dissipate, and you're left with the recovery phase. This phase requires some emotional regulation and recharging in order to ramp back up for the struggle phase.

4 flow triggers to increase individual productivity

Now that you have the well-rounded context of flow, here's how it can be applied to increase productivity as a software developer. Kotler and his research partners at the Flow Research Collective argue that some of the flow characteristics Csikszentmihalyi identified (Complete concentration, immediate feedback, clear goals, balance of challenge and skills) are actually causal, not by products. While these characteristics are present during flow, new research supports they are more likely to be flow triggers. Bear in mind it's like The Chicken or the Egg Dilemma.

Complete concentration in the present moment

Remember, flow follows focus. This is where silencing all notifications comes in handy. If you're struggling with holding prolonged focus or with intrusive internal distractions, consider practicing meditation to strengthen your focusing skills and emotional regulation.

Immediate feedback

Receiving immediate feedback can look different in different use cases. It could be from a colleague while pair-programming, during testing, or even a code completion tool. A higher level takeaway is your personal ability to recognize a mistake or success and pivot in response. This helps guide you through thinking about and planning tasks.

Clear goals

Having set goals in mind guides you through a task. They don't have to be large. It's best if they're broken up into achievable milestones to increase motivation and reward.

Challenge-skills ratio

Approaching a task that is way above or way below your skill level isn't exciting. You're more likely to enter flow if you're working on a task that pushes your limits. Evaluate your projects and see how the challenge-skills ratio shapes up. If your tasks are too easy, request a more challenging project. If your tasks are too hard, don't be afraid to ask for something that is a better match for your current skill level.

Triggers for group flow

Flow isn't confined to an individual's mind. Group flow is highly productive, too! I know that some meetings truly could have been an email, but consider these tactic for future productive collaboration opportunities.

  • Shared goals
  • Close Listening
  • Contribute to group conversations
  • Complete conversations
  • A sense of control
  • Blending egos
  • Equal participation
  • Familiarity
  • Consistent communication
  • Shared group risk


Finding flow won't keep your phone from ringing or stop your dog from barking or dissuade your colleague to stop interrupting you. Finding flow is a tool to increase productivity and strengthen your ability to adjust focused attention to the task at hand. The more often it's practiced, the easier it becomes. The easier it becomes, the less time it will take to recover from unexpected interruptions. Flow isn't a light switch, but with practice, it will help you become your most productive self.

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