The Zone

Athletes talk about “being in the zone” — a magical place where everything just flows. Here’s what one coaching website says about it:

The zone is an experience players get when everything they do seems effortless. They allow themselves to be an athlete and allow their subconscious mind to go on auto pilot. The athlete is not thinking, “what could go wrong, who’s in the crowd, or will I get pulled from the game?” Instead they are, “in the game.” When people are in the zone the game goes by quickly. They play so well that they may forget what happens. This is because the experience was almost unreal. The best athletes do this most often. They trust in their abilities and let things flow. If the athlete has to think too much about what they are doing, the athlete cannot naturally react and respond and the zone cannot be achieved.

The experience is not unique to athletes. Here’s what Joel Spolsky says about “knowledge workers” in the zone:

Here’s the trouble. We all know that knowledge workers work best by getting into “flow”, also known as being “in the zone”, where they are fully concentrated on their work and fully tuned out of their environment. They lose track of time and produce great stuff through absolute concentration. This is when they get all of their productive work done. Writers, programmers, scientists, and even basketball players will tell you about being in the zone.
The trouble is, getting into “the zone” is not easy. When you try to measure it, it looks like it takes an average of 15 minutes to start working at maximum productivity. Sometimes, if you’re tired or have already done a lot of creative work that day, you just can’t get into the zone and you spend the rest of your work day fiddling around, reading the web, playing Tetris.

I know this all intimately in my own work. There are times — I’m in the middle of one right now, on a quiet Sunday night — when programming spills out of me like gangbusters, where one project leads to another to another, and where it actually begins to feel like I’m inside one of those crazy visualizations that are always used in the movies to try and characterize cyberspace (all sort of 3D graphics twirling and whirling around).

Conversely, there are times when “the zone” appears to be closed to entry, when mood or food or sleep or circumstance leads to a dullard-like worklife where nothing gets done and even simple tasks seem impossible to execute.

The end effect of this, for me, is that 95% of my work gets done in 5% of my working hours. If you ran an EKG of my productivity, you would see many hours of gathering the horses interspersed with manic periods of extreme productivity where all the real work gets done.

Some practical side-effects of this way of working are:

  • The telephone is my enemy. When the telephone rings, it pops me “out of the zone” and may in fact irrevocably make the work day a bust.
  • The same is true of spontaneous visitors, loud paper shredding trucks, hurricanes. And, alas, the need to eat and drink.
  • All estimates of when jobs will be completed are, in essence, lies because it’s so hard to predict the amount of time “in the zone” that one will be able to muster. Mitch Kapor says, “[s]oftware, like construction projects, is typically late, sometimes very, very late. It typically takes longer and is much harder than any estimates.”
  • Non-programmer friends and family not attuned to this craziness are apt to think one is either a n’er-do-well or an addict, depending on the moment.

Ironically, we don’t design our programmer workspaces to maximize time in the zone. We should be working in fortresses of solitude, isolated from all distraction, with chilled iced tea and small snacks at the ready. Instead we plop ourselves into distraction cauldrons. Our social lives benefit immeasurably (and that’s not an altogether bad thing). But focus suffers as a result.

I’m feeling the zone fading away as I type these final words. Time to exit the zone and go home…


Steven Garrity's picture
Steven Garrity on August 2, 2004 - 03:35 Permalink

Good points all around. I wonder, though, what kind of jobs we would have if we built our workspaces around being in the zone, and if, even in the perfect environment, we would be able to better the 95%/5% ratio.

If not, then we might as well continue to design our workspaces around the 95%, rather than the 5%.

Also, thanks for not listing your landlords in your list of distractions.

Al O'Neill's picture
Al O'Neill on August 2, 2004 - 03:36 Permalink

Agree wholehartedly. The concentration it takes to get the motor running, as it were, is the hardest part about working in a noisy environment. (Which is why I’m at the lab at this time of night, because it’s just me and the security guards.) I’ve often figured my ideal working environment would be a monk’s cell with a hard chair and stone desk and blank paper to write on. (doing hardware design in this way might be difficult, but perhaps writing out the VHDL by hand is a good exercise…)

Lisa Howard's picture
Lisa Howard on August 2, 2004 - 11:07 Permalink

As a fellow knowledge worker (I’m doing PhD in Philosophy), I’m very sympathetic. I usually have to tell people I’m deeply disturbed or that I’m a misanthrope in order to get out of social obligations, but that usually backfires because then they try to cure me. Most people can’t quite believe that I need to do work when I do and don’t really understand my need not to be interrupted. My solution has been not to have friends (well, not many). Also, since I have kids (and I don’t want to leave them with a babysitter all the time) I more or less need the permission and co-operation of my husband who sometimes competes with me for work time (he works at home as a translator/proofreader). I highly recommend moving to another country as a solution.

Robert  Paterson's picture
Robert Paterson on August 2, 2004 - 12:06 Permalink

Great topic Peter — Flow is so important. I find mine in the early morning. I have to work myself into it — like a runner warming up. I do my email, look at my favourite blogs — comment a bit and then I am usually ready to go. The process takes at least an hour — but as you say can be lost for the day by an interruption.

One of the trials I find about working at home is that Robin thinks that it is OK to ask me a question at any time and cannot understand that by so doing I may lose a day’s work. If you have never been in flow — you don’t know.

Many creative people who work at home end up with a room away from the main building — without a phone!

There is no way that I have seen where a regular office space can accommodate flow. It’s ironic isn’t it?

Johnny's picture
Johnny on August 2, 2004 - 14:29 Permalink

As one of Peter’s employees, I have seen him enter “the zone” and it is both awesome and disturbing. The volume and quality of work that can get done in short amount of time is staggering. There is, however, an invisible force field that goes up around him such that if you clear your throat to ask him a question a telekinetic message is sent to your brain that says “don’t talk to me now”. Needless to say, there is not much chatter around the office during these times.

oliver's picture
oliver on August 2, 2004 - 14:42 Permalink

Lately the idea that’s struck me about my own intellectual productivity is that I’m not at all a reliable judge of it at the time: Often my night-time focus feels intense and I think I’m making ineluctable progress, so I chug away past midnight and into the morning hours. But more often than not, I look at what I did the next day and conclude it’s crap; often I’ll just plow the whole thing under. Maybe I’ve just woken up, am groggy and uncaffeinated, but in about a tenth the time that I took to produce the first version I can replace it with something three times better. I always feel smarter after I drink coffee, but then doesn’t pot do that too? I’d like to have an MRI scan of my brain during every self assessment so I can see where my appraisal is coming from. I think the pleasure centers are not to be trusted.

Lisa Howard's picture
Lisa Howard on August 2, 2004 - 15:48 Permalink

When I’m drunk, when it’s past midnight and when it’s first thing in the morning, I’m usually a complete idiot. I know this because I can assess my own work (later), but even if I couldn’t my thesis supervisor would tell me.
The psychology of working (when it’s going well) seems to be a bit like the psychology of sleeping (at least for me). If I think too much about it I can mess it up. If someone interrupts, it’s hard to get back into. I also have some rituals that help. It’s as if my body needs to know that it’s time for work (in much the same way as our bodies need to know that it’s time for sleep). I also find I’m sometimes kind of embarrassed to make a big deal about having to do work, and if I do, then sometimes the work ends up being crap as well. Just as when you’re lying in bed worrying about sleeping, you can never sleep. On the other hand you need breaks from sleep, you need time to get tired in order to be able to sleep, and I think that’s true of work too.

Nils Ling's picture
Nils Ling on August 3, 2004 - 18:24 Permalink

The Zone is a key element for me when I’m writing — I refer to it as being “on a roll” or “rolling” and that’s all I need to say to my now-well-trained family to keep interruptions at bay. I never know when I’ll start rolling — although it’s seldom before 11 AM. Most often it’s easiest to get on a roll after ten PM when the phone doesn’t ring and nobody ventures in to my office, which is in a separate wing of the house.

I don’t know that I’d opt for a distraction-free environment. When I get on a roll, distractions tend to be swept away; if I’m not on a roll, distractions are welcome. I figure distractions are food for the creative process. When someone asks how long it took to write something, my standard — and truthful — reply is “The typing took weeks; the writing took a lifetime.”