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…