What Is 'The Zone', Anyway?
Recently I’ve been thinking more and more about the zone. I’ve been trying to work out what it actually is. Most often it’s described as being in a super productive state for short periods of time, where the best code you’ve ever written just flows from your fingertips.
That certainly describes what it feels like to be in the zone, but what causes this state in the first place? And why can’t we just enter it any time we like and have it last beyond the typical short bursts that most people experience it in?
Well, I believe we can. While there are lots of factors that affect our ability to get into (and stay in) the zone, I think there are fundamentally just two things need to be right for it to happen. Before getting to those two, let’s look at some of the others:
The zone is often said to be a state of intense focus, so focus is more of a synonym than an individual attribute, but in any case, it implies some of the other factors.
You’ll struggle to find someone falling to sleep while in the zone. In fact, the portrayed image of being in the zone is quite the opposite – someone alert and awake, passionately engaged in what they’re doing.
It’s really important to have energy. If you’re barely maintaining consciousness due to a late night of cocktails, bad chat-up lines and a story you could never tell your mother, getting into the zone is going to be difficult.
Another approach for getting into the zone is to avoid all distractions. Some people are more sensitive to distraction than others, but we should always aim to minimise the kinds of distraction that pulls our mind out of what we’re currently doing. Avoiding the context switching cost is a big win.
Some people find that listening to music helps them get into the zone. I listen to music when I’m writing code and I do think it can be distracting, but often much less distracting than the average office conversation. Music is a personal thing and I suspect it doesn’t affect our ability to get into the zone that much either way, although if it makes us comfortable, perhaps being comfortable does.
But What Matters More…
While having a sharp focus through being energised and avoiding all distractions can really help us get into the zone, we’re still treating the zone as though it’s some magical, random state that we don’t truly understand.
Stop worrying about what type of music you’re going to listen to, or what the view out of the window should be, or how you’re going to block out the blatantly intentional heavy breathing of Rufus sat opposite. We get into the zone because we want to, and above all, there are two things that make us want to.
First, we really need to give a shit about what we’re doing. This is so often ignored when talking about productivity in general. Remember back to the days of high school when the nerdy kids would get awesome grades at difficult subjects. They got awesome grades because they enjoyed it. People rock way more at things they enjoy, and enjoyment is much easier and far more effective than discipline. We need to be excited about the problem and feel like all we want to do is work on it right this minute.
Second, we need to know how to do it. The overwhelming desire to start work is useless if we can’t because we don’t even know where to start. We’ll jump into the work and be idle 10 minutes later as we uncover many of the finer details we skimmed over when thinking at much higher level earlier.
I’m not advocating big upfront design here, but this doesn’t mean we get to stop thinking about problems and start writing code instead. Jumping into writing code immediately is often not the smartest thing to do.
Concentration and having clear goals are key components of maintaining flow, and that’s exactly what the zone is. When we’re in the zone, a set of well understood achievable goals enables us to make continuous progress. Seeing constant progress is an amazing motivator, making the zone a sustainable state.
I rarely find myself coming out of the zone because the view out of the window just isn’t working or because someone is breathing too heavily. I come out of the zone once I don’t know what needs doing next or how to achieve it. I come out of it because I’m blocked from making progress.
Too many people treat the zone like it’s a mysterious state that eludes us for intangible reasons. I don’t think it is. We just need to think about the problem well enough to see potential solutions. We need to be excited about it. The zone comes pretty naturally after that.
So let’s stop convincing ourselves that we’re going to become one with the zone once we buy those £300 noise-cancelling headphones. You’re not going to get into the zone if you don’t understand what you’re trying to achieve or don’t enjoy trying to achieve it.