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How to move from focus sessions to flow sessions

Journey away from smartphones

by Tom Johnson on Oct 1, 2022 •
categories: technical-writing

In this post, I describe my experience in trying to complete several ninety-minute focus sessions a day. While they allowed me to make a lot of progress, they reduced some of the fun from writing. This post is part of my ongoing series Journey away from smartphones.

Recap of the Eudaimonia machine

In the previous post in this series, I described some techniques for deep work from Cal Newport. Although he provided a variety of techniques, they all boiled down to essentially setting aside time to focus in prolonged ways on hard problems.

Among the techniques described, what stood out most to me was Newport’s summary of David Dewane and his Eudaimonia machine. The “machine” is an architectural design based on rooms that provide increasingly isolated chambers for deep work. Newport explains:

He [Dewane] imagines a process in which you spend ninety minutes inside [an inner room in the building, like a thought sanctuary], take a ninety-minute break, and repeat two or three times — at which point your brain will have achieved its limit of concentration for the day (97).

The basic idea is that you retreat into one of these inner chambers for 90 minutes of focus time to do deep work.

Given my positive experiences with focus sessions, I decided to put this technique into practice to make progress against a large writing project, which I described in Attempting to write a Life of a [something] narrative. I had a light meeting week and was able to devote much of it to writing. I kept track of how many focus sessions I could complete each day. On average, I completed usually 2-3 focus sessions (each 90 minutes long) a day, even with almost nothing else on my calendar.

By the end of the week, I had a draft of about 6,000 words. The next two weeks after that, I spent time shaping that draft based on successive proofreading and reviewer feedback. But these subsequent weeks were much less taxing than the initial week in which I generated the first draft. Writing the first draft of anything is the hardest part of writing. Proofreading, making edits, responding to reviewer comments, and such, doesn’t tax the brain nearly as much.

Troubled by motivation

I was floored with the productivity of the focus sessions, but something troubled me. They drained me in ways that demotivated me a bit. I looked at the next focus sessions like a begrudging sailor preparing to leave his family and go out to sea. I found it strenuous to focus on a single task for 90 minutes.

During these 90 minutes, in order to generate a state of flow, I tried not to check my email, chat, or Internet sites (news, sports, etc.). In other words, I tried to reduce all external stimuli. I wasn’t always successful at tuning out the world. I probably check my email 50+ times a day, if I’m being honest. But during the focus sessions, that number was reduced to just a couple of times, if at all.

90-minute focus sessions seemed highly taxing
Reducing all distractions and focusing on a single writing task for 90 minutes was extremely strenuous and took some of the fun out of writing (as fun as writing documentation can be).

External stimuli interfere with the flow and context that you generate from focused immersion in a task. When you’re writing, you hold numerous ideas and organizational structures in your head. If you switch contexts, those thoughts and patterns fade, making it harder to get anything done. Thus, the whole point of doing a single task for 90 minutes is to get to a certain productive velocity without being sidetracked into some other task.

To avoid being pulled into other tasks, if I thought of something I wanted to do, I’d write the tasks on a piece of paper to attend to later. It’s amazing how just as soon as I start getting into a task, my brain would think of half a dozen easier things to do. Order that thing on Amazon you needed. Schedule that doctor’s appointment. Respond to that message on Linkedin. Without strong discipline, it’s easy to be pulled into light tasks and errands.

I was able to stay more or less on track, using a Focus app countdown timer to monitor my time. But as I said, these techniques sort of made writing less fun. Whereas I normally enjoy writing, especially the process of idea formation and content development, these 90-minute focus sessions turned the activity into more of a slog. Yet they produced results (6,000 words in a week!), and I did love the results. Everyone loves having written, as many writers say. So I was mixed.

Newport doesn’t address the motivation issue I encountered, other than to say focusing on deep work yields a more satisfying life. He praises deep thinking and prolonged focus, and he acknowledges that it’s hard to do deep work, but he doesn’t explain that focusing on a single task for so long can be like pounding your head against a blank wall. I knew that unless I could convert these focus sessions into a more enjoyable experience, writing wouldn’t be something I could sustain. We do those activities we enjoy. And even with the productivity gains from the activity, I feared what might happen if the technique discouraged me from writing more.

Turning to flow

With the need to inject more fun into the focus sessions, I started reading Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-American psychologist. (“Csikszentmihalyi” is pronounced “Chick-sent-me-high.”) The book, a classic, was originally published in 1990. I also listened to a Very Bad Wizards podcast called “Lose Yourself,” which explains Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas of flow as well. I’m still making my way through Csikszentmihalyi’s book, but the points he’s making so far resonate with me.

What is flow?

Flow is a psychological state in which you get so deeply engrossed in a task that you lose all sense of time. External stimuli (outside your task) fade into unimportance as your current activity becomes all-consuming. Csikszentmihalyi says flow is “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it” (4).

This mental state is what I was hoping to achieve with the 90-minute focus sessions, but in my experience, I did not lose track of time nor become so engrossed in the activity that external stimuli faded. (If I did, it was only for brief stretches.)

How could I tweak these ninety-minute sessions to induce more of a flow state? That seems like the magic formula, because not only would I have the ultimate technique for productivity, it wouldn’t come at a huge mental cost. Essentially I’d show up to work, and before I knew it, the day would be over.

Writer in state of flow
Entering states of flow during 90-minute focus sessions would result in maximum productivity without incurring a huge mental toll.

Conditions for flow

Csikszentmihalyi talks extensively about the conditions that lead to flow. The most common examples of activities that generate flow include sports, music, dancing, sex, and religious experience, though people can achieve flow through virtually any activity that they pay careful attention to, such as observing art, eating, or looking at landscapes.

Flow from sports
Sports often give rise to a state of flow, especially when the activity has clearly defined rules and feedback. The activity must also be a good match for your skills — too easy and boredom takes over, too hard and anxiety gets in the way of flow.

But before getting into the conditions of flow, let me take a step back and unpack the larger psychology from Csikszentmihalyi. Flow isn’t a productivity book; it’s a theory about how to achieve more life meaning and satisfaction. Csikszentmihalyi first started thinking about the topic after observing the psychological effects of Europeans during WWII (“Scholar inspired leaders…”). Csikszentmihalyi also recounts an experience as a boy in which he was watching the mountain landscape (during a trip), became somewhat lost in the experience, and observed how this experience changed his mental state (see Matt Bodnar’s podcast interview: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi — The Greatest Unanswered Question in Psychology Today).

To study the psychological states of people working at their optimum levels, Csikszentmihalyi equipped a large number of people with pagers and pinged them periodically throughout the day to capture their mental state and what they were doing and how they felt. He then identified common patterns during peak times and started to arrive at the idea of flow, in response to how participants described their psychological state.

Psychic entropy as the natural state of our mind

Csikszentmihalyi says our normal mental state is one of disorder and random/scattered/fragmented thinking — what he calls “psychic entropy.” Csikszentmihalyi writes:

But when we are left alone, with no demands on attention, the basic disorder of the mind reveals itself. With nothing to do, it begins to follow random patterns, usually stopping to consider something painful or disturbing. Unless a person knows how to give order to his or her thoughts, attention will be attracted to whatever is most problematic at the moment: it will focus on some real or imaginary pain, on recent grudges or long-term frustrations. Entropy is the normal state of consciousness — a condition that is neither useful nor enjoyable. (119-20)

I can relate to this. When I try to fall asleep at night, my mind naturally wanders and gravitates toward things I’m worried about or preoccupied with. Upcoming presentations, college applications for my kids, family health issues, a new bike trail to explore, etc. It doesn’t take much to get my mind stirring around different topics. Consequently, at night I usually either listen to a podcast to give my mind some focus until I fall asleep, or watch TV until I get so tired that I fall asleep right after turning it off. Focusing on any specific topic for an extended period of time usually tires me out, whereas the pattern of going down rabbit hole after rabbit hole in the mind seems easier (and keeps me awake), but it isn’t pleasing.

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I’ve noticed the same mental chaos starts brewing in the morning, as I’m arising my sleep. By the time I wake up, I can tell that my brain has been bouncing around different themes in active ways, thinking below my consciousness. It’s not as if my mind is somehow turned off at night. It’s a chaotic world in there sometimes. So yes, from my own experience, psychic entropy seems to describe the natural state of the mind.

Psychic entropy
Psychic entropy refers to a state of mental disorder and chaos. Csikszentmihalyi says our natural mental state is one of entropy rather than order and focus. When left to its own, our mind chases rabbit hole after rabbit hole, often gravitating toward the negative.

Csikszentmihalyi continues:

To avoid this condition, people are naturally eager to fill their minds with whatever information is readily available, as long as it distracts attention from turning inward and dwelling on negative feelings. This explains why such a huge proportion of time is invested in watching television, despite the fact that it is very rarely enjoyed. Compared to other sources of stimulation — like reading, talking to other people, or working on a hobby — TV can provide continuous and easily accessible information that will structure the viewer’s attention, at a very low cost in terms of the psychic energy that needs to be invested. While people watch television, they need not fear that their drifting minds will force them to face disturbing personal problems. It is understandable that, once one develops this strategy for overcoming psychic entropy, to give up the habit becomes almost impossible. (119-20)

In other words, the allure of television stems from our desire for mental focus and order — it aligns our psychic energy along a single trajectory (the show’s story) and removes our rabbit-hole thinking. The more a show pulls you in, the better. I can also see truth to this observation. Have you ever been watching TV for an extended time, and you know you should turn it off, but you resist doing so because as soon as you turn the TV off, you know you’ll have to start thinking for yourself? You’ll have to come up with your own thoughts and decisions.

And if we haven’t trained our minds to retain focus, as soon as the TV goes off, our psychic entropy starts expanding in different directions as we shift from topic to topic in fickle, random ways.

I like Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas around flow because they don’t criminalize social media and scapegoat it as the cause of our fragmented attention. Remember, Csikszentmihalyi is writing prior to the Internet and social media. He doesn’t point the finger at Facebook or the constant notifications on our smartphones as the culprit for our inability to focus (as Johann Hari does in Stolen Focus). Instead, he argues that the fundamental nature of our brains is more or less scattered, fragmented, and chaotic — a state of entropy. That’s why we turn to distraction — to find some mental order.

Overcoming psychic entropy

Overcoming the entropy is less about ditching your smartphone (which will just be replaced with an equivalent) and more about training your consciousness:

The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer. And the person who can do this usually enjoys the normal course of everyday life (31).

Learning to control your consciousness is a constant theme in Eastern religion (Csikszentmihalyi spends a few pages comparing Yoga with flow). But the larger point is this: Just like with yoga, learning to get into a state of flow takes a lot of training and practice. It’s unsurprising that my first attempts to sustain my focus for 90 minutes at a time resulted in feeling like I was beating my head against a wall. My experience is analogous to an impatient person learning to meditate — it’s hard to cease your mind from chasing random thoughts. To focus on your breath in and out, and nothing else, requires tremendous discipline over conscious thought.

Psychic negentropy
Psychic negentropy ("negative entropy") is the opposite state of entropy. It's a state in which you're focused and fully engrossed in the activity. This focus brings order and structure to thought. Just as with learning yoga and meditation, it takes a lot of mental training and discipline to become an avid practitioner.

Knowing that this state of flow isn’t a simple technique but rather one that requires practice, not too unlike learning to meditate, compete in a sport, or play a musical instrument, gives me more patience at my first strained attempts at ninety-minute focus sessions. Csikszentmihalyi explains:

Like other complex forms of expertise, such as a mature political judgment or a refined aesthetic sense, it must be earned through trial-and-error experience by each individual, generation after generation. Control over consciousness is not simply a cognitive skill. At least as much as intelligence, it requires the commitment of emotions and will. It is not enough to know how to do it; one must do it, consistently, in the same way as athletes or musicians who must keep practicing what they know in theory. (21)

In fact, Csikszentmihalyi says that if you develop a capacity to direct your own conscious thought in a focused way, you can more easily pull away from the need for external stimuli, such as from television, to do that focusing for you. When you can define your own thought trajectories, you can find that same pleasure in the directed thoughts that would otherwise come from external stimuli:

When a person has learned a symbolic system well enough to use it, she has established a portable, self-contained world within the mind…. Without the the capacity to provide its own information, the mind drifts into randomness. It is within each person’s power to decide whether it’s order will be restored from the outside, in ways over which we have no control, or whether the order will be the result of an internal pattern that grows organically from our skills and knowledge. (127-28)

In a previous post in this series, From smartphones to Netflix: moving past plateaus in growth, I observed that after abandoning my smartphone, it didn’t take long before I simply moved on to Netflix instead. And I searched to uncover the underlying cause about why I needed distraction in the first place. Csikszentmihalyi’s psychology of flow offers a potential reason: my mind sought for “consciousness ordered” (127).

In the next post, I’ll dive more into Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas about how to enter the conditions for flow. My ultimate goal is to learn how to convert my “focus” sessions into “flow” sessions.

References

Bodnar, Matt. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi — The Greatest Unanswered Question in Psychology Today). The Science of Success podcast. Nov 7, 2019

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience New York: Harper & Row, 1990.

Pizarro, David and Tamler Sommers. “Episode 239: Lose Yourself.” Very Bad Wizards. June 21, 2022.

Steimer, Sarah. “Scholar inspired leaders, colleagues and students in his exploration of optimal and positive experiences.” UChicago News. Oct 28, 2021.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.

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