The Downside of "Flow"… Technician's Myopia

It geeky circles there’s often talk of finding your “flow.” The term was coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and which he revisits in the smaller and more readable Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. The general idea is finding the state where you lose yourself in what you are doing and find the experience fun, enjoyable, and productive.   There’s even a Wikipedia article on the topic of flow. I think that the idea of ‘finding flow’ really resonates with knowlege workers for a couple of reasons. First, knowledge workers love a meaty task that they can ‘lose theirselves’ in. It’s one of the few perks of knowledge work. The other reason this resonates so well with knowledge workers and male geeks in particular is video games. Video games are the ultimate flow finders. The Wikipedia article above lists 9 things that indicate a state of flow:

1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities).

2. Concentrating and focusing, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).

3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.

4. Distorted sense of time, one’s subjective experience of time is altered.

5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).

6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).

7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.

8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.

9. People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action awareness merging.

Wow, that’s just like me playing Call of Duty 4! I recall being an undergraduate and playing Castle Wolfenstein 3D for so long that when I laid down to sleep I felt motion sick because I could still see the game in my head. I would get my flow on and not be able to stop playing. It was really addictive.

That addictive nature of flow is really the nature of the downside of flow. I had a ‘downside of flow’ experience in my first job after grad school. I was a consultant in a small firm and we did analytical modeling. Once challenge we had was to fit distributions to unknown data. We didn’t have the underlying data but we did know a couple points on the distribution and we could infer some things about the general behavior of the distribution. This is a fairly odd thing to do, actually. So there were no canned SAS routines to call. Code had to be written. After I was sure I understood the problem and worked with one of the senior principles of the firm to test some ideas I ran off to bang out code. I got totally absorbed in this project. I laid in bed at night and visualized optimization routines and transposed matrices. I would get up in the morning excited to go to work and stay late to tweak my code. After about a week the principle of the firm asked me how it was going and I showed him my work. He nodded and said, “Well good. What else have you done this week?” All I could think was, “WTF do you mean by ‘what else?’” I stuttered a bit and said that this had taken  all week. He was noticeably chagrined. He rubbed his forehead and said, “this is not an all week project. You should never have thrown all week at this, we have other things to do.” It felt like he kicked me in the balls. The very thing I was enjoying and proud of he thought was a waste of time. Ouch.

That’s been a few years and I have had the pleasure supervising others who are learning about both sides of flow. I’ve also lost days working on things that in retrospect I should not have sunk so much time into. I’ve taken to calling this type of flow as “technician’s myopia“. As a technical person it is soooo easy to get enthralled with the technical challenge at hand and totally lose context. Yet that is what flow is all about; getting totally sucked in. I’ve read stories of an academic statistician in the 60′s  who got his first computer and completely stopped doing academic research because he got sucked into learning all he could about the computer.

Technician’s myopia  is a real productivity killer for those of us in technical fields. What makes it so hard is the lack of absolutes. If I am having a bit of a slow time and I want to spend two days researching systems for distributed regression using Amazon EC2, that might be a good use of time as long as I limit myself to two days. If, on the other hand, I am working against a deadline and I take a tangent and lose myself in that tangent, I can waste days at the worst possible time.  How can us techie types keep from having technician’s myopia? Here’s my recommendations:

  1. Self Awareness - If you want to have flow all the time and work on the wrong things while in that flow, have at it. Don’t read the other points below. Keep your resume polished, however, as you will need it. However if you want to flow when it’s right yet keep that flow focused, read on.
  2. Management - If you have a technical manager he/she is most likely well aware of technician’s myopia, although the term may be new. Talk to them about it. If you are doing weekly project reviews then you can’t have myopia for more than a week. If you struggle with this a lot, ask for 15 minutes every morning to ensure that you are focused properly.
  3. Buddy Dive - You may not have the type of manager who can understand technician’s myopia. In that case take a tip from the Navy Seals and buddy dive. Get one of your technical coworkers to sit down with you once or twice a week to discuss your projects and how they are going. Specifically ask each other if you are struggling with spending time on the wrong parts. Remember, it’s ok to flow, just don’t get lost in it to the detriment of what really matters.
  4. Set Clear Deadlines - Having clear deadlines and even intermediate deadlines is just good self management. The neat thing about it is having clear deadlines and focused work attention actually helps most folks flow and prevents technician’s myopia. Double bonus!
  5. Free Flow Time - Set aside time every week to work on projects which you are drawn to but which are off focus from your main work. This may be personal time or work time depending on your situation. Outside of work I have to have periodic ‘garage therapy’ where I disappear into the garage to get my flow on while working on my project car. My wife knows and understands this. If you desire flow but don’t get enough of it, you will feel restless and cranky. So make sure you have an outlet. But put a time frame on it. You will hate your job even more if you stay up all night killing headcrabs.

PS: as of March 10, 2009 Google returns zero hits for “technician’s myopia” if you put it in quotes. Hmm…

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